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March 30, 2009

News & Features

Auto Review: India's lean Tata Nano delivers the basics for an impressive price

AP Business Writer

Tata Nano

A Tata Motors' Nano car stands displayed at the company's plant in Pimpri, 160 km (100 miles) southeast of Mumbai, India, Wednesday, March 25, 2009. Engineers stripped away everything they could on Tata Nano, the $2,000 automobile designed for poor Indians, which goes on sale in India next month. The car is 10.2 feet (3.1 meters) long, 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) wide, and 5.6 feet (1.7 meters) high, and gets an impressive 55.5 miles to the gallon (23.6 kilometers per liter). Tata Motors says it emits 12 percent less carbon dioxide than two-wheelers made in India. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

MUMBAI, India (AP) -- To drive Tata Motors Ltd.'s tiny new Nano is to consider all the things you thought you needed in life but really don't.

The $2,200 car was built for frugality but it's no cheap drive. Engineers stripped away everything they could. What's left is a nice little car, surprisingly roomy inside and fun to shift, if a bit slow on the uptake.

The starting design point for the car was price. Ratan Tata, chairman of the sprawling Tata group of companies, has said the price actually came from a journalist, who asked him at a 2003 auto show to put a price tag on the ultracheap car he hoped to build for millions of Indian families who curl themselves four at a time on motorbikes and zoom precariously around the nation's expanding network of roads.

The answer -- 100,000 rupees, or about $2,000 at today's exchange rates -- was the starting point for the Nano's engineers.

Thus was born a philosophical experiment, six years and 20 billion rupees ($396 million) in the making: How much can you take away and still have a car?

"The real secret to the car is weight," said David Hudson, a British engineer at Tata Motors. "Because if you control weight everything else follows. Light weight cars need light weight brakes and light weight engines."

Keeping the car a lean 600kg (1300 pounds) also cut down on the cost of raw materials and boosted its fuel efficiency, Hudson said.

The Nano gets 55.5 miles to the gallon (23.6 kilometers per liter).

The car retails for a third less than the cheapest car currently on the Indian market, the Maruti 800.

Keeping costs down required going back to basics. Like doors. How many do you really need?

Market research showed that people used the rear right door just five percent of the time, Hudson said. Why not get rid of it?

Tata quashed that idea, insisting on four doors because he didn't want the Nano to look weird, Hudson said.

The dashboard is an expanse of smooth gray emptiness.

The base model has only a speedometer, an odometer, and a fuel gauge. There is no cup holder, glove box, or clock. Don't even think "GPS."

The Nano has as few moving parts as possible. There is only one windshield wiper, one wing mirror, and the headrests aren't adjustable. The dinner-plate sized wheels have three bolts rather than four. There are no air bags, which aren't mandated in India. The trunk doesn't open. There are four gears, plus reverse, not five.

Anything that can do two jobs does. The crossbar for the front seats, for example, also reinforces the car against side impact.

The upholstery in the basic model is a gray vinyl, which you may think you've seen before on a public bus somewhere. The two higher end models, which come with air conditioning, have basic cloth trim. There is no carpet and the floor mats are black rubber.

For a car 10.2 feet (3.1 meters) long, 4.9 feet (1.5 meters wide), and 5.6 feet (1.7 meters) high, the interior feels surprisingly roomy. A man about six feet (1.83 meters) tall -- like, say, Ratan Tata -- can sit comfortably in the car.

Hudson, who is himself six feet tall, said he took a two-day, 900 kilometer trip in the Nano with three colleagues. "It's very comfortable," he said, adding: "All the way back I was in the rear seat of the car and I could still walk when I got out."

Engineers pushed the wheels out to the corners and tucked the two-cylinder, 624cc all-aluminum engine under the back seats to make extra room inside.

Tata Motors says the car emits 12 percent less carbon dioxide than two-wheelers made in India.

The Nano performs admirably well -- especially for a car that costs as much as my father, who lives in suburban L.A., paid for the entertainment system in his GMC Acadia.

On Mumbai's streets you don't really feel small in the tumult of auto rickshaws, cows, and ancient black and yellow taxis.

It has a sweet little horn and bounces over Mumbai's rough roads with more resilience than the average taxi cab.

Push the car above its maximum speed of 65 miles an hour (105 km an hour) and a treacherous array of lights starts flashing on the dash. But it's quite hard to get to that speed in Mumbai traffic. We were nearly there when a herd of goats spilled across the highway. (The brakes in the Nano are more than adequate.)

The biggest flaw is pick up. Try to pass someone as an overloaded goods carrier bears down on you from the opposite direction, honking its giant horn, and you'll wish the Nano could go from zero to 60 km (37.2 miles) an hour in less than 8 seconds.

Indians seem proud of the car. Truck drivers looked down on us, bemused. People smiled and waved. A clutch of schoolboys on bicycles called out: "Hey, Nano!"

The Nano is a lean car for lean times, and the global downturn has emboldened Ratan Tata's export ambitions.

But the answer to the question of how much you can take away from a vehicle and still have a car is not the same the world over.

The Nano was built for poor Indians, who have no concept of a car. Their reference points are motorbikes, tractors, and carts.

Not so in the U.S. and Europe. Tata Motors is planning more kitted-out versions of the Nano for American and European consumers, who have fatter tastes, tougher safety regulations, and sometimes have to handle icy roads and fast superhighways.

Ratan Tata said the U.S. model would probably be a three-door version targeted at young people and could be ready for launch in about three years. The Nano Europa is set to launch in 2011.

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