Ask someone in the street to name an electric vehicle right now and top-of-mind brands would probably include Tesla, Chevrolet Volt and Mitsubishi’s iMiev. Twelve months from now, there may be another name amongst that list you’ve not yet heard. Tata is best known for its US$2500 Tata Nano and recent acquisition of Jaguar and Range Rover but another of its wares appears set to make a huge impact in the EV field.

The Tata Indica Vista EV hits the market early in 2011, carries four people, has excellent performance and can run 150 miles on a charge. Most importantly, the EV is based on a best-selling, mass-market car from the Indian market where it sells for less than US$9000 and its performance in the recent Future Car Challenge verifies its extreme energy efficiency.

Tata is India’s largest automotive company with revenues of US$20 billion in 2009-10. Apart from its recent acquisition of Jaguar and Land Rover, Tata is also the world's fourth largest truck manufacturer and the world’s second largest bus manufacturer. Like SAIC, China’s most-likely-to-succeed automotive manufacturer, Tata is the market leader in a country with a billion people and automotive ownership levels equivalent to those of America one hundred years ago. Though success cannot be assured in any competitive marketplace, Tata’s expertise in low-cost manufacturing positions it well to leverage its Indian-market sales into a prominent position on the global stage.

In 2005, the company established Tata Motors European Technical Centre (TMETC) at the University of Warwick in Coventry in the UK, tapping into a vast knowledge base which has been consulting and working with Tier 1 Auto suppliers for many years.

In 2008, TMETC purchased a controlling interest in Miljo Grenland Innovation of Norway, a company which specializes in the development of innovative solutions for electric vehicles. Miljo sourced many of the major drive train components from Canadian company TM4 and though it produces its own batteries in Norway, the battery technology also comes from another Canadian company in the form of Electrovaya.

Miljo will work in conjunction with TMETC to produce electric vehicles based on existing Tata Motors’ products, such as the Nano, Indica and Ace commercial vehicle and Miljo’s super polymer lithium ion batteries will be employed in the vehicles. TMETC has subsequently raised its stake in Miljo Grenland to more than 70%.

The Indica Vista EV is the first automotive creation of TMETC and in the first week of November the car entered the inaugural Royal Automobile Club Brighton to London Future Car Challenge, winning the Most Economic Small Passenger EV and the Most Economical & Environment Friendly Small Passenger EV.

The event saw the participation of 60 vehicles from the major OEMs, as well as entries from private companies and individuals. The challenge was open to Electric, Hybrid and Low Emission Internal Combustion Engine vehicles and energy consumption was measured in various modes during the journey from Madeira Drive, Brighton to Pall Mall, London. The Tata Indica Vista EVX competed alongside vehicles from BMW, Mitsubishi and SMART.

The Tata Indica Vista EVX completed the journey from Brighton to London at a highly economical energy cost of GBP1.35. This compares very favorably to journey costs of GBP6.17 and GBP4.80 for a similar sized vehicle running either a petrol or diesel engine at standard energy prices.

The 58 mile route was completed with only a 36% depletion of the lithium ion phosphate batteries. This would give a vehicle range, in typical real-world driving conditions, of approximately 160 miles, producing an efficiency equivalent mileage of 176 mpg plug to wheel. That’s not quite in the same league as Tesla’s 240 mile range, but its price is expected to be a fraction of that of the Tesla and considerably lower than Mitsubishi’s iMIEV and Chevrolet’s Volt.

The Tata Indica Vista EV is now to be assembled in the U.K. after a GBP10 million loan was extended to Tata under the UK Government’s Automotive Assistance Programme. No release date or price have yet been announced, but a launch is expected in the U.K. in Q1 of 2011.