PARIS (Reuters) - Driving into the chic Place Vendome in central Paris, lined with upmarket jewelers and exclusive hotels, a small orange van looked out of place on Tuesday evening amid the sleek luxury cars.
The Citroen Berlingo was remarkable not just for its diminutive size and striking color. It was arriving in the French capital after a journey of 13,565 km, that began in Shanghai two months ago. Powered by electric batteries.
The electric vehicle odyssey was masterminded by electric sports carmaker Venturi, which has a partnership with French carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen to supply the rather more down-to-earth "Berlingo Electric First."
Venturi, based in the tiny principality of Monaco, famous for its lavish casinos, and the Grand Prix that sees sportscars racing through its winding streets, makes the futuristic Fetish electric sports car, which sells for around 300,000 euros ($381,200).
The Shanghai-Paris trip was the brainchild of two teachers, Xavier Chevrin and Geraldine Gabin, looking for an unusual adventure, and one that would not rely on petrol.
Chevrin had already crossed Papua New Guinea from south to north on foot, and travelled from Santa Fe to Los Angeles on horseback.
Venturi agreed to provide the car, but CEO Gildo Pallanca Pastor was adamant the little van should make the trip alone, without a support car, to dispel some of the doubts about electric cars.
With European emissions rules tightening, many carmakers are pushing electric technology, and electric models from major carmakers are going on sale later this year in Europe.
But drivers are skeptical about the limited range of an electric car between charges, and worried they will find themselves stranded far from a power socket.
Chevrin and Gabin, who set off from Shanghai on May 3 and suffered just one flat tire during the trip, never found themselves stuck with nowhere to charge up, but found it trickier in Western China and Kazakhstan, Chevrin said.
Finding the right voltage for a quick, 6-7 hour charge was a challenge sometimes, he said. They paid for the electricity they used, and a full charge usually cost around three euros.
Although the car, which is powered by nickel sodium chloride batteries, could in theory cover up to 500 km on a single charge, the 400 km that the pair covered most days, on sometimes badly surfaced roads, "was more than enough," Chevrin said.
Their record was 430 kilometers between charges, as they entered the Gobi desert region.
The Berlingo the pair drove had an enhanced battery pack -- the vans Venturi and Citroen are supplying to companies will have a range of 120 km.
Venturi and Citroen will supply 1,500 of the electric vehicles to various European companies for their fleets. France's La Poste has ordered 250 and deliveries will start at the end of August, Pallanca Pastor said.
Asked if the two groups might consider extending their partnership, Pallanca Pastor, who bought Venturi in 2001, said "it's very possible we could do something later ... we have a partnership agreement that could be extended."
For the time being, increasing electric vehicle volumes is key, he said. "The more we move toward more significant volumes, the more we can offset our investments." Peugeot and Citroen are due to introduce the Peugeot iOn and Citroen C-Zero electric cars, both based on partner Mitsubishi's iMiEV to Europe later this year.
Venturi also has plans to show an electric vehicle destined for Antarctica at the Paris Auto Show later this year, and is also considering a presence in China.
The next big challenge for Venturi is in the United States -- Pallanca Pastor, who raced for 12 years, and is himself a world speed record holder for driving on ice -- is going for an electric vehicle speed record.
A Venturi electric vehicle will in August attempt to exceed 500 km per hour.
And Pallanca Pastor said there may be more adventures.
"The success of this epic journey makes us want to do something more."
Reporting by Helen Massy-Beresford