“Mum. Please help. People keep staring at us. Some are pointing and laughing. Someone just beeped their horn at us. This is torture and I don’t want to do it again.”
It was day one with my latest test car, and I had noticed my pre-teen daughter reaching for her phone as I drove her to school but hadn’t appreciated what she was texting, nor that this admittedly quirky vehicle could induce such extreme emotions in the easily embarrassed.
Until then, I had revelled in its difference, the wear and tear of my near 50 years cushioning me from any cruelty. This, I thought, was a car that started conversations and made people smile, overcoming its bargain-basement price tag with a combination of oddity and flair, turning the Lego cars of all our childhoods into a joyous reality.
It cut through class and had a gender-easy appeal, too. Earlier that day, I had looked out of the window to find a gaggle of friends giving it the once over, a couple on their hands and knees seeking to understand what was before their eyes. Some weeks later, I drove it into Knightsbridge and parked near Harrods. In truth, I was there for the photo opportunities next to Mercedes G-Wagens and the like, where a wheel was the size of my car, but its inherent magnetism overwhelmed any cynicism. Men and women of all ages, wearing shoes or cradling handbags that cost comfortably more than the car, wanted to know more. What is it? Can I buy one? Isn’t it just fabulous?
Well, it’s the Citroën Ami. No, you can’t – at least not yet in the UK, but maybe in time. And, yes, it is – unless you’re an 11-year-old or, as it turned out, the owner of pretty much any large SUV, or anyone who had to follow us at our governed top speed of 28mph on any road with a limit of 30mph or above. Maybe you, too? Because after a couple of weeks and a few hundred miles behind the wheel, I came to understand that the Ami was incapable of leaving anyone nonplussed and, in fact, wasn’t everybody’s idea of a good friend.
Plus ça change, as its makers might say – accompanied no doubt by a Gallic shrug born out of a lifetime of being treated as such. I was reminded of this when I met up with the brilliantly enthusiastic Neil Osborn, owner and restorer of the original Ami that you saw on the previous page. An incurable car fan with a leaning for French fancies, he understands better than most the appeal of Citroën’s capacity to surprise. Its long and proud history of making deliciously different cars has snared his interest and wallet on numerous occasions, thereby putting Citroëns at the heart of tales of fun and frolics on family trips across Europe and more.
To him – and countless others, I suspect – a Citroën could be a much-loved part of the family, not just a car. It’s a spirit the brand most recently revived (and then dialled back) with the divisive C4 Cactus project, but one which the Ami wholeheartedly embraces again. Could the Ami really be a Citroën to love (or hate) in the finest traditions of yesteryear, escaping any links with its mass-market and all-too-often third-choice brethren?
However, even then the Ami wouldn’t necessarily be a shoo-in for success. China’s car makers have already been incentivised by legislation and budgets to develop electric-powered microcars not dissimilar to the Ami’s philosophy. In the case of the Wuling Hongguang Mini EV, co-developed with General Motors and priced from £3200 in its home market (but almost £9000 in specced-out trim by the time it’s imported into Europe under the relaunched Dartz banner), it already delivers more for less: four seats, 100 miles of range and a top speed of 62mph standing out.
Hundreds of thousands of sales of the Hongguang Mini EV have already led to a convertible version being launched, and numerous rivals are now lining up to create microcars of their own and topple its new-found status as the world’s best-selling EV.
Just as Citroën is about to ramp up its aspirations for the Ami, it might find that it’s destined to be a bit-part player in a niche that it may well have hoped to have to itself.