Citroën offers a jolt of electric style

Wed, Sep 19, 2012, 01:00

The French car manufacturer’s electric concept car is not the most reliable model the company has ever built, but it shows enough style and power to hint at the future, writes NEIL BRISCOE

‘OKAY, IGNITION to on, battery-management system to on, fan to on. Now hit the power switch.” I do as I’m instructed, flicking upward a small metal toggle that’s protected by a fighter-jet-style red cover. There are some gurgling and clicking noises from behind our heads, and a drone from a cooling fan, but there is no forward motion.

It feels almost like being a test pilot, or maybe being on board Apollo 13. Except that instead of plummeting to Earth or drifting in space, we’ve merely rolled to a stop in the middle of a race track.

“Ah, the joys of the prototype,” muses Patrick Arnaud.

Arnaud is both the designer of and (for today) mother hen to the Citroën Survolt, a one-of-a-kind electric race car, which Citroën is using to promote both its design and engineering capability.

It’s tiny, barely occupying any more road space than a C3 hatchback, but the roofline struggles to get higher than my hip. The low nose is ringed with chrome and boldly sweeping carbon fibre air ducts, while the rear is mounted by a broad, flat spoiler. It’s both aggressively racy and surprisingly feminine – a very French concoction.

Inside, you get the expected, stripped-out race car cabin. Behind the tiny, chopped-off wheel there lies a structure which could possibly hold some sort of futuristic instrument panel but which today, away from the smoke and mirrors of the motor show stand, is merely heavily sculpted black plastic.

The real instrument panels are a small screen set into the steering wheel, and a larger data-panel that juts out above the passenger’s knees. Passenger? Oh yes, there are two proper seats in this racer, Sparco buckets tastefully upholstered in leather and Alcantara. Only Citroën would build a race car that’s also comfortable.

Well, nearly comfortable. The seat and steering wheel were designed for tiny, skinny racing jockeys, so this bulky journalist is cramped and confined, with even that tiny wheel bumping into his kneecaps on full lock. Still, I’m not here to report on the Survolt’s ergonomics. This is about something else.

“Survolt is a concept car, so we don’t want to make a stock car with it,” says Arnaud. “It’s only a concept. We did it in 2010, just after the Revolte concept car, and we wanted to do something more sporty than that car. So the Survolt is electric and also a little bit feminine. It’s not like other race cars. Race cars are for men, Revolte was obviously for women and we wanted to do something in-between.”

But what, exactly? Citroën, as part of the same PSA Group as Peugeot, is currently in crisis and the Survolt is most definitely not headed for production. There had been talk on its debut two years ago that a one-make racing series might be created for it, but that’s now dead in the water. And Citroën as a company doesn’t even seem to be all that keen on electric cars, with company insiders saying that such machines are more or less destined for a city-bound life.

“Back in time it was a new way for Citroën,” says Arnaud. “We had no electric car then, it was before the C-Zero, and we wanted to know what we could do with an electric car. So a race car was the best way to improve the knowledge about the electric systems and, as it’s also a concept car, so it was designed without the need to put it in, say, Le Mans, and go and win it. So it could also be about exterior design. It’s to explore a new way, to test.

“There are some things you can find already on the Citroën and DS ranges and some things you will find in future cars. With it we explore, we try, we understand new ways of design and after, if we are easy with it, happy with it, we can put it into production,” he says.

“OK, let’s try again. Ignition, battery management, fan and power . . .” This time, the whirring noises behind my head take on a faintly different timbre and now the throttle pedal responds to a prod. The surprising, even shocking, thing about the Survolt is the noise. We presume electric cars to be silent, and from the outside they largely are, but inside the Survolt the noise is properly loud, a mixture of water pumps sluicing coolant to the batteries and motors, the rat-a-tat of stone chips pinging off the floor and, above all, the whine of the electric motors. No milk-float hum this, it sounds more like someone’s let a Pratt Whitney jet turbine loose in the boot.

There’s only enough room in the tiny footwell for two pedals and you have no choice but to left-foot brake. Combine that with the lack of gears and it’s very like driving a big, enclosed go-kart. Except for the acceleration.

Hammer the throttle (can we still call it a throttle?) to the floor and the Survolt whines, stutters and then explodes, hurling itself forward on a sub-5.0-seconds 0-100km/h run, about as fast as a BMW M3. You have to be sharp on the brakes because there’s no engine braking and even the brake energy regeneration doesn’t seem to slow you too much. That tiny steering wheel comes alive in your hands, its messages uncorrupted by any power assistance.

The Survolt handles pretty well for a one-off, certainly well enough to enjoy that flood of electric grunt, but sadly our session is cut short before any more exploring of the envelope is possible; the battery stack is playing up and the computer keeps calling a halt to our fun.

So what’s the point of the Survolt? Like most concept cars, it mostly exists to alert us to the upcoming styling tropes of future Citroëns. The brake lights of the new DS3 cabrio are a straight lift from the Survolt, for instance, while that low-slung anteater snout can be found in larger, more upright form on the DS4 hatchback.

As for the electric drivetrain, don’t hold your breath, although presumably the lessons learned from running Survolt, and the sheer wall of power it generates, will feed into future versions of Citroën’s Hybrid4 system. Possibly more importantly, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that an electric sports car is possible.

The tiny Survolt weighs 1,200kg (of which 600kg is the batteries) and given its limited range (Arnaud says it runs for about 20 minutes when driven at racing speeds) it would seem an ideal starting point for the sort of Sunday morning country road run that the likes of the Lotus Elise and Caterham 7 have made their own over the years, and which Tesla showed was possible, albeit at a very high price.

And it’s a welcome sign that innovation and style still exist at Citroën, in spite of the current financial crisis. “People are unhappy with the crisis, of course,” says Arnaud. “But the good thing is that, in the design department anyway, it makes you focus straight ahead, on what is important, no more looking to the side.”

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