How Citroën’s new concept car could be the future of electric vehicles
The ingenious Citroën Oli is a super light, super sustainable EV that can do 240 miles on a full battery charge and taps into the company’s quirky spirit of reinvention, writes Vicky Parrott
by: Vicky Parrott
16 Jan 2023
Advertorial from Citroën
It’s an ongoing problem with electric cars. Well, actually, it’s a problem with modern cars of almost every kind … Weight. Weight is the bogeyman in the closet that no manufacturer can seem to sweep out, with advances in safety and electronic aids over the last three decades seeing the average combustion engine car gain safety standings but also weight – and at an alarming rate. Weight is a huge barrier in the search for a truly affordable electric car.
Even your average family hatchback or saloon tips the scales at some 1300kg and more, these days, while most family SUVs are approaching two tonnes or more. Throw in a big battery pack that adds roughly 300kg or so over a petrol or diesel engine and, before you know it, we’re in a world where a 2.5 tonne car isn’t unusual.
A history of reinvention
Which is why the new Citroën Oli makes such a critical statement, and is much more than ‘just’ a concept car. Sure, it’s not going into production itself, but every detail of the Oli reflects a technology or feature that could very well make it to Citroën’s production cars.
Citroën is a brand that has a long history of reinvention, and this ‘laboratory on wheels’ as the company calls the Oli, is another example of this total reimagining that the company has achieved before.
Everything from materials to body shape, to interior and exterior structure, and even how it’s manufactured, has been radically rethought in order to make the Oli – an electric car that is bigger than a VW Golf and can do 248 miles from its 40kWh battery – weigh just 1000kg. For some context, Citroën’s own e-C4 weighs more like 1600kg and will do more like 220 miles despite having a bigger, 50kWh battery.
A brand new identity
These are design and production qualities that make the Oli (pronounced ‘all-ë’, as in ‘all-electric’) more efficient, thanks to its light weight, but also cheaper to produce and own.
Pierre Leclercq, Head of Citroën Design, tells The Big Issue: “We had a new brand identity to communicate, so what you see on Oli in terms of the front face, the lighting and more – this is something that you’re going to see on a production car in 2023. On Oli we also wanted to focus on light weight. Everything we’ve done on the car is to find weight saving in terms of construction, materials, and even visibility.
“The other thing is cost. Everything we designed on Oli was to find the best cost efficiency. Finally, there is sustainability. We have no choice with this; it’s something that we all have to do, which is why we are using recycled as well as recyclable materials. Even the recycled seats and the cardboard body panels; it’s all about being lighter as well as more sustainable.”
Yup, you read that correctly. The roof, bonnet and bootlid of the Oli is made of honeycomb cardboard that Citroën tells us is stronger than steel yet half the weight. And, thankfully, it doesn’t go soggy in the rain thanks to being sandwiched between reinforced fibreglass and polyurethane resin panels. “We already have this cardboard in many cars,” Leclercq continues, “but not in this capacity. It works really well, but affordability is the problem at the moment.”
Speaking of which, affordability is another inherently tricky aspect of electric vehicles that the Oli sets out to address.
From body panels, bumpers and plastic bodykit parts that are the same or mirrored to reduce manufacturing complexity, seats that are made of lightweight, 3D-printed, recyclable Thermoplastic PolyUrethane (TPU), a completely flat windscreen that’s cheaper to manufacture than a curved one and helps to keep the cabin cool.
There’s a screen-less interior that simply offers a phone holder and chargers for its interface, and even deliberate, industrial design features like exposed hinges and metal… Every aspect and feature of the Oli shows a fresh, stripped back approach to design and manufacturing.
Even the Goodyear tyres are new and allow the carcass of the tyre to be re-used and the rubber to be cut and ‘re-tread’ when necessary, as happens commonly with lorry tyres already. The result is that one set of tyres can safely last some 300,000 miles.
A family car that can also be a pick-up truck
But, the Oli does need to be comfortable and usable. It’s not the comically basic, city-only transport that its cheerful (and actually on sale in the UK), quadricycle sibling, the Ami, is. That dinky, two-person, 28mph box of novelty-genius is strictly urban-only.
As Leclercq explains: “The Oli has a broad remit. We didn’t want to design a car that is for city only, or countryside only. It has to be extremely functional. It is a family car, and it can also be a pick-up truck that’ll be ideal for Ikea or that will work for many people in the countryside, too.”
That’s why there’s air-conditioning up front, rear doors that are hinged backwards for easy access to the twin, individual rear seats, and there are neat hooks and rubber-nibbed shelves (recycled, recyclable and lightweight, of course) around the cabin that look like a prop from The Teletubbies and are great for storing your general gubbins.
Not only that, but those rear seats fold flat to create a smooth, extended, plastic-lined loadbed. Drop the bootlid and it creates a flush, protruding lip that you can sit on for picnic fun, or use to slide in a big load to the boot space. You can even hose out the floor, for those moments when a vacuum just won’t cut it.
