Short Drive: The Anglo-Indian Tata Electric Car

By · June 06, 2011

Tata Indica Vista EV

Tata Indica Vista EV

Here's an important question: How do you make a cheap electric car?

Batteries are expensive, and they will remain so for the foreseeable future. Electric motors and their controllers are not cheap either, because they're still built in small volume. To offset those costs, one idea is to start with a cheap Asian car—you know, a gas car converted to electric drive. Coda's doing it in the U.S., and Tata's doing it in the UK.

As the largest car manufacturer in India, Tata was also the first to develop a 100 percent Indian car, the Indica in 1998. More than a million have been sold since then, at a retail price below $10,000 (in India). Tata went to England to find engineers with experience on electric powertrains for this model.

Indian Body, British EV Engineering

Tata Motors has opened a large technical center in Warwick (100 miles North-West of London), establishing strong links with the local university, as well as the British government. The company got some public money to develop low carbon technologies. That technical center is growing—they're hiring EV engineers right now!—that's where the electric Indica was conceived. It's not a prototype anymore, but a production vehicle and it should be available to fleet customers in the U.K. within a few weeks. Production has already started.

Tata Indica Vista EV motor

Tata Indica Vista EV motor

My first impression is not very positive. If you go to auto shows as I do, looking at all the newer models, the Tata Indica is clearly not in the same league. Compared to a Chevrolet Sonic or the latest Kia Rio, everything in the Tata looks cheap, and dated. This is the second generation of the Indica, launched in 2008. It's a Yaris-sized vehicle, but taller. It's got great headroom inside, tall people can fit in the back, and while there's nothing fancy looking at, with hard plastics everywhere, the car looks quite sturdy. It's not fashionable, but it could be a nice no-thrill back-to-basic transportation tool. With its electric drivetrain, it even has a counterculture appeal. They should paint it yellow with green, blue and violet stripes.

Tata Indica Vista EV

Tata Indica Vista EV

The electric Tata Indica also brings back old memories. It doesn't have air conditioning or power steering. As I own several old cars, that's alright with me, but I doubt today's young drivers would appreciate it. More disappointing to me was the lack of power. The spec sheet says 60 kW and 116-lbs/ft of torque, but that's not enough. There's no power at take-off. We're used to electric motors giving instant torque at zero-rpm, that's not the case here. The car's not fun to drive and the steering doesn't help. Without power assistance, I was expecting a very good feeling of the road, but I didn't get it. I guess the base Tata Indica is at fault here. This is a very cheap Indian car to start with, so you can't expect the driving dynamics of an European hatch. At least it should have an excellent range with a 31-kWh lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery. Tata says more than 100 miles, and they've seen more than 125 miles during tests. I believe them.

Ultimately, this will all come down to price. There's competition in the form of the Nissan LEAF. The LEAF is the benchmark for all EVs, and it's a much better car. I guess this Tata has to be at least 30 percent cheaper.

Can Tata do it? We don't know yet, but we can't expect rock bottom prices because the car will be built in small volume in England. The car isn't even available to individuals at this time. The first customers will be companies that will lease them. But everything could change if the car were to be mass-produced in India. It's worth keeping an eye on Tata.


· · 6 years ago

This is the sort of thing I alluded to several threads back: a potentially inexpensive no-frills EV that could become the Model T or VW Beetle of this generation. Stands to reason that this sort of thing will end up coming from places like India or China. One hopes that the marketing powers-that-be will want to take a chance on something like this and bring it to America.

As far as luxury accoutrements, it would be nice to see air conditioning as an add-on. Conversely, you can certainly leave off the power-crank windows and other similar gingerbread gadgets. I'm sure JJ-Can will agree. :-)

· · 6 years ago

@Benjamin Nead · LOL. Looks like this is the car you were asking for. We will have to see how well it sells - my guess, not so well.

@Laurent J. Masson "As the largest car manufacturer in India"
No - Maruti Suzuki is the largest car manufacturer in India.

