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Out of its shell

Shell, a company normally known for petrochemicals rather than car manufacturing, has built a car. With help from former McLaren F1 technical director Gordon Murray and Japanese firm Geo Technology, the company has produced a city car that costs less than $10,000, carries three people and is capable of 100mpg.

It will never go into production, but the companies involved are hoping that the technology seen here will make its way into the cars of tomorrow.

With its aerodynamic bodywork, clamshell door and smart white, red and yellow livery, the Shell Concept Car has the look of a futuristic eco car. Were it road legal, it would certainly draw attention everywhere it went, but it’s only likely to be popular with a certain type of passer-by – one that would probably be disappointed it isn’t electric.

The interior is slightly less space-age, although it’s actually one of the most modern things about the car’s design. The dashboard is a 3D-printed panel of plastic, and the rear-view mirrors also house cameras for added visibility. Although all this is undoubtedly modern technology, however, the feel of the plastics and the build quality means it all feels a bit like a 1980s interpretation of the future.

Shell says the Concept Car can carry three people, and indeed it can, but they won’t be especially comfortable.

It isn’t too bad for the driver, whose central position provides passable headroom and plenty of elbow room, even if the seat could do with a little adjustment.

The dashboard is a 3D-printed panel of plastic, and the rear-view mirrors also house cameras for added visibility

Things don’t improve much once you have wedged yourself into the seats. In that position, you’re effectively sitting on the engine, and there’s a noticeable warmth that seeps through the seat after around 10 minutes. If you were to go shopping and you put a bar of chocolate on the rear bench, it would be unlikely to retain its shape for long.

The boot, however, is slightly more practical. It’s smaller than you’ll find in the back of a Renault Twingo or a Toyota Aygo, but it isn’t noticeably more compact than a Mazda MX-5’s boot, for example. The only real catch is, again, the heat produced by the engine, and the side-opening door, which could be problematic in tight car parks.

It may be called a Concept Car, but the Shell city car really ought to be called the ‘Proof of Concept Car’. There’s almost no refinement to it, so the high, central seat doesn’t adjust, the pedals feel distinctly odd and there’s no power steering. Add in an automated manual gearbox that feels like it needs its ratios tweaking and a cacophony of squeaks and rattles that accompany every bump in the road, and you’re left with a slightly unnerving driving experience.

Were it not for those irritating but easily fixable faults, though, it wouldn’t be a bad car. Because the gearbox is automated, it’s simple to drive, and the sizeable glasshouse makes it easy to see out of.

Manoeuvring is tricky thanks to the lack of power steering and the completely useless mirrors, but once you’re up and running it’s absolutely fine.

The car’s lightness means you don’t notice the lack of power steering, and though the gearbox is slow to shift, it isn’t intrusive. It even handles reasonably well, with steering inputs eliciting a sharp response from the wheels and a surprising lack of body roll.

It does struggle a little bit with bumpy surfaces, but then it doesn’t have all that much room for long, comfy springs, and you get the impression that, given the lack of refinement elsewhere, the team didn’t spend much time tweaking the set-up.

Shell claims that the Concept Car could be sold for less than $10,000. It sounds cheap for a petrol-engined car that can match the economy of a far more expensive hybrid, but there are cars out there that are no more expensive, yet more refined.

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