2009 Tata Nano

2009 Tata Nano 2009 Tata Nano
First Drive Review

You need to be reprogrammed in order to test the Tata Nano. Normal references do not apply. For the moment, disregard the Nano Europa that appeared at the recent Geneva auto show, as well as the possibility of a U.S. version. Instead, it is the simplest, most basic model that counts. Available for as little as $2400, it’s the cheapest new car available anywhere in the world.

We must not forget that the Nano is first and foremost a car for India, a country of about one billion people where fewer than two percent own a car. It was instigated by Ratan Tata, the chairman of the Tata conglomerate, India’s biggest corporation, in a gesture that looks as much philanthropic as business savvy. Watching the way whole families travel on motorcycles—rider, pillion passenger, and two children hanging on—and noting the terrible toll in road deaths involving two-wheelers, Tata called for a safer four-wheeled vehicle that bike riders could afford.

Small Car, Big Ambitions

Everyone knows that small, cheap cars mean small profits, and for Tata the margin on the Nano at its entry price is, well, marginal. But look at the big picture, and perhaps we can see the Ford Model T or Volkswagen Beetle for the 21st century. Through the Nano, Tata of India hopes to become one of the biggest players on the global automotive stage.

The “people’s car” of today primarily has to be for first-time buyers with average incomes way below those of industrialized Western countries. Ratan Tata’s brief for the Nano was that, apart from being cheap to buy, it must be a “proper” car that exceeds Indian safety and emissions requirements and must be economical to run. One look at the Indian market told the Tata engineers that the cost objectives could not be met by stripping out an existing conventional car. The cheapest car on the Indian market, the Maruti 800, is based on an age-old Suzuki minicar and costs twice as much as the Nano.

Keep It Simple

So, appropriately, Tata went back to the basics. Every component and every system was analyzed to find the cheapest solution that would achieve the required function, strength, and ease of production. Nothing was taken from an existing Tata model. Nothing superfluous would be included. To achieve the required cabin space within a small footprint, the design became a tall monobox with a sloping front. The 0.6-liter two-cylinder engine and four-speed manual transmission are tucked away under and behind the rear seat, installed transversely in a drop-down cradle that includes the final drive, cooling and exhaust systems, and rear suspension. The car’s structure is a welded steel monocoque with stamped steel outer panels, which turned out to be more cost effective than plastic.

The inside of the Nano in its simplest form is really quite a shock. Climb into the driver’s seat—it adjusts fore and aft but does not recline—and you are confronted by a small steering wheel, three pedals, a gear stick, one column stalk, and a speedometer with an inset fuel gauge. That’s it. No switches, no air vents (there’s no heater), no pockets or lockers, no trim on the painted metal of the windshield pillars. The nothing-superfluous philosophy continues as you get on the move. There is no power steering—although with a curb weight of about 1300 pounds, the narrow tires, and the engine at the back, that’s not a hardship. Drum brakes on all four corners with no vacuum booster or ABS give an old-fashioned pedal feel. Tiny 12-inch wheels, used to save weight and reduce the cost of tire replacement, are adequate to cope with the 35 hp the engine produces.

Better than a Scooter

You and your passengers have plenty of room, as the Nano wins in space utilization. It is only 122 inches long—that’s about two feet shorter than a Mini—but tall (65 inches), so four six-footers can sit upright with room to spare. The trunk isn’t very big and is accessed only by folding the rear seat forward; there’s no opening tailgate. The suspension is independent front and rear with no anti-roll bars—they would add weight and expense—and Tata’s engineers admit that deciding on the spring rates was tricky. They needed to avoid attitude changes, even in a “worst-case scenario” of a driver up front and three passengers and luggage in the rear. So the springing is firm, the ride on India’s broken byways is relatively hard, and the setup, which includes wider tires at the rear, is designed to provide safe terminal understeer.

The Nano isn’t in any sense a driver’s car. The little all-aluminum two-cylinder isn’t quiet, but it is smooth (it has a balance shaft), and the unusual engine note hardly changes as the revs rise, so you learn to judge when to change gears by the road speed. There is no tachometer, of course, but an ignition cutout operates at 5600 rpm, which equates to 19 mph in first, 37 mph in second, and 59 mph in third. Fourth gear is an overdrive, and the Nano’s maximum speed is governed at 65 mph. The little Tata is quick enough to keep up in the chaotic traffic of Indian towns but struggles on inclines, particularly if the optional air conditioner (it comes with the second trim level) is in operation. The clincher, though, is fuel economy, which averages about 55 mpg, according to the Automotive Research Association of India. In its home market, for a Nano buyer graduating from a motorcycle, the cost of fuel is a significant factor.

Delivering on the Promise

Interest in the Nano in its home country is phenomenal. The day before its official launch in Mumbai, we took a Nano for an extended drive in and around the city of Pune, the home of Tata Motors, and were constantly chased by motorcyclists wielding camera phones. Everyone we met seemed to want a Nano or knew someone who intends to order one. Tata expects so many orders that it will make a random selection of applicants to receive the first 100,000 cars. The prices for the three Nano trim and equipment levels (base, CX, and LX) range roughly from $2400 to $3500, although they can vary in either direction by a couple hundred dollars depending on the Indian state and city in which the car is purchased.

As a car for India, the Nano is excellent, even brilliant. However, we can’t be so sure of its prospects in Europe and the U.S. Most of the things that were cast aside when designing the car will have to be replaced if it is to meet Western safety legislation, and export models will have a larger, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine. The resulting sticker will be more than double the Indian price for the top model. The Nano could still be the cheapest new car available, but it will be a lot closer in price to more familiar, conventional cars at the bottom of the U.S. market.