Monday, April 6, 2009

The Tata Nano goes for a song

As a rule, I do not like to hear too much about a person before meeting them in the flesh. The same goes for cars. It can leave you open to disappointment.

So it was with some trepidation that I passed beneath the big blue tollgate at the entrance to Tata Motors in Pune, about three hours from Mumbai. I was finally going to meet the Tata Nano – the world’s cheapest car. It goes on sale this month, with a starting price of about Rs113,000 (£1,560), but was first unveiled at the Delhi auto show in January last year, prompting huge interest in the media. Would it live up to the hype?

Developed and engineered over six years by Tata, India’s “People’s Car” has tapped into something in the national psyche left over from the pre-independence Gandhian Swadeshi movement of early last century, which prized economic self-reliance. And like the Swadeshi movement in its time, it has now become almost a national duty to worship the Nano. (Amid the flurry over the car, one major English-language newspaper in India has even relabelled its front page news briefs column “Nano news”. )

I reach the plant’s test-drive track and catch my first glimpse of Nanos whizzing around. With its cheeky bonnet and oversized headlights, which look like the eyes of a Manga cartoon character, the Nano has a cheerful, almost bug-like look. But just as too many bugs can make a plague, there is something faintly menacing about the Nano.

The Obama-inspired marketing slogan is “Now you can”, referring to the millions of Indians who will now be able to afford a car. If this proves correct, one can easily imagine long-suffering commuters on India’s congested roads wishing the Nano were a bug that could be exterminated.

I am eager to get behind the wheel, but first Tata’s proud engineers take us through the wonders of their new vehicle, which until now have been shrouded in secrecy. Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata group, one of India’s largest conglomerates, told the engineers he wanted a car that would convince India’s lower-income families to upgrade their motorcycles to four wheels.

The engineers realised that to create a car that was not only affordable but also cheap to run came down to one basic principle – the Nano would need to be much smaller than the standard car. This would create a virtuous circle. The lighter the car, the smaller the engine required. The smaller the engine, the less oil and fuel it guzzles.

So, the Nano has about one third of the usual number of parts. Wiring is centralised; wheels are mounted with three, rather than four, bolts; the seats are in one single moulded piece. The two-cylinder engine is fixed on a common cradle along with the transmission, rear suspension, exhaust and radiator, reducing the infrastructure required for each part. This sub-assembly also makes it easier to manufacture the Nano.

The result is a 600kg car versus 683kg for its nearest competitor, the Maruti Suzuki 800, which sells for twice the price. The Tata Nano is powered by a 624cc engine compared with the Maruti 800’s 796cc motor. Both deliver similar fuel efficiency in the low to mid-20s kms per litre.

Although it is physically smaller than any other car, the engineers claim the Nano has 20 per cent more room – achieved by putting the engine under the back seat, the battery under the driver’s seat and leaving almost no luggage space.

The briefing ends, and we are unleashed on the Tata Nano. There are seat belts and other very basic safety features, but I notice that standard European features, such as airbags and two side mirrors, are absent, though the engineers say it has been collision and roof-crush tested.

I put the car into gear and it takes off smartly. The Nano can do 0-60kph in eight seconds. Not bad. But when I push the gears at the top of their range, the car sputters and the nose dips. The four-speed gearbox takes its time getting from 60kph to its capped speed limit of 105kph.

Although the engineers tell us they have taken the Nano on a 900km odyssey through India during testing, this is definitely not a highway car. I drive the LX version, which sells ex-showroom for about Rs170,335 (£2,350). Its features are surprisingly civilised, with air-conditioning, electric windows at the front and central locking. The basic model, however, is a hothouse on wheels. With no AC or even air vents, drivers will need to keep the windows down to avoid cooking in India’s 45°C heat.

After I bring the car to a standstill, one of the engineers takes the wheel, and the Nano transforms into something out of The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift. When he throws it, suddenly, into a turn at 80kph, threatening to roll it, it screeches sideways, its pizza-sized wheels holding their grip on the road admirably.

The basic drum brakes seem effective and the minimum turning radius of 4m should be good enough even for people who are used to motorcycles. This is amazing indeed for a car that I had expected to drive like a rickshaw, given that it costs about the same.

But as I leave the plant, whose main purpose is still to make the durable trucks that comprise the biggest part of Tata Motors’ business, I wonder whether the Nano will prove as equal to India’s tough conditions as its heavier cousins.

The engineers say they have given the Nano above average ground clearance of 180mm. For good reason: this diminutive lozenge has much to withstand – moonscape potholes, Himalayan road inclines, monsoon floods, extended families and innumerable other obstacles.

India is still one of the world’s most unforgiving motoring environments, even if it is now among the cheapest.

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