I was parking at a local supermarket and saw this graphic representation (above) of the automotive sector’s weight problem. The supermarket (and presumably this car park, which sits atop it) was built in 1985, at a time when cars were narrower, lower and considerably lighter. Here we see two typical family cars, four decades apart: on the left a British-built Vauxhall Viva from 1978, on the right a Chinese-built MG ZS from 2018.
In 2023, SUVs – like the ZS – have become the most popular form of passenger vehicle, taking nearly half (49%) of the total European market. In the US, SUVs (and pickup trucks) account for 80% of the market. Even Volvo – a company synonymous with the practical estate car – discontinued its last family hatchback (the V40) in 2019 and has recently withdrawn all its saloon (sedan) and estate car (wagon) models in the UK, to become an SUV-only marque. Analysts expect Volvo will also soon withdraw its estates from the US and EU markets.
Some of the extra weight and girth of new cars is unavoidable. Developed long before the onset of EuroNCAP ratings, the 1978 Viva lacks modern safety features such as ABS brakes, crumple zones, safety cells and airbags. So as not to sacrifice interior space, all modern cars – even superminis – have become wider to accommodate safety features. Nobody wants to compromise the safety of their families, so weight loss cannot come at this expense.
Automakers are also on a mission to transition to battery electric vehicles. But batteries pile on the kilograms. The combined weight of an internal combustion engine, and a tank full of fuel, is less than the combined weight of batteries needed to give electric vehicles meaningful, useful range. On average, for models that are available as both ICE and EV variants, the electric version is 19% heavier than its petrol or diesel equivalent.
The easy answer for the automotive industry might be a return to traditional vehicle forms. After all, the success of the SUV (and pickup) is an object lesson in the unintended consequences of environmental legislation. The SUV is a child of the 1973 oil crisis. Faced with rocketing oil prices, the US Government realised the country could no longer take cheap, imported fuel for granted, so cars needed to be more efficient, and the US needed to be more energy self-sufficient. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 set new fuel efficiency targets for automakers. But there was a caveat: utility vehicles were not set the same targets. And a new sector was born to take advantage of this loophole: vehicles that took the form of utility vehicles but with the creature comforts of family cars.
Citroën Oli forges a new path
But who wants easy answers? The market has decided that the SUV is the family vehicle of choice. And, having got used to the elevated driving position, and voluminous interior, few families would voluntarily go back to traditional family saloons.
When Citroën unveiled its Oli concept car, last September, it showed the world a new direction. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that the Oli is Citroën’s most important technological showcase since it introduced the space-age DS19 to rapturous acclaim at the 1955 Paris Motor Show).
Naturally, the Oli is a battery electric vehicle. Stellantis, Citroën’s parent company, has a roadmap to full-electrification that means even rorty Dodge muscle cars will, in future, be “e-muscle” cars. And, of course, the Oli takes the form of a small – and very striking – SUV. The name, itself, is an holorime, a piece of wordplay more common in French than English, in which a phonetic sound can bear two meanings. Citroën has past form in this area: DS is phonetically similar to déesse (goddess) and its sister car, the ID, could be heard as idée (idea). In this case Oli can be heard as “all-e”, signifying its all-electric drivetrain.
The Oli is very much a partnership between car company, Citroën, and materials company BASF. And this is why it’s such an important car to talk about here at UT. We all hear those dissenting voices who declare PU unrecyclable (even though we were reporting on Chrysler – now part of Stellantis – and its polyol recover initiative back in 2010. But here is a car that wears sustainability on its sleeve, with PU not just at its core, in the places you would normally expect to find PU, but performing structural roles.
Turning first to the interior which, like most concept cars, is striking, colourful and about as likely to be seen in a production vehicle as Tesla achieving full self-driving capability within the timeframe suggested by that company’s iconoclastic leader. We expect to find PU inside seats. But the seats of the Oli are entirely PU, being 3D-printed from BASF’s Ultrasint TPU88A material. A combination of the seat’s geometry, and the material’s properties, give the seat the support and flexibility one would expect from an automotive seat. The 3D-printed seats are given a primer-free, elastic waterborne coating, Ultracur 3D Coat F, so there is no need for a fabric or leather skin, further improving recyclability.