India Rolls Out World’s Cheapest Car

The Tata Nano.
The Tata Nano.

Regardless of an inevitable downside—that is, a further clogging of India’s already congested roads—this five-door, rear-engine, hatchback will likely be very attractive to India’s burgeoning middle class.

Small families of three or four, who’re presently dependent either on public transport, two-wheelers (scooters), or three wheelers (auto-rickshaws), will have access to a new vehicle.

The Nano is India’s first homespun mini-car.

In the West, “microcars” and “bubble cars” have been around for a while now, going as far back as the 1920s. In the aftermath of World War II, a growing European economy, hungry for cheap cars, led to the development of very small cars, in Europe, particularly, in Germany.

Leading engineers from former military aircraft manufacturers, such as Messerschmitt and Heinkel, put their minds into designing compact, four-wheeled machines that had aircraft-style bubble canopies.

So, the name “bubble cars.”

After a successful run in the 1950s and 1960s in Europe and Japan (but not in the U.S.), their popularity waned. But lately, the demand for vehicles that are cheap to operate, and inflict less damage on the environment has revived interest in “economy cars.”

Indian sedans have traditionally been a lot less roomy than their Western counterparts. But how does the Nano compare with the Smart car, manufactured by German automaker Diamler AG?

With a price tag of $2,500, the Nano is the world’s cheapest passenger vehicle. The basic version of the Smart car, by comparison, starts at $11,990. Both cars are equally wide, each about five feet.

The Nano is a wee bit longer: 10 feet as compared with 8.8 feet of the U.S. model of the Smart car, and has marginally more headroom.

Nano isn’t for speed-seekers. With a top speed of only 75 m.p.h., it clearly trails behind the Smart car, which can go up to as much as 90 m.p.h. Its fuel tank is more than half that of the Smart car, with a capacity of four gallons compared to the other’s 8.7 gallons.

The one area—other than the cost—where the Nano beats the Smart car hands down is fuel-efficiency. While the Smart ForTwo is designed to achieve 33 miles per gallon in city conditions and 41 on highways, the Nano claims to do 50 miles a gallon.

But that isn’t necessarily good news, unless the Nano is able to demonstrate that it’s not a “metal jellybean” of a car.

One of the biggest risks posed by tiny, light automobiles is that they’re considered unsafe in collisions. One, though it’s already passed a full-frontal crash test, required in India, to gauge roadworthiness, it lacks airbags. Two, it hasn’t yet undergone the side-impact and offset crash tests, which it needs to clear before it can be sold internationally. It has, however, met all criteria for roadworthiness, required by the Indian government.

Nano’s Europa version—set to arrive in the European market by 2011—however, comes with all the standard safety features, Tata claims. As far as chassis goes, the Nano is made of an all-sheet metal body as compared with the Smart car’s Tridion steel shell, a hemispherical steel cage that encloses the interior of the car.


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