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Petrol too costly? Here are cheaper options
Moinak Mitra, Outlook Money
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July 10, 2006

Consumption has come to a fuel stop, literally. With petrol closing in on the Rs 50 per litre level, fuel prices have become a burning issue. Protests, strikes and politicking apart, the searchlight is turning in to practical alternatives to the costlier petrol and diesel -- CNG, LPG, the battery-operated electric vehicles (EVs) are but a handful of them. And since they are more ubiquitous than, say bio-fuels, we undertake a feasibility study, for an on-road drive.

CNG, Cheap Natural Grosser

Abhay Singh, 40, is grinning from ear to ear. As a journalist, he has to travel in and around Delhi and he puts up in the satellite township of Noida. That's around 60 km a day on average. But the higher the fuel price hike, the merrier Singh seems to get.

"I have CNG-fitted Matiz and Esteem cars and make savings of around 50 per cent on both over their petrol variants," says Singh, who invested in CNG kits for his cars two years ago. Each kit cost Singh Rs 30,000 then, which he purchased from a re-seller in east Delhi. "The Rs 60,000 I spent on both cars then was offset in one year flat," chirps an ebullient Singh who bought the kits at a time when petrol used to cost Rs 30 a litre.

With an 800cc engine, there is a perceptible 20 per cent drop in pick-up in the Matiz, claims Singh. But he's not complaining. Thanks to CNG, he gets a mileage of 15 km per kg. So with a 20-kg cylinder on the Matiz, he can run his compact for 300 km non-stop. That is, at Rs 19.20 per kilo of CNG in Delhi, he just needs to shell out Rs 384 to cover the distance -- a mere Rs 1.28 per km compared with Rs 3 per km on the petrol mode.

And one mention of his Esteem, Singh gets ecstatic. "That's a 1,400cc car and being a heavier car, you don't even notice the drop (in power when the CNG mode is switched on)," he remarks.

Neither does Mukesh Mishra, 30, a CNG engineer for the last four years. He can tell with a straight face how his customer base is on a surge. "I had 30 customers last year, and at 15 queries a day, expect 200 by year-end as the fuel price hike is fuelling new demand," reasons Mishra.

Talking of cylinders, Mishra holds forth on two variants -- a 60 litre (12 kg gas) version at Rs 36,000 and a 45 litre (9 kg) cylinder at Rs 34,500. "If a Maruti [Get Quote] 800 gives an average of 18 km per litre, on the CNG mode it will crunch up 23 km per kilo, with a top speed of 110-115 km," sums up Mishra. And at Rs 19.20 per kilo of CNG vis-a-vis Rs 50 per litre of petrol, ask the engineer and count on 50-70 per cent savings.

Gas on LPG, Illegally

Retired armyman Mahavir Singh has been driving an LPG-fitted 118 NE for the past eight years. He, however, is not amused. "The car air-conditioner doesn't work and I get a lower 8-10 km for a kg of gas when compared with CNG," he complains. At a 14.2 kg cylinder capacity, Singh may go non-stop for about 200 km shelling out a mere Rs 300, but is far from satisfied with the performance barometer of LPG. "Furthermore, in winters, it gets cold and the gas gets stuck and so using LPG is not advisable," he adds.

Even auto expert Tutu Dhawan corroborates the view. Back in the 1980s, he picked up an LPG Fiat but soon dumped it. "The average goes down by 10 per cent on every kg," Dhawan explains. Unlike CNG, you can save up to a paltry 20 per cent using an LPG kit. And the fact that LPG is not legal, adds to the chaos. Having said so, Dhawan points to Japan and Singapore where all cabs today run on LPG. So why not in India?

Veeresh Malik, motoring columnist and IT entrepreneur, feels babudom is tied in red tape. Trying to get a registration of these vehicles from the RTO is both expensive and labyrinthine, he points out.

