Best viewed with a good red
It’s possible that wine made from the bold and structured Dolceto grape in the town of Clavesana in Italy’s Piemonte region has hallucinogenic qualities. I say this because I was offered a glass of this magic elixir almost immediately upon my late-afternoon arrival at the L.A. Auto Show stand of Beijing-based CHTC’s nascent Redspace brand. The China Hi-Tech Group Corporation is poised to add automobile manufacture to its resume of weaving machines, heavy trucks and busses, and textile manufacture, among other things. I’d arrived struggling to imagine how I’d begin an interview about what seemed like the ugliest, most peculiar four-wheeled device of the new millennium. By the time I’d finished the generous pour, the car’s often-controversial designer Chris Bangle was wrapping up his PowerPoint presentation, and by golly the whacky Redspace REDS mobile coffee machine began to look cool to me. Yep. It’s hallucinogenic wine.
I started my interview noting that I’d just bumped into sister publication Automobile’s design guru Robert Cumberford—never one to stifle a criticism—and that his reaction to this new electric urban vehicle’s overtly jarring design was almost entirely positive. “Give me the pitch you gave him,” I suggested.
This is no 3-D fantasy doodle or middle-finger-poke-in-the-eye of the car-design establishment. It’s a working prototype of a vehicle that will be put into production, probably within the next two years, though it’s not one that you’ll ever see plying the wide-open byways of Yankee Doodleland. Bangle simply wanted its global launch to happen on a more international stage than the Beijing or Shanghai shows are today, and where better than the show staged in the town where he received his design education? (OK, maybe there’s some eye poking.)
He starts his pitch with a little model of a Fiat 500, from which he can remove what would be a 19.7-inch section, sliding the front and rear halves together. “This is how much shorter our car is, and it seats four big adults comfortably.” Specifications are scarce, but we’re told the length is just a bit greater than a Smart Fortwo’s, and the width is nearly identical. But it’s considerably taller, and the sides are absolutely planar and vertical, so there’s no “tumblehome” confining headspace. All passengers sit quite upright, with their hips much farther above the floor than in most subcompacts. The front seats are spaced just far enough apart to accommodate the right rear passenger’s legs between them, and they’re both skewed about as much right as the rear seats are left so that the left rear passenger’s legs fit between the door and the driver seat. This also allows the front passenger’s seat to be slid back without cramping the rear passenger, and it puts the driver inside of the front wheel arches, thereby maximizing legroom for all occupants.
Because Asians—especially young ones—apparently crave a “fourth space,” distinct from their home, office, and communal gathering places such as Starbucks, and because most cars stay parked 90 percent of the time, the interior is conceived to be that fourth gathering space when not in motion. The surplus space on the rear bench to the right of the right rear passenger can accommodate a fifth unbelted occupant when parked. To get social, the driver flips the steering wheel up and swivels the seat around (which can be done with the doors shut, thanks to the surplus space to the left and right of it). It’s that need to flip the steering wheel up that drove the idea of the reverse-raked windshield—reverse-raking the rear adds headroom and some symmetry. The wacky windshield and backlite also reduce glare and sun load.
Bangle’s Italy-based consultancy had a holistic, homogeneous design incorporating these weird glass angles all worked up with scale modeling underway just days before the scheduled design review with CHTC brass. That’s when Bangle ordered his team to tear it up and start over. He reckons the attempt to generate a cohesive, homogeneous design is what killed the quirky, wide, googly-eyed 1999 Fiat Multipla, which ended up trying to fit into a niche but failing—it was neither a CUV, a minivan, nor an urban car. It was just weird. Then its 2004 redesign was simply boring.
In his effort to replace homogeneity with graphic spontaneity, Bangle fell back on another of his pet projects—cartooning. Check out his fun children’s “inanimato” animation series about Arky Arch—a triumphal arch that comes to life for adventures with fellow objects that humans perceive as inanimate. In “Episode 0,” Bangle explains how his mother instilled in him a notion of inanimate objects like plates and dishes having feelings and how this notion has informed his 30-plus year career designing cars and other things.
In Bangle’s world, the interior space he designed “decided to be a car” even though it didn’t look like one in his homogeneous design. Toward that end, he designed a side graphic that quite clearly depicts a childish or cartoonlike drawing of a compact hatchback car, with normally canted A- and C-pillars. Look at the white areas in a pure side view, and the car shape leaps out at you. The incongruous beltlines of the front and rear windows are graphic tricks, but the upward angled front door beltline provides a comfortable front passenger armrest angle. The downward-sloping rear window beltline supposedly imparts a sense of envelopment and security while preserving decent visibility.
Other cool features: In “fourth space” parked mode, a table can be lowered out of the ceiling on cables. Because it’s shaped a bit like Africa, the team labeled it as such and illustrated other continents on the headliner, with all labels written backward “as if being viewed from inside one’s own world” (or globe). The user interface involves a normal touchscreen, but plastic shields guide fingers to the areas of greatest interest, making it easier to operate without looking than a normal touchscreen is. The right “dial” shield flips open for cleaning the screen, and the left one slides away for accessing deeper menu items. And the display screen rises farther out of the dash to become a 17.0-inch screen to view video content when parked.
The doors open electrically. Press a button, and they index out and back, with the upper track extending out from the bodywork providing added shelter from the rain. Raise the rear hatch, and a “tailgate” can be lowered to sit on. A half-moon-shaped window in the front of the roof offers a view of the traffic lights, and four “wings,”—one each above the windshield and backlite plus two outboard of each A-pillar—help manage airflow. Bangle asserts that these aero aids help reduce drag and wind noise considerably, though overall aero efficiency was clearly not a top priority for this lower-speed urban car. The roof, which is longer than a BMW i3’s, is covered in solar cells, and the front passenger has a foot-massage feature operated by remote control!
Technical details were in short supply, but as suggested by the name REDS—Revolutionary Electric Dream Space—an electric motor powers the rear axle. With wheels at the corners and 185/60R16 tires, we’re told it handles better than its oversized phonebooth looks would suggest, but for now its power and the battery’s capacity are unknown. We are told it is fully capable of slightly exceeding China’s maximum highway speed limit of 120 km/h (75 mph). The body is comprised of a simple structure of aluminum extrusions joined by cast aluminum nodes.
Despite its small footprint, the high feature content will mean the REDS should sell at a premium price point. Will its unconventionality lure young, often car-averse Chinese buyers? Or will the Redspace sales people need to ply them with Clavesana Dolcetto wine and Bangle PowerPoint presentations to close the deal? Those of us in the West might never know.