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Green cars are ubiquitous but lack appeal

Frankfurt Motor Show Small, alternative-energy cars are everywhere, but they need to be bigger to hold greater appeal.

We've already driven the Volkswagen up!, one of the stars of the Frankfurt Motor Show. We also predicted that it would be one of the smallest cars on display, but it was merely the tip of the melting iceberg, as several others vied for the title.

The up! itself was presented in a dizzying number of varieties, from several examples of the standard three-door car, to a funky Buggy concept, a weird open-topped version, an eco model, a five-door "Cross up!" and an electric variant hilariously called e-up!. Volkswagen has big plans for its small car.

As alluded to though, it's not quite as small as they come. Volkswagen itself brought along the NILS concept to Frankfurt, a single-seat electric car made specifically for urban commuters. Pie-in-the sky thinking? You would have thought so, but we took a good look at the car on VW's stand and it's obviously designed with production in mind.

Unlike most fanciful concepts, it appears to have mirrors, wipers, lights and brakes of sensible proportions, and switchgear that isn't from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Indeed, Volkswagen maintains that the NILS has real significance for the future: "The goal of the NILS project is to research a technically concrete and economically feasible vehicle concept for micromobility, which restructures individual transportation to make it more efficient and environmentally compatible based on electric drive technology," said Dr Ulrich Hackenberg, the head of development at Volkswagen.

As you'd expect, the NILS is battery powered. It's a relatively weedy 15kW (20hp) with "overboost" to 25kW (34hp) affair, though the concept weighs a scant 460kg so it manages 0-100kph in 11 seconds and can hit 130kph. While that means it can keep up with highway traffic, we're not so sure it'd feel comfortable riding alongside a convoy of big lorries. Still, it's designed primarily for use in the city and there it should excel. It is tiny, visibility out of it is great and the 65km range is sufficient enough.

You know that embarrassing moment when you turn up at a party and someone else is wearing the same shirt as you? We have to wonder if that's how Audi and VW felt in Frankfurt, as the former's cool urban concepts are remarkably similar to the VW NILS. One major difference is that Audi has squeezed in an extra seat. Still, the urban concept weighs a similar 480kg. It, too, has been designed for the urban dweller and it features an electric drivetrain. Two electric motors are mounted at the back, giving up to 15kW (20hp), so it's a little slower than the VW, with 0-100kph in 16.9 seconds. Where Volkswagen claims its vision of the commuting car will be fun to drive, Audi focuses on the premium side of things and design, hence the unveiling of a very cool spyder version.

Other tiny electric cars at Frankfurt include the production-ready Renault Twizy, the tech-laden smart forvision concept and last, but not least, the Opel/Vauxhall RAK e. Like the VW/Audi twins, this latter car is "production intent". So it'll have raised a few eyebrows with its 380kg kerb weight, 100km range and 120kph top speed. Like the Audi, it's a two-seater, though with the passenger directly behind the driver.

While tiny city cars with relatively short ranges will not appeal to all drivers, statistics show that they may well suit a significant number of people living in or near large metropolises. The latest concepts look cool (if a little strange) and may help get us to a low-carbon future, but they'll have to grow a bit to have mass market appeal.

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