Cell Car, Buy Reva

Abhay Sangoi, 34, bought his 'ElectriCity car' Reva at Rs 2.62 lakh (Rs 262,000) nearly five years ago. With a basic (non-AC) model and 50,000 km to boot, Sangoi is on cloud nine. His friend, though, possesses an AC model and he has "seen the mileage drop 10-15 per cent with the AC on."

Sangoi runs a publication and CD distribution network out of Bangalore and frequents city centres. His Reva ensures an 80 km hassle-free lap at one go before charging up. In Bangalore, the cost of power sits at Rs 4 a unit. "My Reva consumes 9 units on a single 100 per cent charge of about 4-6 hours," claims Sangoi. That's Rs 36 for every 80 km.

Also, maintenance is at its bare minimum since the car does not possess an engine, clutch or gears, or a carburettor, radiator or exhaust. According to Bhaskar Roy, head-marketing, Reva, estimates show that Reva costs just about 40 per cent the maintenance of a small car like Maruti 800 over a three-year ownership period.

Registration, however, remains a sore point. While the Reva can be bought for Rs 2.5 lakh (Rs 250,000) in Karnataka, it is available for upward of Rs 5.5 lakh (Rs 550,000) in Pune. "That's because, outside of Karnataka, you have to convince the transport authorities to obtain a registration as electric vehicles are still not a category certified by most state transport authorities," Malik points out.

Charge On Two Wheels

Ditto for Eko Vehicle, the battery-powered two-wheeler. Sangoi bought it six months ago at Rs 30,000. "This non-polluting two-wheeler charges up in 4-5 hours and consumes only 4 units (Rs 16) doing so, to ensure a ride of 30 km," Sangoi says.

For the 48-year-old T. Sriniwas from the adjoining state of Andhra Pradesh, the going was not that smooth. A resident of Karimnagar, about 180 km from Hyderabad, he bought the two-wheeler from Bangalore in May, 2005.

But since only Karnataka and Kerala state transport departments give the mandatory approval for Eko Vehicle, he had to wait for months before getting the nod from the collector and the police superintendent. Sriniwas, however, calls the two- wheeler his prized possession and has recently written to Eko Vehicles' NRI Chairman Anil Ananthakrishna to expand the company's reach to Andhra Pradesh.

The 56-year-old Ananthakrishna is a battery expert, and obliges with the specs. "The Eko Cosmic 1 (500 watts) costs Rs 32,300 a piece with registration, battery pack, the works and you would need to replace the battery after every 15,000 km," he elaborates.

Anyhow, Ananthakrishna informs that Eko Vehicles has been validating two-wheelers with nickel metal anhydride batteries over the last year. The result: "One battery pack has consistently delivered 110 km of hassle-free ride", he says. By the year-end, Ananthakrishna hopes to launch this "revolutionary" version "as it would be a lifetime vehicle costing about Rs 65,000 and the battery would need to be replaced just once after 80,000 km."

Aware of a surge in demand, Ananthakrishna has already started 'charge and chai' kiosks all over Bangalore and Kerala, with rapid charger facility. "These would be roadside kiosks vending tea and a two-pin plug, which can charge up the two-wheeler in just 8-12 minutes," he says.

The Con Tricky Expedition

From Ananthakrishna's ritzy abode in Bangalore to the sun-baked and dilapidated bike and car repair shops of Karol Bagh in Delhi. More specifically, Tony Kapoor's hole-in-the-wall underneath a banyan tree. After a long, hard look, he guarantees a "duplicate" LPG kit for Rs 3,500 without the 14-kg cylinder. "You need to spend Rs 2,000 more for the cylinder," Kapoor declares from his seedy cavern.

His remark is a far cry from what Arun Badia, managing director, Autogas, has on offer. "An LPG kit costs anywhere between Rs 16,000-24,000 and if you don't do a proper installation and use spurious components like duplicate kits, your engine will flare up," Badia elaborates. Beware of tricksters. God is in the details.

While the LPG grey market continues to thrive, CNG and electric versions can still stake claim as more genuine buys.

So next time you tank up at the nearest gas station, think options. And if you are convinced, there's a sure-shot roadmap for the future. Bon voyage.

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