Monday, April 6, 2009

How Tata Built the Nano for Less

Exactly how does a carmaker build the world’s cheapest car? The answer is as simple as the spartan spec sheet of the Tata Nano, which goes on sale in India next week.

Much has already been said about some of the things that buyers will have to live without, including airbags and other safety items, an automatic transmission (though one is supposedly in the works), a passenger-side mirror and power steering. The engine is a small 624-cc 2-cylinder and the wheels, which are fixed into place by three lug nuts, instead of the usual four or five, are even smaller. And then there’s the much-talked-about single windshield wiper blade.

But there are other compromises that went into the conception and construction of the world’s cheapest car. “The Tata Nano is a refreshing new way of car manufacturing, one which targets the bottom of the pyramid,” said Deepesh Rathore, an auto analyst with Global Insight. “This is going to be the largest market segment in the future, especially in this tough economic climate.”

So here’s a closer look at what else goes into (or is taken out of) a car that costs only $2,000:

• The front seats are connected to a steel bar that runs across the cabin. This bar serves a dual purpose: providing an anchor for the seats, as well as a degree of side-impact protection and chassis stiffening.

• The passenger seat in the base model is fixed into position. Higher-spec Nanos have an adjustable passenger seat.

• Access to the luggage compartment is via the cabin. There is no separate opening for luggage. The rear seat has to be flipped forward and bags stowed behind. A hatchback would have added cost and weight.

• The dashboard is a large single piece of plastic. It has been designed to be adaptable to right- and left-hand-drive markets.

• The base Nano makes do with one stalk on the steering column to control the lights, signals and wiper. Higher-spec Nanos have two control stalks, one mounted on each side of the steering wheel.

• The base Nano does not have map pockets in the doors like higher-spec CX and LX versions. A simpler door panel is used, and a small felt storage bag is on the side of the front seats.

• Although the Nano’s body and chassis are made of steel and use traditional spot-welding, the bumpers are plastic and are unpainted on base models. Contrary to many reports, no glues or adhesives are used to bond structural components or exterior body panels.

• The scoops on both sides of the Nano are functional. The left-side scoop sends air into the engine. The right-side one directs air around the engine, for cooling.

• The roof has ridges for a reason other than just a stylistic flourish. They add rigidity to what would otherwise be a very wide and flat piece of sheet metal.

Application forms to register to buy the Tata Nano will be accepted from April 9 through 25. Sales officially begin in July. Tata has announced plans to sell in Europe and, possibly, even the United States, though those models will most likely be much different from the India-spec car. A larger engine, airbags, and additional convenience features will be added when the Nano makes a scheduled arrival in Europe in 2011. Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, has confirmed that an American version of the Nano is under development. But Tata has not confirmed the price range of these fancier export versions.

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