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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 manufnytimes.comacturing 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.)
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