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This Microlino Bubble Car Is An Intriguing Electric Urban Commuter

This Microlino Bubble Car Is An Intriguing Electric Urban Commuter

Micro thinks differently. Without the weight of tradition and customer expectations, the family-run Swiss business is pretty much free to explore and experiment with novel transport ideas. Micro’s boutique portfolio is a fun collection of the sorts of practical urban commuters and last-mile rides that make moving about just so much more convenient and pleasant.

The brand story is equally delightful. Life began for Micro with a single product: a collapsible human-powered scooter. Founder, Wim Ouboter, needed a vessel to travel the short distance from his Zurich apartment to his favorite sausage stand, Sternengrill. He wanted this vehicle to be faster and easier to maneuver than a bicycle, yet also be compact, fold and fit neatly into his backpack. Following many trial and errors, in 1999 Ouboter perfected his kickscooter invention and founded Micro. The device was named Kickboard in Europe and Razor in the US. Needless the say, the concept has since become a huge commercial success and is especially loved by kids, with other manufacturers creating variations on the original design.

Micro’s latest project is a similarly practical idea invented for adults. The Microlino is a friendly-faced electrically powered tiny little three-seater hub-on-wheels, designed entirely for the urban commute. This is a contemporary take on the classic bubble car for which the team were inspired by several concepts from the 1940s and 50s – namely the mother of all bubble cars, the one-off L’Oeuf Electrique by French industrial designer Paul Arzens and my own favourite, the BMW Isetta.

The Microlino has a similar set-up with a single seat bench and 300-liter luggage space. Like the classic bubble, it takes the single front door approach which, not only looks super-cool, but also allows the driver and passenger to step right onto the sidewalk when cross parked. At the front and rear are single LED stripes with integrated blinkers. The dashboard has a digital display in front of the driver to shows all the relevant information, while the aluminum bar is a homage to Micro’s own roots, the kickscooter. The simple digital set up can be tailored easily too, through smartphone connection, portable Bluetooth speakers or other accessories.

“We are innovation driven,” says Oliver Ouboter, the son of the founder and Micro’s chief operating officer and test driver. We are on a video call – he in Zurich, me in London. Having battled my way earlier through the capital city’s surprising choking traffic – after all we are technically still in Covid lockdown – in the pouring rain and in a bulky SUV, I am warming to the idea of the Microlino. For starts it is small and nimble and will guide me easily through our narrow streets. Then, unlike a scooter, it has a roof to protect from these downpours and will feel safe in an urban environment.

“A car has the benefit of providing the freedom for personal travel, occupants are protected, it can carry at least three people and there is cargo space,” says Ouboter. “These are three benefits that you won’t get from a scooter, a motorbike or a train. So, when we started the project, we said let’s take these attributes and implement them in a vehicle that is as small as possible.” When it came to considering the overall shape, the Micro team didn’t want to simply shrink a regular car. “It’s really hard to make a good-looking product if you downsize the shape. On a larger car you can create nice aerodynamic shapes, but if you just scrunch it down, it will look stupid,” he says smiling. “These bubble vehicles from the 1940s look different from a regular car.” And there is a definite positive feel to the edge-less round shape.

The Microlino weighs just 513 kg and can speed up to 56mph. There is the option of a 77 or 124-mile range battery and there isn’t a fast-charging option since the small battery can be fully charged in just four hours at a regular socket. It is positioned to be an alternative to a car with a body-in-white construction and pressed steal parts for structural safety. “We see it as a new category in transport,” explains Ouboter.

The initial Microlino idea was conceived as a publicity stunt. Exhibited at the 2016 Geneva Motor Show, it received such positive response that Micro decided to explore the possibilities of production. Work began last January when the vehicle’s structure was revised to meet quality, safety and handling requirements. This included a new chassis made of pressed steel and aluminum parts, as well as a wider rear axle for independent suspension systems in the front and in the rear.

Micro remains one of the leaders in the premium electric scooter sector bringing to market five to seven new products annually. Alongside the Microlino, the company is also working on the Microletta, the concept of a three-wheeled electric scooter based on the design language of the bubble car to combine modern aesthetics with retro charm. An internal team come up with these in-house creations, but equally Ouboter says Micro likes to work with independent designers. “We are open to ideas and try to do new things in this transport space,” he tells me.

His team have collaborated with BMW and Mercedes with products that are successfully on the market. More recently, Micro worked with Audi on its skateboard-style e-tron electric scooter. “Audi was looking for a partner who is able to industrialize the design and so they came to us,” says Ouboter, adding that there are certain constraints when putting scooters into mass-production. “We are a small team and so our designers have to have an understanding of manufacturability and costing.” The margins are tight in this sector and you need to be careful with costs. The company is currently working with fashion brand Fendi on two special-edition kickscooters.

Due to regional regulations, for now Ouboter sees the Microlino bubble car primarily as a European product. Currently there are some 21,000 reservations with 5,000 to 10,000 units planned for production in the first year – a number that can easily be increased, says Ouboter. Prices start from around €12,000 ($14,000) with production scheduled to start this year in collaboration with the Italian company CECOMP.

As we ease into electric drive, products such as the Microlino naturally make sense in the city environment where commutes are short and parking is a premium. “The advantage is that you have the cargo space but are still minimizing the environmental footprint,” notes Ouboter. He himself has a Microlino prototype for his daily run-arounds. “Most city commuters don’t need more space than this. It’s super nimble and has great acceleration.” He says the driving style is pretty relaxed too as you are essentially on the same eye level as the bicycles and scooters and motorcycles. “The Microlino has its driving character.”

Ouboter is eager for me to understand that this is a new product category. “Imagine it as an iPad which is not an iPhone or a laptop but something in between with its own unique characteristic and tradeoff. The Microlino is designed for 95% of commuter trips. It isn’t designed for the other 5% when you want to get out of town and drive to the mountains. The customer will see this as a daily urban drive and when they want anything bigger, they can use car sharing apps and hire a car.”

Different colors and versions will be announced this summer. “We have three customer groups. Some like this simplistic design approach, others like the retro charm with a white roof, while others prefer the modernist touch.” Would you do a Fendi Microlino, I ask. “Of course. That would be amazing,” laughs Ouboter.

See how other brands and individuals are exploring new and interesting transport ideas: Chris Bangle and his radical rethink of the motor car, the anti-poaching Cake Kalk APKomma’s fresh look at urban transport, Arksen adventure yachts, Pix Moving reinvention of cities as mobile flexible units.

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