India’s iconic electric car gets energized

India’s iconic electric car gets energized

Mumbai: Long before “green" cars became trendy in other parts of the world, a boxy electric two-seater began rolling out of a small factory in Bangalore, which was then emerging as a software services hub.

Today, scores of Reva electric cars can be seen tootling down Bangalore’s crowded streets, their bright colours and minimalist design drawing curious looks, even smiles, from commuters.

“It is simply beautiful," said T. Shivaram, a small business owner who bought a yellow-and-black Reva last year to cut his fuel bill. “It gives me driving pleasure and everyone stares at it and wants to know more about it."

The Reva was among the world’s first electric cars sold commercially. It did not take off quite as its maker had hoped but it has blazed a trail for other electric cars—such as General Motors Corp.’s new Chevrolet Volt—which are coming into their own in an age of high oil prices.

Reva Electric Car Co. Pvt. Ltd was set up in 1994 by India’s Maini Group and AEV Llc. of the US. The company was the first to successfully commercialize electric vehicles, according to consultancy Frost and Sullivan.

By 2001, it had built its first all-electric car, just four years after Toyota Motor Corp. began selling a car that would come to define the eco-friendly auto segment, the Prius hybrid.

The Reva was the brainchild of Chetan Maini, scion of the Maini Group, who championed the car at a time when scepticism was widespread about the viability of electric vehicles. “He was clearly very much ahead of his time," said Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of popular magazine AutoCar. “But maybe he lacked the muscle power and the political backing to make a big noise, which is why Reva has remained so small."

Developed entirely in-house, India’s first electric car was 95% indigenous from the start, built of lightweight steel and plastic and with fewer moving parts. It can be fully charged in seven hours by plugging into a regular 15 amp socket at home.

But its high price, nearly 25% more than entry-level cars, found few takers in India where low-end cars hold sway. Besides Britain, Reva is now also sold in Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Norway, Spain and Sri Lanka.

“We look for countries that offer incentives for electric vehicles, or those that are tightening regulations, or where consumer awareness is high," said Maini, 38.

Electric vehicles are particularly suited for Indian cities, says Maini, because of shorter distances and lower average speeds. A top speed of 40-60km/h and a range of 50-80km would meet “over 90% of the city mobility requirements in India", he said.

Maini is building more powerful cars, with a range of 200km and top speed of 120km/h.

Other, bigger Indian carmakers are not waiting, either. Tata Motors Ltd, which is launching the ultra low-cost Nano this year, has developed electric variants of its Indica hatchback car and Ace mini truck, while the Hero Group is also building electric vehicles.

“Maini didn’t capitalize on the first-mover advantage, but he will be seen as a pioneer, now that everyone is getting into it," said Mohit Arora, senior director at JD Power and Associates. “History is on his side."