· jim1961 (not verified) · 6 years ago

My comment is kind of off the topic but... It's really frustrating that the US government is giving hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to Fisker and Tesla and zero for Aptera. Aptera is the only efficient EV out there that is close to production ready. I think it's a huge mistake to think switching from gas hogs to electricity hogs is an going to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions be 10, 20 or even 40 percent is not going to be enough. Some people might argue that we need to have greener sources of electrical energy and I agree but consider this. I have a friend who built an energy efficient house. His electricity bill was $200 per year. Then he installed two kiloWatts of solar panels and now his electric bill will be zero. For residential installations of solar PV the average is nine kiloWatts. We have to be smart, really smart if we are going to save the planet for future generations. The Tesla model S and the Fisker Karma are electricity hogs and are not the answer, yet everybody wants one and nobody is interested in the Aptera 2e. It's sad. The average person just doesn't get it. I'm not optimistic about the future of life on this planet.

· · 6 years ago

Hey Jim . . .

You are very correct about energy efficient houses. On the cheap, a lot can be done by simply retrofitting the ones we live in now with CFL and LED lights, better HVAC units and making sure that windows and insulation are up to snuff. On a grander scale - as your friend is probably aware of - there is a movement to establish a standard of near-zero energy use - or passive - housing. It seems to move beyond some of the LEED specifications in terms of energy efficiency. Designs vary greatly, depending on what sort of climate they are designed for. You might find this interesting . . .

Regarding the current crop of luxury EVs versus items such as the Aptera: it was noted on one of these threads recently that Tesla and Fisker are probably going to succeed largely because, as small companies (and they ARE small, compared to Ford, GM or Nissan,) they are going to do their initial marketing with the well healed. Small manufacturers who approach the market with minimalist economy-minded cars, like Aptera, are likely to not do very well. Perhaps the government loan-makers also see it this way.

It's going to an auto Goliath who will be able to churn out lots of inexpensive eco EVs at first, since they can actually afford to sell their early offerings at a loss, all while making it up in shear quantity and also still selling ICE cars to assist their EV R&D. Sad, but true. I really like the Think City, for instance, but it has to list at around $44,000, since its another small company approaching from the economy side of the market.

Also . . . remember that the Tesla Roadster is still a very ecologically clean car. It, and other EVs - both luxury and economy - will only get cleaner as the grid becomes cleaner. If Tesla is successful with the soon-to-be-introduced 4-door Model S (about half the price of the Roadster,) they will undoubtedly follow on with even more affordable and smaller models. But it will take time and they need to recoup their initial investment with those that can afford their 1st and 2nd generation high ticket items.

Getting back to the Tata: there is some money there, since they are an already established ICE manufacturer. These guys, apparently, can afford to offer significant quantities of economy-minded EVs from the start. Manufacturing in India will also allow the price to stay low. Because of their southern Asian pedigree, they will have to be "the little guy who tries harder" for quite some time. But they might just be able to grab the lower end market and become an underground hit.

I worry about the future of the planet as well, but its an exciting time to watch how the world might change for the better over the next decade.

· jim1961 (not verified) · 6 years ago

Hey Benjamin,

I'm aware of the passive house concept. I'd like to build a passive home some day. Believe it or not this concept has been around for at least 30 years. I first read about it in Popular Science magazine. Here's the article I read 30 years ago.

This is one of the reasons I'm cynical about the future of the planet. The concept of a super insulated house is not new. And it's is still a concept that has not caught on on.

As far as your analysis of established car companies verses start ups I totally agree. It's always better for a start up to build high end, low volume, high margin products. I guess I'm just wishing for the improbable to happen. I wish the average person could understand how enormously wasteful we are with energy. IMHO, energy efficiency is like an enormous untapped "alternative" fuel. Why is that so hard for people to understand?

· Larry, Richmond VA (not verified) · 6 years ago

I can do without the A/C if it brings the price down a bit. But is that an accessories battery I see? So no DC/DC converter? Can that possibly make sense in 2011? And how can 60 kW not be enough in a car that small? I'd like to see some numbers on acceleration.

