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Small is even more beautiful

The little Electric Vehicle produced by Maini has been around for seven years, yet it has never been taken seriously. With an increase in performance and range and a decrease in cost, this little electric car might just be the future. Joy Chaudhuri tells us more.

entertainment Updated: Apr 29, 2008 21:43 IST

The little Electric Vehicle (or “EV”) manufactured by Maini has been around for seven years, yet it has never been taken seriously. The reasons are not hard to see. It looks like a character out of Cartoon Network. Its performance isn’t thrilling. It can seat only two adults. It doesn’t seem very practical, does it — but is that missing the point?

Think about this. The price of oil is rapidly going north. An EV has an advantage over oil burners but for two things — range and performance. Current battery technology is what restricts the electric car’s appeal at the moment. But with battery technology getting better, we may soon see EVs with better range and performance parameters. So does the future belong to this little car?

Seven years after its first EV, Reva Electric Car Company has now launched its latest iteration. Will this car finally close the gap between a conventional car and an EV? How different is the new Reva from the old?

An i on change

First of all, the new Reva is now called “Reva-i”. Externally there’s very little change, except that the “i” now gets a curved windshield as against the flat glass in the older car. Yes, the car feels a little more spacious, but it still remains cosy inside. It is just large enough for two people and a couple of small bags on the rear bench. The fit and finish can be improved by quite a bit, though on the top-end model you get a music system, an air-conditioner and even climate-controlled seats that blow cold or hot air through vents in the seats!

The basic design remains the same. You can hate it or love it, but you can’t ignore it — the Reva does make heads turn. Part of the car’s charm lies in its Lilliputian proportions. And then, you can order the Reva in over 2,000 customised colours, a range that would put a paint company to shame!

The body is made from ABS. Under it is a strong yet lightweight tubular spaceframe.

A new powerhouse

The Reva-i has ditched the Bulgarian 13kW DC unit for an AC induction motor. The difference between the DC and AC motor is like the difference between a two-valve carbureted car and a four-valve engine with fuel injection. The brushless AC motor requires nearly zero-maintenance. The new 8000 rpm motor has higher torque than the older 4600 rpm motor, as much as 40 per cent more, and this reflects in the improved performance of the Reva-i.

The motor is a sealed unit, which means that you can dunk it into water and nothing will happen to it. The company claims that it can go through three feet of water without any damage. We’ll have to wait for the monsoons to verify this claim.

Juicing it up

You need to charge the Reva, just like your mobile phone or digital camera. You need a 15 amp socket to charge the eight six-volt lead acid batteries beneath the front seats. If you have a garage, it takes just a few rupees to get your electrician to install a socket, and it’s as simple as charging your phone. Since we have an open parking lot, we had to drop an extension box with a very long cord out of our first-floor office to charge the car.

A full charge takes nine hours, while an 80 per cent charge takes around three. A fully-charged battery, the company claims, should keep the Reva going for about 80 km in ideal conditions.

Since we don’t drive under ideal conditions, don’t go by the 80 km promise. With the AC turned on all the time, we saw 50 km on the tripmeter before the AC compressor cut off to signal low battery. Battery tech is improving every passing year, and the Reva-i is ready to run on lithium-ion batteries when they become available.

And the ride?

Driving this car is an interesting experience. Turn the ignition, the dash lights up, and… nothing. Turn the rotary knob in front of you from N (neutral) to F (forward), and nothing again. It’s when you press down on the accelerator that you realise that the car is not dead. It glides forward noiselessly. As speed builds up, there’s a whine from the electric motor that sounds like a household appliance. If there’s an ear-splitting beep added to the soundtrack, it means that the parking brake is not fully disengaged or a door not shut properly. And the door wouldn’t shut completely fairly regularly since the small cabin created an air seal. The trick, we discovered, was to keep the sliding window open while shutting the door.

The Reva-i is actually a hoot to drive. It’s small. There are no gears to bother about. The heavy battery pack under the seat gives it a low centre of gravity. So despite its tall proportions, you can yank the steering wheel around a corner without feeling it will flip over. It’s like driving a double-decker bus. Now that’s fun.

The old Reva had drum brakes all around. The “i” upgrade gets discs in front, but they still lack bite. It does have a trick up its sleeve, though — when you press the brakes, for the first 20mm of brake travel, it’s the motor itself that’s braking the car, and in the process recharging the battery. The brake hydraulics are not actuated till you press the brake pedal further. Think about it: If you drive really carefully, the brake pads and discs don’t need to be in contact with each other since the motor is doing all the braking! This regenerative braking means it’s better to brake gently over a longer period rather than hard for a shorter period.

The company has worked on the rear suspension, played around with the damping and spring rates and even added an anti-roll bar on the “i”. Yet, the ride quality, isn’t quite as good as a conventional car owing to its small size.

Calculating costs

So the big question — is the Reva-i worth your money? At Rs 4.28 lakh, ex-showroom, Mumbai, the price is a bit high but it is somewhat offset by the low running and maintenance costs.

Here’s a rough calculation based on Mumbai’s electricity rates. An average unit of electricity costs Rs 3.50. It takes nine units to fully charge the Reva, i.e. Rs 31.50, which will comfortably take you at least 50 km. That works out to an unbelievable running cost of 60 paise per kilometre! And there is no fuel bill, or air/oil filter or spark plug to replace.

Yes, you do have to shell out around Rs 55,000 to replace the battery pack once every 2-3 years, but even then the ownership costs favour the Reva-i.

The Reva-i is a step-up from the Reva but it could have been so much more. Having said that, I would certainly put my money on India’s only EV. As battery technology improves, it’s not hard to imagine more people adopting the EV. As volumes rise, the cost of EVs will come down. Chetan Maini, deputy chairman, intends to launch one new model and one new variant every year. With an increase in performance and range, and a decrease in cost, this little car might just be the future.

Autocar India