I am usually put-off by the standard question that many fellow road users pose when they spot me in a new car. But this time, at the signal, when the driver in the car next to me blurted out the query – Kitna Dethi Hai? (How much does it give?) – it was a whole lot different.

With an impish smile, his face betraying his knowledge about the Mahindra E2O, the driver of the other car was still expecting a sincere answer. And his face was still writ with genuine curiosity about the latest all-electric car from the makers of the Reva.

The E2O is a big leap from the Reva. Not so much in terms of its earth-saving concept, but in terms of it finally being a desirable electric car. It is a transformation which announces that electrics have moved into the realm of the possible, even in India, and that you can look cool while saving the planet.

Except for its final model name, the E2O (E for electric, O for Oxygen….it is not E Twenty) has been in the news for a while now. The concept NXR on which it is based, has been spotted in Motor Shows and been seen testing on the roads. So, the model’s design and most of its specifications had long been frozen. The battery-powered car was originally due to be launched in 2011. What caused much of the delay in rolling out the car was apparently caused by the Government’s dithering in deciding whether to extend a subsidy or not.

Appealing design

But, despite all that familiarity, the E2O still surprises me with its packaging when I first step into it. At the parking lot set next to a yellow Tata Nano and a beige Hyundai i10 Automatic, the E2O seems to blend right in like it is a new, regular compact hatch in the market. There is none of its predecessor’s ungainly, bug-eyed, and strangely arcane looks. Instead, the E2O sports a conventional tall-boy design, clean modern design lines, tight shut lines between its ABS body panels and just a touch of quirkiness.

The unique headlamps, the cab-forward design, the bonnet grille and the muscular wheel arches add to the overall feel of the E2O being a regular car. But, each one of these features hides parts of the electric reality behind them. The stubby, clamshell bonnet from the cab-forward design for example doesn’t lid an engine, instead all that is underneath is the spare wheel and the air-conditioner compressor. Behind the grille is a radiator, but one which runs cooling lines to the heat exchanger and the battery pack instead of an engine.

The wheel arches look over-sized and the puny 13-inch rims don’t provide that much of visual strength, but the tyres shod on the alloys are low-resistance tyres that have been specially developed with a compound that has higher silica content.

The E2O’s chassis is a tubular space frame and the car is built by bolting on the motor, controller, battery pack and the other suspension and seating parts. All the body panels are colour impregnated and dent resistant plastic. These panels made from specially developed base polymer are then simply bonded onto the frame using special adhesives.

Mahindra Reva officials say that the India-spec E2O has no airbags or other electronic braking or stability aids, but it still meets collision safety norms thanks to the space frame’s rigidity and the three crumple zones at the front that disperse the impact of a collision. The European-spec E2O which is currently under development will have the entire complement of safety features including stability management and am guessing that it will have to pass the Euro NCAP tests.

Digital interiors

Inside the new E2O, the cabin feels well-finished and clean. My test car came with aromatic full-grain leather seats, but the India-spec cars at the showroom wont sport any. The layout of the dashboard is conventional, but neatly executed. Plastic quality is just a notch lower than some of the hot hatches in the ‘fossil-fuel’ segment. The knobs and switches are all on par in terms of finish, though in the E2O they lack the click feel and instead are all digital with backlit LED markings.

The sharply raked A-pillar and windscreen and the Li-ion battery pack’s position under the front seats means that the driving position in the E2O is quite tall. While you don’t have to heave into the seat and entry and exit is very much like in a tall-boy car, it still felt like I was sitting at a taller position than the Hyundai i10. The design of the E2O narrows towards the roof from the waistline. That translates into a bit lesser shoulder room for passengers than some of the other hatches in the market. Not surprisingly the E2O is a four-seater. I’m sure that is also ideal based on the gross weight that the car can handle.

But legroom is just perfectly comfortable. In fact, even in the rear bench the legroom is as much as in most small hatches. The compromise is in the boot space, which can only accommodate two small suitcases. The air-con, however, is very effective and works using an inverter compressor combination.

There are a lot of digital aides and assistants for the driver. In addition to the usual bunching together of a radio, music system, and navigation with a touch-screen, the E2O’s on-dash displayed also offers real-time state-of-the-car information. So, you can see if the power from the battery pack is getting consumed or if regenerative braking is putting power back into it. The all-in-one digital instrument gauge displays the current charge levels in the battery pack, in addition to the regular speedometer and tripmeter info.

Performance

The E2O is powered by the Lithium-ion Phosphate battery pack and a 3-phase induction electric motor. Mahindra Reva officials say that the battery material was chosen over conventional Li-ion because it is four times lighter, but offers 3 times longer operating life (one lakh kms is the claimed lifespan). The battery pack also consists of larger format cells, unlike the smaller individual cells that some of the other global manufacturers use. This is said to give the E2O’s pack more reliability and robustness at high operating temperatures which will be common in the Indian context.

The battery pack can be charged by plugging the cord in the boot into a household 15 Amp socket. The battery pack is fully charged in 5 hours and consumes about 10 units of power. A one-hour quick charge can deliver a range of 20 kms. The embedded telemetry and a connected SIM card in the car also allows Mahindra Reva’s folks to track the current status of your E2O’s battery pack, so that an additional short 5 – 10 kms range can be remotely released from the battery’s reserve, in the event of your needing it in an emergency.

The motor positioned under the rear seat, powers the rear axle and delivers about 19 kW of power at 3,750 rpm and about 53 Nm of torque from standstill to about 3,400 rpm. Driving the E2O around Bangalore city, it felt like any other regular hatchback with an automatic gearbox. The stop-and-go traffic situation is the perfect playground for an electric that delivers quick, clean power.

To compare the feel of a conventional fossil fuel car in the same price segment as the E2O, I got the Hyundai i10 along for the test drive. After all, these are likely to be the two cars that will be considered by the urban car buyer in the market for an easy to drive runabout. In terms of sheer acceleration and range of operation, the E2O will be beaten by the i10, because the former is built for in-city use and is constrained by the charge that the battery pack can store. But, the sheer frugality and practicality of the E2O in city driving conditions can be beat.

Bottomline

The Mahindra E2O’s electric proposition suffers from the same restrictions that all electric cars around the world face – operating range, price vs practicality and the need for charging infrastructure.

The company is addressing some of these issues by building charging stations in the major metros where the car will be sold. The range issue has been addressed somewhat with a 100 kms offer (using the air-con continuously reduces that by 15 kms), which could be more than what most urban users will need over a 2-3 day period.

The price of the E2O will of course also be a deterrent. Depending on the subsidies or tax exemptions that the state governments are willing to offer, the E2O will be priced upwards of Rs 5.96 lakh (currently the benchmark price ex-showroom, Delhi). But, long-term savings in running costs and maintenance are big carrots that the E2O dangles.

Yes, it still can’t be the primary car of a household that holidays over the weekend and needs to travel together regularly. But the E2O can be the preferred second car and the primary car during weekdays for urban buyers, who often drive less than 20 kms during workdays. The best part is the E2O will make you a Eco-warrior, let you display your young persona and make it look like saving money is incidental.

muralidhar.s@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on April 23, 2013)
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