Short Drive: The Anglo-Indian Tata Electric Car
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.
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.
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.
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