Saturday, October 14, 2006

The spectrum of microcars

What is a microcar? The small car of small cars. A commonly used definition is that it's an automobile less than 3 meters in length (for example, the Smart Fortwo qualifies, coming in at only 2.5 meters). The number of wheels is not just limited to 4, but could be 3. In Japan, there is a whole class of microcars, called Kei cars (or K-cars), which are defined by their small engine size (less than 650 cubic centimeters displacement).

It's a sort of half-car, which fits into your life as an addition to another car, or to public transportation, which will meet your long-range and high speed travel needs. This limitation of a microcar gives it a bad rap. We immediately compare it to a multi-purpose full size car in terms of highway performance, passenger capacity and comfort, etc., and then don't take it seriously.
Indeed, to compare microcars to larger types is not fair. A true microcar is best suited for short trips within the city (limited acceleration, low speed, tight parking spaces), but not for highway commutes or long trips.

But then there are microcars, like the Smarts, which are being marketed as primary vehicles. They can get up to well beyond the legal highway speed limits, and have longer ranges between refueling. I suppose, for their price (the Smart Fortwo starts at $16,700 CDN), they better be able to serve as primary transportation workhorse.

If you want a cheap microcar, for now the only option in North America seems to be building your own. Check out Jory Squibb's Moonbeam car; he's put up some general instructions and photos on his web site. Since it's based on a scooter (in Squibb's case, an old Honda Elite), maybe you could enlist the help of a local scooter gearhead to build it with you.

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