It’s been a tough few years for Mia Electric. The effort that goes into any manufacturer launching a new product is mind-boggling, but to launch an all-new vehicle with an all-new brand requires superhuman levels of determination and financial backing. Risen out of the remains of esteemed French coachbuilder Heuliez, the company has come about through an EV project which resulted in the Friendly Concept, shown at the Paris motor show in 2008.
Ex-Volkswagen design chief Murat Günak had found his way to the company with his friend David Wilkie, a former Bertone man, and such was their passion for the Friendly’s environmental rethink of urban transportation that when Heuliez went bankrupt in 2009 they salvaged their pet EV project, and the factory, with the backing of German pharmaceutical entrepreneur Edwin Kohl. The Friendly became the Mia with minimal changes, save for the usual concept flourishes that are removed to make way for cheaper production parts. It’s been a rocky start since Mia’s formation in 2010, but the presence of Günak and Wilkie alone gives credibility to the quest. The Mia bravely shrugs off mainstream styling flourishes for a pared-back style that suggests a resolute emphasis on function over form, until you notice the little touches dotted around the car. The front graphic is cute, and certainly looks friendly, justifying the Heuliez concept’s moniker. Touches like the firm’s petal logo, which you press to open the doors, lift the functional design and add character. It’s the interior that really impresses, however.
Cutting through the marketing-speak is not as arduous as it might be with another manufacturer, largely because the Mia holds true to its ambition. It’s a genuinely refreshing take on getting around town. Ease of use is excellent and Mia have created an almost scooter-like vehicle in the sense that you can just jump in and go. In a footprint barely 20cm longer than the Smart Fortwo’s, the Mia fits in the driver and two passengers in V formation and a boot that would be respectable in a supermini. Legroom and general passenger space would be class-leading, if you could work out what class to slot the Mia into. Mia calls its car a microbus, but given that’s what Volkswagen termed its Bulli mini-MPV concept car in 2011, you’d have to imagine the Mia as more of a nanobus.
The car was nominated earlier this year for the transport category in the Design Museum’s design of the year awards, along with Gordon Murray’s T27. Both lost out to the Helen Hamlyn Centre’s redesigned ambulance interior, but it is telling that it was the T27 that the Mia was up against. Both projects are attempting to challenge prevailing assumptions about personal transportation, but in very different ways. Murray’s white label design beats the Mia on eye-catching theatre (the clamshell front end hinges out to access the interior) and offers a better range at a lower price, but remains a theoretical challenge because it isn’t on sale yet. Gordon Murray’s car will steal the headlines, but meanwhile there are Mias pounding the streets.
The Mia is not an easy car to pigeonhole, though. Is the car competing against mainstream IC-engined cars, oyster cards, bicycles or other small EVs? A mix of them all, certainly: competition for the Mia will come as much from Toyota’s Yaris hybrid as the Nissan Leaf and Renault Twizy. Mia is ambitious to take on all- comers, though. The price will hold sales back in the UK – even with the government’s £5,000 plug-in EV grant, it will still set a prospective owner back more than £20,000. Anyone prepared to spend that much will really have to buy into the car’s character and ethos. Buy a Leaf and you’ve got a fairly standard car that just happens to run on electricity. The Mia is much more of a lifestyle statement: it turns heads and attracts attention.
The external charm will have to be enough to mask some of the car’s shortcomings. Fit and finish isn’t acceptable for a £20,000 car, even if you do make certain allowances for the low volume production and an expensive powertrain. Patchy interior plastics and complicated ventilation controls offset any extra perceived value that is contributed by the excellent seats and novel dashboard, which extends out either side of the instrument panel. On the move, the Mia is entertaining to drive once you’ve got past the body roll. The unassisted steering lends a refreshing connection to the road which mates up nicely with the eerie quiet of an electric powertrain that allows you to hear more of the outside world than you might in a petrol engine car.
The Mia lacks the finesse you get in vehicles produced by Murat Günak’s illustrious former employers, and spend some time scrutinising the Mia and you certainly wonder what might have been had an outfit like Smart had been more ambitious. Mia’s achievement is admirable and extrovert early adopters will certainly be rewarded, but mainstream manufacturers won’t be worried just yet.
Top Speed: 60mph 0-60mph: Don't ask Battery: 12kW Weight: 815kg Length: 2.87m Price: Approx £20,000 incl. Govt grant.
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