This funky looking electric car wants to save the planet. Here’s what it’s like driving it

There’s something undeniably cool about very small cars. 

From the chic Fiats of old Fellini films to the wacky Hungarian microcars of the Cold War, the sight of a tiny vehicle zipping around corners and squeezing into impossibly tight parking spots has a fun factor.

So when I was offered the chance to get behind the wheel of a Nimbus One, I didn’t hesitate.

If you haven’t heard of Nimbus, that’s because the vehicle is still just a prototype, at least one year away from the commercial market. But with its distinctive design and engineering, the Nimbus One is a car you’re not likely to forget after you see it. 

Imagine breeding a motorbike with a golf cart and you’re getting close to something that resembles the Nimbus One. The electric vehicle has three wheels (two in the front, one in the back) and is roughly the width of one person (with a seat directly behind the driver for a second occupant). 

That small, narrow size gives the Nimbus the convenience of a scooter or motorbike — you can park it perpendicular to a curb, and in states where it’s legal, you can drive between cars, lane-splitting your way through traffic.

Unlike a motorbike though, the Nimbus is fully enclosed in a car body, with all the familiar controls and safety features of a car, like a steering wheel, accelerator, and brake pedals, seat belt, and front airbag.

The result is a vehicle that Nimbus founder and CEO Lihang Nong hopes could become the personal transportation option of choice in American and European cities. 

“If you look at how cars are being used today, a lot of those trips can be replaced by something that’s a lot more efficient, both in terms of space and energy,”  Nong told Fortune. 

The Nimbus One EV wants to replace cars for short, intracity trips.
Courtesy of Nimbus

Nong, 35, founded the company in 2019, going through the Y Combinator startup-accelerator program, and collected $5.1 million in funding from venture capital firms including Thiel Capital and Ponooc. The company plans to raise $30 million in funding ($20 million in equity and $10 million in debt) at the end of the year, which it will use to begin producing the Nimbus One. 

If all goes according to plan, the vehicle will go on sale in the U.S. for just under $10,000 in September 2023. The company also hopes to offer it for a monthly rental fee of $200.

Driving the Nimbus—prepare to get tilted!

The first thing to know before driving the Nimbus is that it tilts. When the car makes a turn it leans to the side, similar to the way a motorcycle leans into curves.

That’s not an accident. In fact, it’s one of the key engineering features of the Nimbus One. 

Because the vehicle has such a narrow body, the tilt provides stability and balance, according to Nong. Otherwise, a driver might flip the car over by turning too quickly. 

“Even golf carts, you don’t want to drive them too fast, because if you take a turn too quickly it will flip,” Nong says. 

To achieve the tilt, which can slant the car as much as 33 degrees from the vertical axis, Nimbus relies on an electromechanical system that combines sensors, actuators, and software. 

As I rounded my first turn driving the Nimbus prototype, I immediately felt the tilt. It’s an unusual sensation. Even if you’re familiar with leaning into turns on a bike, the Nimbus feels different because the vehicle lists to the side as you spin the steering wheel and not as a result of shifting your body weight. 

I’m not sure if I ever got completely used to the tilt during my brief test ride, but I gradually became less intimidated by it, and even started to enjoy the thrill of sloping sideways during turns. I still had a small fear in the back of my mind that the car might tip over if I did something wrong, but that may fade with time.

The car has a top speed of 50 miles per hour. I was probably cruising at about half that clip in the stadium parking lot where I tested it, and it felt plenty fast.

You can flash messages to other drivers

The interior of the Nimbus One felt natural and relatively roomy—the car may look like a sardine can from the outside, but it didn’t feel too cramped on the inside. 

The back seat, which I did not sit in but looked pretty cramped, may be a different story. The car is designed for short, intracity trips rather than long road trips. (Though the Nimbus One is not intended for use on freeways, a premium model may be.) 

One of the coolest features of the Nimbus One is the digital display on the front and back of the car’s exterior. Using the car’s control panel, a driver can select pre-written messages to flash at other people on the road: “Sorry” for the person you accidentally cut off, for example. Or perhaps something more salty for the driver who cut you off.

The car’s battery has a range of 93 miles and can be charged in 5.4 hours. You can charge the car by plugging it directly into a regular power outlet, or by charging the two  flowerpot-size removable batteries located under the seat at home—a smart feature for apartment dwellers who don’t have a garage.

The batteries, located under the driver’s seat, are easily removed to charge at home.
Courtesy of Nimbus

As would be expected with any prototype, the Nimbus One that I drove still had some rough edges. But the overall experience was enjoyable. And it’s exciting to see a company address the problems of America’s automobile dependence in a creative way. Can such a small, quirky vehicle catch on in the land of SUVs? It’s definitely not a given, but then again, not many people expected that Tesla could make electric cars a product for the mass market. 

Last year, Tesla sold almost 1 million of them. 

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