Hi-tech bubble car pops back into fashion

Congested roads, the fight against pollution, and dwindling oil reserves have revived interest in the smallest car on the block

The bubble car, symbol of the Fifties and Sixties, is returning to the UK's roads with a futuristic facelift more reminiscent of sci-fi films than of the German cockpit chic of its airplane- inspired predecessors.

The new models hark back to a golden age of Messerschmitt, Heinkel, and classics such as the French Velam Isetta – but with designers and scientists challenging each other to cram in the technology to tackle scarce road and parking space, pollution emissions, and dwindling fossil fuels.

Kia's electric Concept Pop made its public debut at the Paris Motor Show yesterday, while Renault launched its latest range of electric cars in London last month, fronted by the lithium-ion battery-powered Twizy, which charges overnight, when the cost of electricity falls.

In the vanguard of this apparently science fiction future, is the two wheeled EN-V, the product of a partnership between the American firm General Motors and one of China's biggest car manufacturers, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation.

The car uses the two-wheeled balancing system developed by personal transport company Segway. The car and the Segway use "dynamic stabilisers" with electric motors fitted to wheels to counter rotate and so balance a central platform.

The EN-V's platform is its chassis, which shifts forward on to a pair of landing wheels. Getting out through its transparent dome-shaped door is easy once the car is parked in a space less than half the size of a Mini.

The vehicle can reach 25mph, has a range of 40km, and offers infrared detectors to recognise body heat, ultrasonic detectors and radars to recognise objects, and can talk to other cars via a communication network.

Jim Jaimson from the Microcar Club in York, a group which celebrates and restores bubble cars, said: "This is an idea that people have been working on for many decades. It's just now the technology of the power source has caught up. They are reliable, reusable, and you can now get a decent speed out of them as well.

"Before, we were relying on acid batteries, but now we have various power cells that we can put in the vehicles. It's the way forward."