When Nissan sent me an email asking if I wanted to drive its New Mobility Concept—sold in Europe as the Renault Twizy—around midtown Manhattan, I thought maybe someone over there had gone insane. In small European cities with narrow streets, this tiny little quadricycle makes sense, but in New York? I didn't think there was any way this could work.
So, naturally, I signed right up.
I expected to be terrified to the point of resignation, but shockingly, the New Mobility Concept worked, even in one of the busiest sections of town. In fact, it's a ton of fun.
The New Mobility Concept is essentially a federalized version of the Twizy sold in Europe. Lights, indicators, charging ports and license plates are changed, but it's more or less the same electric pod-mobile you might find in a European city center. Nissan brought it to the U.S. as part of its Future Lab initiative, which looks at urbanization and explores new ownership models, among other things.
As of right now, Nissan has 10 New Mobility Concepts piloting in San Francisco scooter share start-up . Other than that, it has no solid plans to import the car on a wider scale, though its investigating different use cases for the little electric car.
Josh Westerhold, a Senior Manager at Future Lab, told me this sort of car makes more sense in San Francisco than New York, which is better served by public transit. He sees it as a car that goes where trains don't, or as a "first and last mile" solution for commuters who don't live near public transportation.
From a legal standpoint, the New Mobility Concept is a car in the U.S., but it's probably unlike anything you've driven before. For starters, you sit smack dab in the middle with a tiny seat behind you. Its scissor doors open like a Lamborghini Countach, and you get as many looks from confused pedestrians as you would in the Lambo.
The New Mobility Concept weighs 1045 lbs and has a 17 horsepower electric motor that sends power to the rear wheels. Top speed is limited to a blazing 25 mph, though I saw 26 on a few hills. Westerhold told me he's seen around 30 mph on the steep hills of San Francisco and the European Twizy can hit around 50 mph. Wheelbase is slightly shorter than me at 66.4 inches and the total length is just 92 inches. Nissan claims 40 miles of range, from The New Mobility Concept's 61kWh battery.
This isn't the sort of car that blends into the background: Expect to get attention from everyone driving this around. In just a half hour behind the wheel, a cop stopped me to take a picture, stylish Chelsea denizens stifled their laughter as I drove by, a pedicab operator filmed me, and a half-dozen people came right up to the car to ask questions.
So what's it like to drive? It's just barely quick enough to get out of its own way and small enough to snake through city traffic. You drive this thing with your foot to the floor the whole time, partially because it's not very quick and partially because it's more fun. There's something deeply satisfying about cruising down 9th Ave, foot buried without doing anything that'll merit you a hefty speeding ticket.
Thanks to its extremely low weight and compact dimensions, the New Mobility Concept is very nimble. Other than a handful of curvy streets through an apartment complex in Chelsea, I didn't really get to test the New Mobility Concept's handling, but it's easy to maneuver around double parked cars and dive between cabs.
For the first mile or so, you're intimidated by your lack of size relative to everything else on the road, but then it becomes liberating. There's no fear in quickly switching lanes or dodging obstacles because you more than likely have plenty of room to move before you hit something. The central driving position helps to, making it a cakewalk to know exactly where each corner of the car is.
The New Mobility Concept isn't exactly what you'd call "refined." It's unbelievably stiff, the seat is as hard as a rock, and the brakes squeal every time you tap the left pedal. The brakes worked fine, but the sound was somewhat alarming, at least for the first mile or so. You sit very upright and there's obviously no central mirror, just a side mirror. This is hard to get used to at first, but the door-mounted mirrors are large enough.
The interior is filled with very 1990s black plastic and vinyl. Ahead of you, a rudimentary digital readout tells you your speed, how much charge you have and what gear your in. Gears are selected by three push buttons to the right of the steering wheel, and there's no Park. Just like a manual transmission car, you select neutral and apply the parking brake, which is annoyingly hid under the dashboard.
To use a tired, but apt cliche, this interior isn't a nice place to spend time, but it's not the sort of place you would spend time. It's a way to augment whatever form of transportation you already use. Westerhold likens more to a four-wheeled scooter, than a stripped out car.
Perhaps it's because I have a lack of self-preservation, but driving the New Mobility Concept is much less terrifying than I expected. That's not to say it isn't terrifying at all, but it certainly feels safer than biking. The people at Nissan, then, hadn't gone insane, and I had nothing to worry about.
While even Nissan is debating the viability of the New Mobility Concept in the U.S., it's inarguably a fun ride. It's the sort of car you can't be in a bad mood driving.