The newest electric vehicle jostling for space on Paris's majestic Champs-Elysees has just enough room for two passengers, sports a top speed of a mere 45 kilometres per hour (28 mph) and can be legally driven by a 14-year-old.
When it is deployed this month, the quirky Citroen Ami will become the latest ploy in an intensifying battle among four of Europe's biggest automakers for dominance in the French capital. The prize isn't sales but car-sharing fees of just cents a minute.
Concerns about traffic congestion and air pollution have prompted tough policies on auto owners and forced manufacturers to shift strategies. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was re-elected in June on an environmental platform that includes more bicycle lanes and fewer polluting vehicles. That makes services like car-sharing one of the few ways automakers can appeal to urban consumers in France's economic and cultural center.
"Car-sharing will be a real business for automakers, although on a relatively small scale,” said Jean-Louis Sempe, a Paris-based analyst at Invest Securities SA. "They will use the services like showrooms and to drum up a new type of client."
Paris was a trailblazer in the emerging sector, starting with a city-backed service called Autolib in 2011. It had a fleet of around 2,500 electric vehicles and more than 150,000 subscribers, but the partnership ended in acrimony two years ago when the city canceled the contract with operator Bollore SA after a financial dispute.
Now, three separate services have risen from the ashes, all backed by automakers: Free2Move by Citroen maker PSA Group, French rival Renault SA's Zity and the ShareNow joint venture from BMW AG and Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler AG. While Bollore was attempting to disrupt the industry with its fleet of raw-metal electric cars, the current operators see it as a business opportunity.
Free2Move "isn't some kind of car producer's toy. It's a real mobility brand and asset,” Brigitte Courtehoux, head of the service, said in an interview. "We have no right to lose money."
PSA's service targets profitability by the start of next year even with potential for coronavirus flare-ups causing city dwellers to stay at home as they did earlier this year. In a sign of its ambitions, the company is giving the unit more autonomy and control over the group's sharing, longer-term rental and parking operations globally.
Free2Move is No. 2 in Paris with about 20,000 customers, less than half of the 55,000 for Daimler and BMW's ShareNow. Renault's Zity - also backed by Spanish construction company Ferrovial SA - has 15,000.
The services are racing to woo more consumers. Both Zity and Free2Move recently extended their operating areas to Boulogne-Billancourt, a densely populated municipality southwest of the capital where Renault and other big companies are based.
The planned addition of 100 Citroen Amis to the Free2Move fleet, along with the electric Peugeot e-208 compact, underscores the showcase element of the services, giving new vehicles an immediate street presence rather than tucking them away inside a showroom. That's key for electric vehicles, which have struggled for widespread acceptance due to concerns about charging and range.
The Citroen Ami is even more of an outlier. The boxy two-seater, which is taller than it is wide, is classified as a quadricycle and therefore can be driven by kids as young as 14. For the Paris service, Free2Move will set the minimum age at 16 when it rolls out the vehicle for rent in August.
The vehicle has unusual looks, with identical front and rear panels making it difficult to tell at first glance whether it's coming or going. As part of its symmetrical design, the driver side has a suicide door hinged at the rear, while the passenger side is conventional.
The Ami is "a totally disruptive, 100% electric mobility device for downtown," Carlos Tavares, PSA's chief executive officer, said after reporting a surprising profit in the first half despite pandemic disruptions.
Paris allows only battery-powered vehicles in the city's car-sharing operations, pitting the Ami - named after the odd-but-successful Ami 6 from the 1960s - against the likes Daimler's Smart from ShareNow and the popular Renault Zoe from Zity.
Mobility services are a big priority for Mayor Hidalgo. Last month, the city narrowed to three the number of electric-scooter companies it will allow to operate, a move designed to end the chaotic free-for-all that ensued after services were first introduced.
Parking is the next issue. The city will host a conference later this year to examine how to divvy up limited street space for private and shared vehicles, a spokeswoman said.
The French capital currently charges car-sharing companies for parking, unlike Madrid and Washington, D.C. Waiving fees is critical to make the services viable, according to Free2Move's Courtehoux.
"We really want the city to help us," she said.