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VSP - Voiture Sans Permis

What is a VSP?

In France, following EU convention, there is a class of small car that technically falls into the category of "light motorised quadbike". This is to say, a four wheeled vehicle with a speed between 6km/h and 45hm/h, and a cylinder not exceeding 50cm3 for petrol engines or 500cm3 for diesel. The vehicle should not exceed 425 kilograms (empty) with a maximum possible loading of 250kg if it is a passenger vehicle or 300kg if it is a utility vehicle. These vehicles can be driven by people born before 1988 without any sort of licence or road test or medical. Literally, I was handed the keys to my car in November, and expected to drive myself home having never driven in my entire life (other than a few minutes in a car park, or up and down the driveway a couple of times). For people born in 1988 or afterwards, an "AM" licence is required, and in accordance with EU directives, these cars may be driven by teenagers from the age of 14.

There is a second category, "heavy motorised quad", for slightly more powerful vehicles. You'll need a licence equavalent to B1 to drive them.

As they are not classed as cars in the traditional sense, a lot of the normal rules do not apply. In a recent Aixam catalogue, ABS brakes were an option, and I'm not aware of any that contain airbags as standard. Given their lightweight metal frame and mostly plastic contruction (there's a reason why I call Felicity a "Playmobil car"), there's a pretty good chance that being involved in a serious crash could cause severe injury or even be fatal. It's one of the reasons why I have never given a second thought about "débridage". Doing much more than 50km/h in one of these cars is suicidal.
Additionally, and somewhat sadly, the cars also have no obligation to pass any sort of road-worthiness test. I say sadly, as I'm pretty sure mine would fail. Not for emissions (it would, but there's not much I can do about that) but for the state of the brakes, the mechanics in general... it's an old car that has (after several hundred euros of bits being changed) held up pretty well so far. But I wonder if things wouldn't be better for the consumer if, upon buying one, it had to come equipped with a recent test certificate?

 

Débridage?

This is a French word that basically means to perform some sort of mechanical hack to the car in order to exceed the 45 km/h limitation.
There are two primary types of hack.

The first, the simplest, and by far the worst, is to locate the limiter screw on the engine and remove it. This will allow you to crank it right up to some sort of insane speed that will permit your car to travel at something in the order of 80-90km/h. You can see videos of this on YouTube.
However, it is bad because, well, the engine is designed to run pretty efficiently and give a long service life at a specific rotational speed. For the Kubota Z402, its maximum bare speed is 3,200 to 3,300 rpm. In a typical Aixam, the maximum torque engine speed is 2,400 rpm (that is, the speed the engine runs at to give the most powerful output under load), with a maximum overall engine speed of 3,200 rpm.
Oh, certainly, you can fiddle with the limiter to crank it up higher, but what effect is that going to have on engine life?

The sneakier and more interesting way of getting some extra speed from the car (up to around 60km/h) is by removing the front variateur, the spinning discs thing attached to the engine. When it is stripped down, you'll find a big spring inside with a number of large washers at the seat of the spring. Remove all but one (otherwise you'll wear through the plastic seating in no time) and reassemble. What you have done is allow the two discs, at maximum speed, to come just a little bit closer together. This will push the drive belt a little further to the outside, which means it'll transmit a little bit more speed to the gearbox. It isn't as insanely fast as hacking the engine, a video on YouTube indicates it maxes out around 60km/h, however it has the benefit of not slaughtering the engine, and you can drive at the normal 45 reserving the extra boost for open roads.

Of course, it should go without saying that while it is possible to make these modifications, it is not permissible to drive on public roads in excess of the legally authorised speeds. Doing so may incur fines and possible confiscation of the car.

Oh, and did I mention that it is lightweight metal and plastic and very probably no airbag? A crash in one of those cars at 60-70km/h may well be fatal. So don't waste your efforts. Better just to plan your journeys around its natural speed and don't be late...