In fact, there is a delightfully simple, workhorse-like attitude to the Oli that makes it impossible not to draw parallels with the company’s fabled 2CV; a car that was designed for French farmers, and that ended up becoming the default option for anyone who simply wanted affordable, practical transport.
There are even design cues on the Oli that hark directly to the 2CV, including the straightforward manually-released, pop-up windows. None of your pricey, heavy electric window motors, here.
“I grew up with the 2CV,” says Leclercq. “My Mum had one and, not only is it fun but, for me, it’s what I love about design. It’s design engineering. There’s nothing better than working with engineers that really want to give solutions. That’s what happened with the 2CV – it was a solution, and that’s what I really admire. That’s what we want to do now, and that’s what the Oli is about. It’s about finding the best solutions, and we want to put them on the road.”
That about sums it up, really. The Oli is a funky design showcase, of course, but more importantly it’s also a petri dish of ideas that can and will have an impact on real-world cars. And don’t forget that this is a brand with heritage in reinventing the car. It has already done it two or three times in the last 100 years: Just look at the Traction Avant, 2CV and the DS.
It seems only fitting, then, that with the electric era fully upon us it’s Citroën that’s gone out on a brightly coloured, angular, quirky-looking limb to show how the issues of weight and expense in EVs can be tackled. That it’s done so in such a fun and inventive way… Well, that’s just Citroën.
Electric Cars: the now, not the future
Electric cars are not the future – they’re right here, right now, and they’re already a big part of the automotive landscape. Despite a hugely challenging period with ongoing parts-supply issues, energy price hikes and economic uncertainty, nearly 225,000 pure electric cars were sold in the UK between January and November 2022 according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
That accounts for one in five new car sales, and already far surpasses the 191,000 EVs that were sold in total throughout 2021. By 2030, planned legislation will ban new sales of petrol and diesel cars altogether, and by 2035 you won’t be able to buy a plug-in hybrid, either.
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“They’re reliable and we can connect our phones to the vans and have a screen with a sat nav on; that’s a game changer. These vans are our offices, and it makes such a huge difference that they’re so comfortable and smooth to drive.”
Citroën: a history of innovation
Citroën has built its entire reputation on being an innovator; a brand that’s brave enough to rethink the engineering and design of its vehicles, even when the rest of the automotive world hadn’t noticed that it needed rethinking. The company was founded in 1919 by Andre Citroën. Born in 1878 to Dutch-Jewish parents, he started his empire by manufacturing distinctive, chevron-toothed wooden gears used in milling. It was from these double-chevron gears that the Citroën logo takes it shape, and it was from their success that Citroën bought the Mors Automobile Company in 1913, and went on to build his own cars under the Citroën brand in 1919 with the launch of the 10 horsepower Type A.
Ever the forward-thinking entrepreneur, Citroën also offered employees unusual levels of benefits including medical and dental facilities, a gym and a creche for his workers’ children.
The brand became synonymous for French design and innovation. In 1935 the Traction Avant series was launched. It was the first mass produced, ‘unibody’, front-wheel drive car, meaning that the body of the car was itself integral to the structure of the car, rather than simply sitting on a separate chassis, as was the norm at the time. The Traction Avant was also an early adopter of rack-and-pinion steering and independent suspension. This monocoque, front-wheel drive layout, with rack-and-pinion steering, has now been the default ‘everyday’ vehicle format for many decades.
WWII saw the Citroën Javel factory bombed, and then rebuilt in 1945, yet by 1948 Citroën still managed to produce arguably one of the world’s most recognisable cars; the 2CV. The ultimate purpose of the 2CV was to mobilise French farmers that still relied on horse power. It was designed to be simple, affordable and famously it was developed with long-travel suspension that enabled it to cross a ploughed field. The scrolling canvas roof was to enable taller loads to be carried.
The 2CV became a design icon and, more importantly, it provided affordable transport to some 3.6 million motorists right up until it went out of production in 1990.
Citroën’s appetite for innovation never let up, and in 1955 it presented the DS, with aerodynamic styling like nothing else on the roads. More than that, it was the first mass- produced vehicle to use hydro-pneumatic suspension, disc brakes and even directional headlights. Its pioneering engineering changed the face of automotive safety and helped to further solidify Citroën’s standing as a maker of the most comfortable, advanced cars in the world.
This reputation has endured through fuel crises, financial crises, changes of ownership and now changes of propulsion. From the 2CV and DS, to more recent radical models such as the hydropneumatic Citroën XM, the Picasso with its MPV-functionality, the Citroën C6 with its concave rear window, air suspension and head-up display, the Cactus with its funky bench seats and rubber ‘air bumps’ to avoid door dings, up to the Ami urban quadricycle.
Citroën has thrived on innovation for more than a century, and it shows every sign of continuing to do so as it heads into an electric future.
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