· Warren (not verified) · 6 years ago

We have lived in a 1500 square foot, passive solar house, with high efficiency gas appliances, for 30 years! My '93 Sentra E, two door, has no AC, not even a light in the glove box. Americans have been living like coke addicts since they crowned Reagon. It is too late for the human race, but at least we could go out with a bit of dignity.

The Tata could be a start. It makes much more sense than the Leaf. It is not aero enough, but lowering the speed limit to 55 would offset much of that problem.

· JJ - Can (not verified) · 6 years ago

I thought this car would please Benjamin.
But if you add AC, I think it will kill it.
I would need heat and AC. No mention of heat.
And I'd need some cargo space at the back, like a small SUV.
Like Benjamin, I don't need much gadgets except a CD player etc.

· George Parrott (not verified) · 6 years ago

Was a version of this car in the X-prize competition? I seem to recall seeing a Tata EV there at MIS when I made one of their "open public viewing" days.

In that set of designs, the Tata looked highly finished and impressive, as most of those vehicles were little more than backyard project cars. (But the Aptera actually looked finished, and their support crew HIGHLY organized and professional).

· · 6 years ago

Lithium ion batteries are still too expensive for a "no frills" car like this to succeed in the market. Nissan, for instance, has invested a great deal in the LEAF and will likely not make a profit on it for years. When an automaker with fewer resources attempts to compete, we get something like the Coda EV, which is largely made in China and is yet overpriced relative to the LEAF.

It appears to me that the only way, today, to make a truly cheap, no-frills EV would be to use old-school lead acid batteries and limit the range to 30 or 40 miles at the most. This will change as lithium-ion battery prices drop.

Also, I would not be greatly concerned about the amount of electricity used by a larger EV such as the Tesla Model S. Switching away from petroleum ought to be the much bigger concern. What we should be doing is building lots of safe, thorium-based nuclear power plants. I agree that home conservation measures also help; even with our LEAF, our electric bill is lower than that of most families we know.

· · 6 years ago

The passive house concept goes very far back in time, Jim and Warren. The old adobe houses down here in the desert have 4 ft. thick walls and tiny (or no) windows on the east and west exposures. They stay cool inside all on their own. When its 100°+ F. outside, though, some sort cooling climate control is not just a luxury. It would be like trying to live in Canada without the option of heat in your house. Before modern air conditioning was invented, people around here used evaporative cooler boxes . . . water squirted on aspen wood pads and blown about with a simple fan. That concept goes back to ancient Egypt. Swamp coolers, as they are called, actually work very well, until atmospheric humidity starts to rise in the late summer months. In more recent times, it has been determined that a modern, efficient air conditioning system is a more responsible way to keep a house cool, as water is actually a rarer resource down here than electricity. Still . . . heating and cooling of any sort always work better in a well designed and properly sealed structure.

In an inexpensive no-frills car like the Tata, I'd opt for air conditioning, if I could, and actually tell them to leave out the heater. It all depends on where you live. BTW, one can buy small swamp coolers for their cars . . .

The factory air on my '96 Saturn may cost more to repair this summer than buying one of these boxes. So I might find myself trying one of these out fairly soon.

That does look like a standard 12V car battery under the Tata hood, Larry. Yes, I assume its there for accessories and forgoes the need to do a DC-to-DC conversion off the main battery. Interesting to note that they use Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) for the main pack. This is one of the safest of lithium formulas out there (doesn't burn or explode when subject to crash or puncture,) although energy density is lower than some other lithiums. It also recycles cleaner at the end of its lifespan.

Laurent . . . is it possible for you to obtain some photos of the main pack installation? I'm curious to see how they fitted the main pack and what sort of sacrifices needed to be made to luggage compartment space. It would be nice to also see what the aft interior looks like with the rear seat folded down.

· · 6 years ago

Well, I poked around the internet and have found that Tata has a dedicated web site for the Indica Vista EV . . .

Some things I note under the"Features" tab . . .

