Energy for the people: the world's most popular electric car

It may be tiny, but India's Reva has become not only a popular second vehicle but the best-selling electric car in the world, finds Annalisa Merelli.

Srinivas Kotni has few quibbles with his Reva, except the vehicle's relatively small range of 80km on a full charge.
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With thousands of new cars hitting its roads every day, India is not only facing serious traffic issues with its citizens stuck in never-ending traffic jams at every hour of the day, but also a significant pollution problem. Despite that some cities - Delhi on top of the list - have had public transportation running on CNG for a few years, the quality of air in Indian metropolitan cities remains critical.

Indian drivers are used to the smell of exhaust fumes and to the layers of black dust that cover motorbike drivers after each day in traffic, but pollution is not the only reality in the country. Surprisingly enough, and somehow paradoxically, the world's top-selling zero emission electric car - the Reva - is made in India. While the Reva is not a common sight on the SUV-heavy roads of the UAE, in December 2008 Dubai was the first region in the Gulf to allow these all-electric cars on the roads. Dubai-based SS Lootah company added two Revas to their company fleet as part of the company's Green Car programme.

Reva is an Indo-US joint venture between Maini Group (India) and AEV LLC (USA). It was born in 2004 in Bangalore with the intention of producing a vehicle that could be both environmentally friendly and cost-effective. Bangalore was chosen as the home for Reva because of the city's status as the technological capital of India and software hub for Asia. As R Chandramouli, president of sales and marketing for Reva, declares, "Reva sees itself more as a technology developer than as a car manufacturer", thus making the company's location most appropriate.

The foundation of the company in 1994 was followed by seven years of research and development, culminating in June 2001, with the launch of India's first zero-emissions electric city car. Three years later in 2004, Reva started exporting cars. First to the UK and Europe - where they are known as the G-Wiz - and then to other world countries, including the most recent addition of Costa Rica. Since its inception, the company has produced and sold more than 3,000 cars.

The primary export market for Reva is the UK, and London is the first selling point for the electric car, with more than 1,000 vehicles on the road. (There, the G-Wiz starts at around £8,000 with nickel hydride batteries and about £16,000 with lithium-ion batteries.) Bangalore follows and, in this South Indian city, the company presence has developed a market absorbing almost the same amount of "ElectriCity cars" (as Reva defines the vehicle) as London.

Until last year, Reva's focus has been on exports, but since the car launched in 2001, the local Indian market has grown and changed significantly. To the point that, in 2008, the company - which until then was only selling in Bangalore - decided to open retailers in the major Indian metros. That year was the first year of activity for Reva's Delhi dealership. So far, it has sold an average of 10 to 15 cars per month, but the number is constantly increasing due to the population's growing interest in electric vehicles.

"In India, Reva sells mainly to private customers," says Chandramouli, "but it's also bought quite often by government offices and public services because it combines an eco-friendly side with good economical savings." Reva's private customers in India seem attracted to the cars for their eco-friendly nature as much as for their practicality in an urban environment. "Indian citizens are becoming more aware of the problem of pollution, and some of them are going a long way to reduce their carbon footprint," says Chandramouli. "When we didn't have dealers around the country, a lot of clients would come all the way to Bangalore from far away states just to purchase a zero-emissions vehicle."

The maintenance cost of the Reva, only 40 paise (Dh.031) per kilometre, according to the company, is significantly lower than what it would be for any petrol-powered car, and on the surface this would be expected to be the main reason of interest towards the car in a developing country. But surprisingly, these savings don't seem to be such a relevant factor for Reva's Indian clientele. The base model Reva costs 2.99 lakhs, or about Dh24,000, and the price can go as high as 3.89 lakhs, or Dh31,000. Comparatively, India's cheapest car, the Tata Nano, costs about one lakh, or around Dh8,000, and the Maruti 800, a popular selling small car in the country, starts at 1.99 lakhs, or Dh15,000.

According to Anshuman Asthana, manager of sales and marketing for Reva's dealership in Delhi, the typical Indian customer buys a Reva as a second, if not third car, therefore the Reva target is more the upper-middle class. "We never sell the Reva as a first car," says Asthana. "Most of our clients already own one or two cars, so they definitely aren't looking to buy a new vehicle to optimise costs; they buy it because it has zero emissions rather than because of the savings it generates."

Chandramouli adds, "We aren't an entry-level car, and we can't be considered the first step from a two-wheeler to a car," he says. "The Reva is suitable for a limited use in an urban environment, and who buys it doesn't use it as a family car." At the moment, according to Chandramouli, a significant portion of the European clientele is buying electric cars because the government supports (with tax discounts or incentives) the purchase of "clean" cars. This isn't happening yet in India, but he believes that in the near future some things might change in the subcontinent, and the government might become more supportive of electric vehicles.

India isn't oblivious to the problems of pollution, and higher environmental concern has led to the implementation of laws such as banning plastic bags from several cities; or, as in the case of Himachal Pradesh, entire states. So it seems possible - and it's Reva's expectation and hope - that in the near future the government is going to financially support the private sector's decision of buying a non-polluting vehicle.

"Environmental awareness is growing in India and it will keep increasing in the coming years, particularly in cities, which is where Reva sells its cars anyway," explains Chandramouli, "and hopefully this will have an impact on the government too, which will finally promote and support the use of zero-emissions transportation." The ecologic consciousness of the Indian customer is, in fact, already the main reason to purchase an electric car. "Our customers are mostly environmentally concerned people who need a simple, light car to drive in the city", says Asthana. "Quite often, the car is bought to be driven in town by women; the Reva can't go faster than 80kph, doesn't have gears and it's easy to drive, all important factors for someone who's looking for the most comfortable and simplest drive possible," he says.

Maneet Dey, a project manager for a software company who bought her Reva in March, confirms Asthana's assertion. "In my family, we already had two petrol cars, but I wanted something that I could easily drive to work, and the Reva was the simplest car I could find," she says. "Of course, it helped that it was a cost-effective vehicle, but that wasn't the main reason." Dey says she never experienced any problem driving her electric car and that she would choose it again over a petrol car, but she wishes that the range of her vehicle was greater than 80km per charge. She has no regrets, however, saying, "I'll definitely buy a Reva with longer autonomy, whenever it will be available on the market".

Srinivas Kotni, a corporate lawyer who has been driving his Reva since February, is also of the opinion that the mileage is the only real downside of his car. But he also underlines that, for the city usage the car is designed for, 80km per charge is enough even in a metropolis like Delhi, where the distances to cover can be quite significant. "I had been thinking about buying a green car for quite a while before I actually got one. The Reva is perfect for city driving and is very practical. I have absolutely no need to use a petrol car while I am in the city, and I would buy the Reva again without thinking about it twice," says Kotni. "The only problem I have ever experienced is that the air conditioning sometimes doesn't cool the car perfectly in summer heat, but that happens also with petrol cars when the temperature rises as much as it does over here."

Reva presented two new vehicles at the Frankfurt motor show in September, and both will sport longer ranges than the current Reva: The Reva NXR Intercity uses lithium-ion batteries, has a range of 160km and will be produced this year, while the Reva NXG has an expected range of 200km and will be built next year. The NXR is expected to be on sale in Europe at around ?14,995, depending on taxes and incentives.

A longer range and more features will make the newer cars even more practical, and will appeal to a broader range of consumers. This, together with the rising awareness of climate change and the impact of petrol-powered vehicles, could have more and more Indians choosing an electric car in the very near future.