 

Brands

In France, the best known brands are Aixam, Microcar, and Ligier. There are others (Bellier, Chatenet) which are less common. To put this into context, in 2009 (which is, admittedly, forever ago), Aixam had a little under half the European market, Microcar had about a quarter, Ligier a little under a quarter, and what remained was everybody else.
There used to be JDM but they went into liquidation in 2014.

From time to time, well known brands (Renault, Citroën...) release little cars, but they tend to be more concept cars than a serious attempt at entering the VSP market.

 

Prices

Horrific. Let's start with my old Aixam 400 from 1997 (and what was it, 56k or so on the clock, assuming that was even remotely realistic). That cost me an even three thousand.

The cheapest Aixam, looking at their website, is a version called MINAUTO. These start at €8,999 new for a basic model.
The next type up, the Emotion range, costs from €10,999 for a basic City Pack to €16,399 for a Crossline GT.
The eAixam range starts from €14,899.

To look at this in a little more detail... and allow me to make another cup of tea as Aixam's website is serving me brochures at an average of 31KiB/sec!

MINAUTO Access (€8,999)

The Aixam Minauto Access
Publicity photo © Aixam

This car has a pleasing look to it. Having looked at the entire Aixam range, I think I like this the most. Perhaps because it looks a lot like Felicity? I don't know...
Inside seems fairly basic (like mine) and zooming up the photo, it looks like the speed and fuel gauges are swing needle... In fact, the big bit on the right is mostly a fuel guage now (it's a clock on my Aixam).
It's a 2-in-line 479cm3 1CV diesel motor. Yup, it's going to be the good ol' Kubota. A variable transmission with a forward and a reverse. It's basically the same as my car. A 700 litre boot (good) and spare wheel as a €151 extra (not good) round it off. If you have an extra €1,299 you can add air conditioning, and it'll cost €149 for a radio/CD player - which also includes fitting speakers (they don't come as standard).
Rear lights are LEDs, electric windows, a nice big opening boot (that, looking at the photo, looks like it might open right down to floor level), and a 12V socket for plugging stuff into. It's available in white.
The more expensive Cross model (starts at €11,499) offers a bigger boot (1100l), central locking, a lid-thingy over the boot to hide what's inside, a visor for the passenger, and a choice of four colours.

Emotion City Pack (€10,999) is basically the same thing but a little more sexed up, a little more looking like a car, and a choice of five colours. I guess this is a sort of point between the basic and better Minauto. Of course, these are numerous models in the Emotion range, up to €13,799 for the Crossline Evo. There's an even more expensive one, but you need a B1 licence for it.

As I'm looking through the website writing this, I'm actually struggling to see what the main difference actually is. I mean, they're mostly two seater lightweight cars powered by a Kubota diesel and variable transmission. Is it the bodywork? The finish inside? What justifies one car being nine thousand and the other being nearly fourteen?

eAixam

And, finally, we reach the eAixam range. Starting at €14,899 and going up to an eye-watering €19,499 for the GTI model, this is their electric car. Supposedly zero emission (untrue: there is an emission but it's happening elsewhere), noise free, and powered by lithium batteries, this car can manage around 80km of driving with a full charge taking three and a half hours. The brochure reckons the car costs about €1 per 100km (provided, I guess, you don't count the purchase price!).

There were also some models with petrol engines, but I don't see any mention of this in the brochure. They were expensive too.

 

Wait - Rick... what?

Okay, okay, you're probably wondering why I'm talking about these Aixam cars like I'm trying to sell you one. Well, it's all just a prelude to something that might, in the coming years, provide a fundamental shock to the VSP market.

Allow me to introduce...

 

The Citroën Ami

The Citroen Ami
Publicity photo © Citroën

Offered by a major respected brand, the Ami (said am-ee, it means friend) is a weird little boxy thing that is a new entry into the VSP market. And, believe me, for all of its eccentricities, it's going to have a huge impact.

