The Shell Project M Concept Car is a three-seater city car concept penned by Gordon Murray. Yep, the very same Gordon Murray who single-handedly designed the McLaren F1.
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The 550kg Project M is powered by a 660cc 3-cylinder Mitsubishi petrol engine. It’s a thoroughly reworked version of Murray’s T:25 city car from 2010. Shell Lubricants provided all of the vehicle’s fluids and Swiss-based Geo Technology modified the engine.
What are its rivals?
The Smart ForTwo and Renault Twizy are probably the car’s closest rivals – although both only offer space for two.
You can get the Smart in both petrol and electric guises, while the Twizy is battery-powered. With a range of 62 miles and doors listed among its options, it’s really a second car.
Prices and deals
As its name suggests, you can’t buy a Shell Project M Concept Car. However, Shell reckons that with small adaptations – there are no airbags, radio or air-con fitted at present – a manufacturer could put the model into production by 2020. And a sub-£10K starting price would be likely.
What engine does it use?
The three-cylinder petrol unit is derived from Mitsubishi’s range of Japanese-market Kei cars. Geo Technology has, among other adjustments, added diamond-like carbon coatings and raised the compression ratio for a more rapid warm-up.
Don’t expect to lose many other drivers at the lights. The Shell Concept’s official 0-62mph sprint time is 15.8 seconds. It’s also restricted to 90mph.
Will I enjoy driving it?
You sit in the centre, flanked by two rear seats – a Murray trademark, of course. The driver’s seat is set high, and this, combined with a tall roof, thin pillars and low windows, gives a commanding view of the road. There are virtually no blind spots and you could be forgiven for thinking you’re driving a much larger car.
For all its clever production techniques and intelligent packaging, the Project M delivers a conventional driving experience. Push the starter button and you can’t help but feel surprised to hear the 660cc petrol engine turn over – one naturally assumes it’s electric even with prior knowledge that it isn’t. A strange sensation.
Despite not possessing the instant torque that is characteristic of EVs, the car still feels quick off the line thanks to its light throttle and supremely low weight. Shame then, that when it’s up and running, further progress is hindered by a semi-automatic sequential five-speed gearbox, borrowed from the Smart ForTwo.
The steering wheel – looking like something out of a Sega arcade game – is an absolute joy to hold. And despite being unassisted, the steering doesn’t feel excessively heavy. The Shell’s six-mettre turning circle is one-and-a-half metres less than a TX4 London Taxi, so tackling the tight hairpin at the end of our Dunsfold Park test route was a doddle.
Fuel economy and running costs
The Shell Concept improves upon the original T:25’s already impressive economy and drag coefficient figures of 74mpg and 0.33Cd respectively. The new stats are 107mpg and 0.29Cd.
That progress is thanks to Shell, which has developed bespoke, ultra-thin oil for the car, contributing to a 30% reduction in engine friction. A 22-litre fuel tank lends the vehicle a theoretical range of 528 miles.
What’s the interior like?
For the most part, the cabin is back-to-basics. Only the bottom half of the front windows opens – a feature that recalls Subaru’s classic SVX coupe – but there is something inherently charming about the Project M’s simplicity.
Everything feels solidly screwed together and the use of light-coloured materials further enhances the feeling of space. In the rear, exposed carbon fibre – like a BMW i3 or Alfa Romeo 4C – is a neat touch.
Is it comfortable?
The suede-clad seats are thick, but lack lateral support, while the sensation of sitting in the middle and not having the pedals positioned directly in front of you takes getting used to.
There are no complaints in terms of ride, though, thanks to the fitment of independent front and rear suspension, plus tiny wheels.
Is it practical?
For a car that is just 2.5 metres long – 200mm less than a Smart ForTwo – the Project M is a surprisingly practical proposition.
It can genuinely seat three adults, while its rear seats fold flat, increasing the 160-litre boot’s capacity to 720 litres.
Tell me about the tech
There’s plenty of clever tech, but most of it you can’t see. Rather than being about tricksy sat nav systems and autonomy, the Shell Concept has been designed to showcase new manufacturing technology that could make car production more efficient.
Like the T:25 before it, the Shell Concept utilises Murray’s patented iStream production process. Recycled carbon composite panels are fixed to load points on a strong steel frame – eliminating the need for a conventional body-in-white press. Some 93 of the vehicle’s components were 3D-printed, accelerating the pencil-to-prototype period.
Gadget fans will appreciate the car’s electrically-operated front canopy, which makes every entry and exit feel like a scene from a sci-fi film.
What about safety?
Strong and precise laser welding bonds the composite panels with the tubular steel frame. It’s incredibly rigid and you can feel this when driving – there’s precious little flex or scuttle shake.
That goes some way to explaining why the Shell’s sister car, the T:27, performed well in internal crash tests with extremely low cabin intrusion levels. The Shell Concept does, however, do without airbags or ABS. These would be added for production.
Which version should I go for?
There’s only one, and for now at least, you can’t buy it. Sorry.
What’s the used alternative?
Good examples of both the previous generation Smart ForTwo and the Renault Twizy can be yours for around £2,500, while those in need of an extra pair of seats should try the Volkswagen Up, which starts at £3,500.
Should I buy one?
You can’t buy the Shell Project M Concept Car, but you can buy into the idea of iStream, and indeed Shell’s contention that we should treat lubricants as an engineering component when developing new cars.
Consider that the transport sector accounts for 25% of the world’s energy use and 20% of global carbon dioxide emissions – the context from which this car is born – and a vehicle that can be produced using a less energy-intensive production method is a no-brainer.
Also, keep in mind that electricity is the world’s largest producer of CO2 emissions. Suddenly, that 660cc combustion engine seems a well-judged decision.
If the Project M could be certified as safe, made affordable and refined to meet the needs of European consumers, it would make a great deal of sense for urbanites. Think of it as the Issigonis Mini for millennials.
Seventeen Shell staff worked on the Project M, with a combined experience of 376 years.