* Front fog lights
* Power windows on all doors
* Remote central locking, seat belt warning buzzers and
child safety rear door locks
* Power heated door mirrors
* Leather upholstered seats
* Multifunction heating and ventilation
* FM/AM radio with single slot CD, MP3 and Bluetooth™

So, in my book, this thing is practically a Maybach. I suppose that "power heated door mirrors" are important in the coldest of climates and those power windows, of course, will be surefire hit with the elbow-challenged everywhere. And I have to wonder how well the "leather upholstered seats" will go over in a Hindu country like India. Note that "multi-function heating and ventilation" description is careful to not to acknowledge true air conditioning, but the large vent below the dash looks as if it could blow cold air . . .

Speaking of the dash display . . . that meter on the left is efficiency and the "fuel gauge" is on the right. How well a job the 2 gauges do in real-world monitoring to the last mile is something we'll have to wait for from someone who actually gets to drives one for an extended period.

Under the "Specifications" tab . . .

* Max Engine output 55 kW
* Max Torque 157 Nm
* Top Speed 114 km/h / 71 mph
* Acceleration 0-30 km/h 4.5 sec; 0-60 km/h 9.0 sec
* Gradeability 30% from stationary
* Driving range per charge 160 km / 100 miles
* Battery type Lithium ion super polymer
* Battery Capacity 26.5 kWh

"Lithium ion super polymer" is not necessarily the same thing as LiFePO4, so I suppose some additional clarification is needed there. I did note on another web site, though, that a complete charge can be performed in 8 hours. So, I guess this is the same 3.3kWh @ 220V standard that is found on the Nissan Leaf.

· · 6 years ago

The car I drove didn't have a leather interior, and on the spec sheet I was given, it was written that it had a 60-kW motor. My guess is that all specifications are still subject to change. Remember, this car is not yet available, so nothing is definite...

Correct, Tata is the largest Indian company, but it has many activities other than car manufacturing. Maruti is the largest automaker.

· · 6 years ago

@Benjamin Nead · "And I have to wonder how well the "leather upholstered seats" will go over in a Hindu country like India."

I don't think Tata will sell EVs in India. Not much anyway. Indians will have to make do with Reva ;-)

Though consumption of beef is frowned upon in India, they have no problems with leather. Supposedly, the hide comes from dead cows. Infact, India is one of the largest exporters of leather. They also use a lot of it. But leather car seats, I'd think, aren't common, given the heat.

· · 6 years ago

I am really excited by this car. I have every reason to believe that either this car or some variant of it will be the first car that us Indians would get to purchase by let us say 2014. I have already set up my own personal EV fund where i save a certain share of my income so that when such a car is available i can buy it with full down payment. Till then i take vicarious pleasure from you guys :D

· · 6 years ago

Well, I wrote Tata yesterday. I pretty much explained that a car like the Vista EV would fit both my needs and - especially - my budget. I also emphasized that while some would be impressed with pseudo-luxury add-ons - and that market research "experts" typically assume that's all we care about in the US - what was really needed in this country was a sort of VW Beetle for the EV age . . . no-frills, reliable and cheap. I also asked about air conditioning (not really a luxury, when you live in the desert) and possible US availability in the future. Finally, I provided the URL for this discussion thread. This is the reply I received . . .

Hi Benjamin

Thank you for your e mail. Very interesting.
Here at TMETC we have developed the Vista EV
- volume production commences here in Coventry
in September albeit in limited volumes for the UK

Air Con and power steering are being developed
for the future as are other EV vehicles. No plans
as yet to enter the US market but within Tata we
don't rule any opportunities out - maybe with our
Jaguar Land Rover connection that may open
some doors previously not available.

By all means keep in touch and thank you for
e mailing us.

Kind Regards

Tony Miles
Sales Operations
Tata Motors European Technical Centre

· · 6 years ago

Exactly what I thought. I wrote that production has started, but I should have wrote pilot production. Car is still months away from regular production, and since Tata doesn't do business in the US yet, it would be years before a Tata Vista EV could be available...

You may write to your local Land Rover dealer, though.

· alam aurongzeb (not verified) · 6 years ago

what do i have to do to bring one of this electric car to my hometown Dhaka.
please include cost and related documentation required.looking forward for your response.regards..............

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