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India’s Only Electric Car Revamped to Woo Drivers
Long before the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt were born, India had its own electric car, the tiny REVAi. The car ended more than a decade of production last year after selling less than 5,000 units worldwide. But underwhelming sales haven’t prevented its maker from raising the stakes: This year, Mahindra Reva is betting everything on its new electric four-seater hatchback, the E2O.

And it isn’t thinking small. Besides opening a brand-new factory that can pump out 30,000 vehicles a year, Mahindra Reva plans to almost singlehandedly build an electric-car charging network with a commercial fast charger that can fully replenish the battery in 70 minutes and a freestanding auto canopy, the Sun2Car, whose 10 square meters (108 square feet) of solar panels can enable almost 50 kilometers (30 miles) of travel after a sunny day.

The company’s founder, Chetan Maini, said in an interview with India Ink that the E2O will be a “game shift in terms of performance levels” over the REVAi, whose almost comic smallness made it an object of ridicule on the British auto TV show Top Gear. He maintained that the E2O (pronounced ee-two-oh) is ideally suited for the urban driver — if affluent Indians can be persuaded to give it a try.

The world’s second-most populous country has proven to be an especially difficult market for electric vehicles. Indian drivers shy away from the premium price tag, even though it’s far cheaper to charge a vehicle than fuel it; the government offered generous subsidies to buyers in 2010 but yanked them only a few months later; the charging network is virtually nonexistent; auto sales are at their lowest point in nine years; and persistent blackouts in parts of the country have raised doubts that electricity will be there when drivers need it.

But there are reasons to believe that an Indian electric car could get traction. This time around, the electric car maker has an ally, the Indian industrial conglomerate Mahindra, which bought a majority stake in Reva in 2010 and changed the company’s name to Mahindra Reva. The E2O will initially appear in Mahindra’s showrooms in Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi.

Another lift may come from the Indian government, which will soon release the details of a new $4.13 billion program to support electric vehicles with the stratospheric goal of getting 6 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020. The plan is likely to include funds for a charging network and subsidies for electric two-wheelers, which in India are far more popular than cars. (Several companies are building electric two-wheelers for the Indian market.)

The E2O’s factory in Bangalore, which I toured last month, is a good place to start in understanding what makes the car different. First, it isn’t a manufacturing facility, but an assembly plant where pieces are added to the car’s black steel ribcage. A skeleton is the right analogy; the E2O is not sheathed in a weight-bearing steel shell like most cars. Instead, the body is made up of lightweight and scratch-resistant plastic panels.

The car has met side- and front-impact crash tests mandated by the Indian government, Kartik Gopal, Mahindra Reva’s general manager, said, and also complies with crash requirements in Europe. He added that the frame is similar to that found in the Audi A8 and that other auto lines, including the Saturn and Mercedes’ SMART, use plastic body panels to absorb impact while saving weight.

“We make our cars very differently from any other car that is mass-produced in the world today,” Mr. Gopal said, as we toured the 23,000-square-foot plant. He explained that using plastic — pre-impregnated with color to eliminate painting — reduces both cost and weight. Even a kilogram can make a sizable difference in how much power and range the lithium-ion battery can deliver.

During the tour, I got an unexpected chance to take the wheel of the E2O. It’s predecessor, the stubby REVAi, was utilitarian to the point of ugly, and designers clearly sought to avoid the same mistake with the E2O. Off-angle windows and swooping fenders draw the eye away from its boxy shape and short wheelbase.

The driver’s seat comfortably accommodated this correspondent’s 6-foot-2-inch frame. The car started up silently, as electric cars do, and with a touch of the accelerator pedal it rolled forward (with a louder whine, I noted, than the Chevy Volt.)

Compared to American cars, I found the steering a bit harsh and the suspension a little jouncy on the pothole-pocked roads. The E2O has two modes — standard and boost — the latter of which provides better pickup but drains the battery more speedily. With the pedal to the metal in boost mode on a straightaway of roughly 180 meters, I achieved a speed of about 53 kilometers (33 miles) per hour — acceleration that is, from an American perspective, unimpressive.

The E2O, however, is not meant for the American driver. It is intended as a commuter vehicle in India’s congested stop-and-go traffic, where one rarely gets a straightaway but can console oneself that the regenerative brakes are replenishing the battery. The E2O’s top speed will be the maximum legal speed on most urban roads, which is 80 kilometers an hour.

The vehicle’s range is about 100 kilometers (62 miles) shorter than the U.S. version of the Nissan Leaf (73 miles) but longer than the electric-only battery of the Chevy Volt (30 miles, but with a backup gas engine).

The E2O has features uncommon to low-end cars in the Indian market: an automatic transmission, which usually carries a price premium, and the kind of telematics and connectivity that are usually found in higher-end cars, with a smartphone app to control climate and automotive functions. Mr. Gopal flashed the smartphone app from his pocket, but I wasn’t able to get my hands on it.

Mr. Maini, the company’s founder, described the car to me as “reasonably peppy,” and I found the description apt. Not fast, but maneuverable and fun to drive.

But it’s uncertain whether this is enough to draw the Mahindra Reva’s target customer, the well-educated and relatively well-off urban families who want a second ride. The company won’t reveal the sticker price, though Mr. Gopal didn’t dispute earlier remarks by Pawan Goenka, Mahindra’s president of the automotive and farm sector, that the E2O will be 15 to 20 percent more expensive than a comparably-sized gas-powered car.

Mr. Maini said that the company is expecting the government to provide a rebate of at least 150,000 rupees ($2,790) to each buyer. So crucial is the subsidy that the car’s rollout has already been put off several months because of government delays.

Some are skeptical that electric cars will be anything more than a tiny niche. “One might say that Mahindra is doing it more for the P.R.,” said Zia Patel, a senior strategist at brand strategy firm Wolff Olins who watches the Indian market. “The EVs right now will be toys for the rich.”

Mr. Maini wouldn’t say how many E2Os he expects to sell, except to say that about half of the Bangalore factory’s output will be sold in India, with the remainder in Europe and developing countries in Africa and Asia. Sales in the first year are projected to be low, he added, while drivers get familiar with the new technology.
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