The Ami is designed to a low price point. To that end, the front and back are actually the exact same bodywork. The doors... are identical. That means the passenger door opens normally, while the driver door opens from the front (see where the lock is, just above the front wheel). There's no boot, just some space behind the seats. There's no radio, instead a little round space between the steering wheel and windscreen is provided for a Bluetooth speaker. There are no handles. You use little fabric straps to open and close the doors. There's no 12V socket, instead a single USB socket (which is a shame, you really need two - one for the phone and one for a dashcam).
It seems as if the seats might be minimally covered plastic. Perhaps not overly comfortable?
It has a sunroof! Okay, it doesn't open, but still...
Speaking of opening, the door windows don't wind up or down. They fold in half, like the original 2CV. A nod to an icon there, as well as a way of reducing the price.

Now, here's the kicker. This thing is completely electric. Offering a range of around 70km and a charging time of three hours, this is basically a cheap'n'cheerful version of the eAixam.

Only...

Wait for it...

Wait for it...

...

It costs €6000 new, with an ecology reduction of €900. Or if you don't want to buy one outright, a long term rental will set you back a staggering €19,99 a month. My God, that's half what I waste spend on the lottery. That's probably less than the average basic mobile phone contract.

 

Given that a reasonable scooter can cost something around three grand, this is only twice that. It is plenty affordable (heck, I only need to save another €1,600 and I could buy one!). Also, being electric, it doesn't have the noisy diesel engines typically associated with these sorts of cars, it has a range comparable with other electric VSPs, and most of all, it's unbelievably cheap. Okay, you will notice inside due to the extreme lack of mod-cons, however if I had a teenager that wanted a scooter to have some independence, I would seriously consider this instead. Not only would she stay dry in the rain, but it's a larger vehicle which offers greater visibility both for her and for other road users to see her, and she would be much better protected than on a scooter. As a proper VSP, it goes up to the expected 45km/h. Plus, there's a passenger seat so she could do something with a friend (so long as that something doesn't end up with "daddy, I think I'm pregnant" as daddy would not be amused!).
So, yeah, I can definitely see this making shock waves in the VSP category.

 

Would I buy one?

In a word, no.

It's not because of its looks or design, but more because of the limited range. Don't get me wrong, if you live in an urban zone, this might be all you need. Certainly if I lived somewhere like Nantes, I probably wouldn't need much more to get around.
But out here in the country? It'll get me to work just fine. It'll also get me to Châteaubriant and back. But I'd wonder if it would be up to doing a couple of vide greniers on a Sunday? Going to Ancenis will be a one-way trip (meaning I'd need to find somewhere to plug it in and wait for three hours for it to charge). And as for, in the future when I'm a little more confident, going to Vallet or Clisson? Nope. Just a flat nope. Clisson is about 100km away. Vallet is about 90. Both over the range of an electric car.

Even that Christmas vide grenier I was planning to go to around my birthday (but then got very poorly) would probably have required a charge to make it home.

So, for me, it will need to be a traditional engine with easily available diesel and a range of a few hundred kilometres between fills.

But, don't get me wrong. An electric VSP for six grand is impressive. Basic or not, it is impressive.

And very likely a game changer.

I'll go grab a bag of popcorn and wait to see what happens next.

 

 

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Gavin Wraith, 13th September 2020, 19:19
I never understood this charging business for electric cars. Would it not be more convenient for the driver to swap out the empty battery and replace it by a full one and be on his way without delay? It would mean manufacturers having to agree on a standard battery and on a standard matrix for it, so that the swap could be effected at the press of a button even by the arthritic. But the charging should take place at the service station after the driver has departed with his full battery, to make the empty batteries ready for use by other customers later. Or have I overlooked one or two insuperable problems?
Rick, 13th September 2020, 19:54
You would think... But if you've ever tried looking for replacement batteries on Amazon, you'd see the problem. There would rapidly be many poor quality devices in circulation, which could turn the cars into impressive fireworks. 
Also, at the end of the battery service life, it's not going to be a problem that garages have to deal with. Keep 'em in the car and make it the customer's problem. Plus, I have no doubt that battery packs replaced by the manufacturer can be a nice little earner. 
 
So, while it seems logical to have swappable packs, you can see how it isn't going to happen until some country or other makes it a law.

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Last read at 15:54 on 2020/09/29.

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