Monday, April 6, 2009

Test Driving the Tata Nano

Before allowing me behind the wheel of a Tata Nano test car at Tata Motors’ engineering research center and high-speed testing center here two hours south of Mumbai, a team of engineers told the story of the car’s gestation.

Before allowing me behind the wheel of a Tata Nano test car at Tata Motors’ engineering research center and high-speed testing center here two hours south of Mumbai, a team of engineers told the story of the car’s gestation.

Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, envisioned a safe, affordable and all-weather form of transport for Indian families that couldn’t afford a car. The vehicle Mr. Tata dreamed of would have a starting price of only 100,000 rupees ($2,000).

The engineering team was never short of ideas, said David Hudson of Tata Motors. For instance, they considered the use of plastic body panels and, in one case, having only one door on the driver’s side, he said.

But the fact is, the Tata Nano is actually frighteningly conventional in its design, Mr. Hudson said. The Nano’s body and chassis are steel, while the bumpers are plastic. Only 122 inches long, the Nano is the shortest four-passenger car on sale in India, though it looks bigger than it is because of its height and wide stance.

The Tata Nano has a 32-horsepower, 624-cc, 2-cylinder engine mounted in the rear. Access is given to the engine via a removable panel underneath the foldable rear seat. Despite being a fraction of the size of most economy-car engines, the all-aluminum engine provides reasonable pep. Engine noise is also far less than one might imagine given the size and simplicity of the Nano.

Acceleration is hardly neck-snapping. An informal timed run from zero to 50 miles an hour took 16.4 seconds; a Tata engineer said the company’s testing time is about one second faster.

The steering lacks power assistance but directs the car nicely. The turning circle of the Nano is undoubtedly one of its best parlor tricks: With a turning radius of only four meters, the Nano is nearly capable of doing a 360-degree turn in its own tiny shadow. Three models are available in India: the base, midlevel CX and the LX.With taxes and fees, the base runs about $2,200; the fully equipped LX is $3,360.

The majority of cars Tata provided for testing purposes were LX models, with features like air-conditioning, power brakes, and fancier seat and door-panel trim. On a 93-degree day,the A/C was much appreciated and had little measurable impact on acceleration.

The Tata Nano car is capable of seating four adults, but five hopped on board for a short run to gauge the performance difference with nearly 700 pounds of people on board. The Nano itself tips the scales at only 1,322 pounds, so acceleration naturally suffered. Yet the ride remained stable and comfortable.

Perhaps the most crucial test of the Nano came when Tata allowed a brief drive through the neighboring town of Pimpri. Weaving the Nano between lumbering trucks, auto rickshaws and pedestrians (not to mention the occasional goat and stray dog), the Nano didn’t miss a beat. Many fellow motorists took notice of India’s “People’s Car” out for a spin. A group of children cheered and waved as the Nano rolled through town.

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