Peugeot EX1 hands-on

6am Saturday. Not a time I’m familiar with. Yet here I am, speeding towards Goodwood, as I’ve a date with a rather special car. 

Three hours later, and it’s clear the car hasn’t read the script. I’m in the passenger seat of Peugeot’s EX1 concept car. It’s a small electric concept vehicle (calling it a car might be a stretch), which is wider at the front than at the back, is open to the elements and features two electric motors (one on the front axle and one on the back) which make 340 horsepower in total. This last fact explains why it’s recently set an electric car top speed record and the is the fastest electric car around the famous Nurburgring in Gemany. Except right now, it isn’t going anywhere, and the Frenchman whose sitting beside me driving it, is swearing a lot.  

We’re at the front of a queue of concept cars that have tiptoed through the crowds to the start line at the bottom of the hill, which we’re supposed to be racing up as part of Goodwood’s Festival of Speed. Roughly 50,000 people are lining the side of the track to watch as the Peugeot, and a host of concept, supercars, F1 cars and vintage cars race up a hill in West Sussex over the three day event.

But as the marshall beckoned us forwards, the EX1 made an odd electric groan, stuttered and died. “Come on,” shouts the Marshall. “you need to move now”. “Hold on”, mumbles Yann Pissonnier, Concept Design Manager for the EX1 and man at the wheel, as he frantically tries the re-start this one-off piece of wheeled carbon fiber, that worth several million pounds. To bring the EX1 to life, you hold a green button located between the driver and passenger, toggle a switch a couple of times, and then wait (about 10 seconds) for a light to go green. Except it’s refusing to go green right now. Suddenly, a team of Peugeot technicians is all over the car, but it’s clear my legs are very much in the way of where they need to be.

It’s unlike any car you’ll have seen before, the EX1. Many people we passed at Goodwood compared it the last batmobile, and once Yann and I are inside, kitted out in full black race suits and helmets, there’s a certain sinister look to the thing.

This isn’t just like an electrified Lotus in the manner of a Tesla. It’s a true concept car – and that means all kinds of bits you’ll never see in the real world – such as seats that are part of the doors. The seat bucket swings out when the door opens – which is rear hinged too, naturally. So your legs only enter the car when the door’s closed. And then when they do, you sit with your bum lower than your knees and your feet.

As Peugeot technicians swarm round, what’s becoming clear is that all of its electrical brains are where my feet are and I can’t really move them. Eventually, we wrestle the required USB lead free, attach a laptop (how else did you expect them to fix an electric car?), and the EX1 is re-set and brought silently back to life.

But it’s too late. Our batch of cars has gone, the course has been closed, and for a minute it looks like we’ll not get our run up the hill. But such is the good-natured atmosphere of Goodwood, that the marshals decide to allow us to run after the next group of cars, and this time, when our time finally comes, the EX1 doesn’t falter. 

We whirr up to the start line, and then Yann floors the accelerator. There’s a momentary judder, and - accompanied by an electrical whine - we catapult off the line. Electric cars like this give un-interrupted acceleration, because effectively there’s no gearbox and their motors produce maximum torque from rest (unlike internal combustion engine cars).

We rocket through the trees and out into the sunlight at the first corner. Today, the EX1 is only running the motor on its front axle, so heaven knows how fast it feels when both are working. In part, the sensation of speed comes from how low you sit, the lack of a proper windscreen and the fact that – at Goodwood – you’re not on a wide racetrack, but effectively going full pelt up the drive of a country house. Our video (complete with lots of wind noise) gives you a sense of the experience.

Sadly, we never make it to the top of the hill, as the pre-war Fiat grand prix car that left in front of us has expired and blocked the course. But even on a short run, the combination of the Festival of Speed atmosphere and the EX1’s design has made for a visceral experience.

Running the EX1 here is an interesting approach from Peugeot, but helps in part to answer a question that many rightly ask, about what the point is to concept cars. According to Peugeot’s design team, in the future, all of the company’s concepts will be like the EX1. They’ll drive, properly, and won’t just be pieces of untouchable design that sit on a show stand. Once they’ve been unveiled at motorshows, they will tour the world and appear at events like this and in major cities. The point is to let as many people as possible see how the company is thinking about the future, and to allow as many people as possible to experience them actually moving. Ultimately the French company wants to show how – with its design thinking, the influence of digital tech and new powertrain developments – the future car will be a very exciting thing indeed.