The electric car's potential for saving the planet by reducing our dependence on oil and lowering carbon emissions has been dealt a blow with the news that a best-selling model may suddenly burst into flames.
A total of 629 G-Wiz cars – about two-thirds of the number on Britain's roads – have been recalled and repaired because their battery chargers may be prone to overheating. The alarm was raised when a parked car spontaneously combusted.
No one was hurt and, although just one car was involved in the incident in August, the Reva Electric Car Company decided to recall every G-Wiz fitted with the same charger.
Publicity about the recalls could stunt the growing popularity of the Indian-made three-door hatchback, which can be charged from a normal power socket and costs just 1p a mile to run. Its British retailer, GoinGreen, offsets the car's manufacture and use, allowing it to claim that the vehicle is completely "carbon neutral".
The 8ft-long G-Wiz, which costs £7,299, is far smaller than conventional cars and emits only two-thirds of the carbon dioxide produced by a similar, petrol-driven vehicle. It is exempted from road tax because of its environmental credentials, it is not subject to the £8-a-day congestion charge in London and can also be parked free in some areas. As a result, the car has proved a hit with hundreds of drivers in the capital, where most of the cars have been sold.
Several celebrities are G-Wiz owners, including Jonathan Ross, Jerry Hall and Kristin Scott Thomas, who said: "I love my G-Wiz. It is such fun to drive, easy to park, nippy. Children laugh when I pass by."
However, the car's reputation was dented in May when safety tests organised by BBC's Top Gear programme suggested that the G-Wiz offered poor protection in a crash and occupants could potentially receive fatal injuries at speeds of 40mph.
GoinGreen acknowledged that the G-Wiz was likely to perform worse than heavier cars in crash tests but pointed out that its lightness prevented pedestrians from being hurt as badly in any collision. In any case, it added, the G-Wiz had a top speed of 45mph and was designed for urban traffic where the likelihood of a high-speed impact was lower. The recall was announced in September and ended this week. The cars were collected and taken to GoinGreen's workshop in Southall, west London, where battery chargers containing faulty heat sensors were replaced with heat-sensitive cut-out switches and fire-retardant covers. The company's managing director, Keith Johnston, said: "The recall was undertaken as a precautionary measure following a single failure, where no one was injured. GoinGreen supports the action, which demonstrates the highest level of commitment to safety in electric vehicles."
The company pointed out that 275 other makes of car had been recalled by manufacturers this year, affecting hundreds of thousands of vehicles.
Mr Johnston also claimed that the G-Wiz was being unfairly singled out by what he called "a few petrolhead motoring journalists".