Tata Nano is a nice, cheap ride


PUNE (AP) - To drive India's new $2,000 automobile is to consider all the things you thought you needed in a car but really don't.

Engineers stripped away everything they could on Tata Nano, which goes in sale in India next month. There is no cup holder, glove box, or clock. The upholstery is gray vinyl, which you may think you've seen before on a public bus somewhere.

What's left, though, is a nice little car, surprisingly roomy inside and fun to shift, if a bit slow in its pick-up.

Driving along India's chaotic streets on a test drive this week, I didn't feel particularly small in the snub-nosed Nano except when smushed between a pair of brightly painted, shuddering trucks. Most Indian cars are small, and you're sharing the road with a tumult of rickshaws, motorbikes and cows.

It has a sweet little horn and bounces over the rough roads with more resilience than the average taxi cab. It handles well, but taking a corner at speed can be a little tilty.

Push the car above its maximum speed of 65 miles an hour (105 kph) and warning lights flash on the dashboard. But it's hard to get to that speed in typical city traffic. We were nearly there when a herd of goats spilled across the road. (The brakes in the Nano are more than adequate.)

The biggest shortcoming is pick-up. Try to pass someone as an overloaded truck bears down on you from the opposite direction, honking its giant horn, and you'll wish the Nano could accelerate more quickly.

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

Overall, the Nano performs admirably well especially for a car that costs as much as the entertainment system in my father's GMC Acadia in suburban Los Angeles.

The car retails for 100,000 rupees ($2,050) plus transportation costs and tax about a third less than the cheapest car currently on the Indian market, the Maruti 800.

The starting design point was price. At an auto show in 2003, a journalist asked Ratan Tata, chairman of the sprawling Tata group of companies, to put a price on the cheap car he hoped to build.

The answer 100,000 rupees 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 600 kilograms, or 1,320 pounds, also cut down on the cost of raw materials and boosted its fuel efficiency.

The dashboard is an empty gray expanse. The base model has only a speedometer, an odometer, and a fuel gauge.

To upgrade to a model with air conditioning, you'll have to pay at least $500 more. On two higher-end models, basic cloth trim replaces the vinyl upholstery.

The Nano has as few moving parts as possible. There is only one windshield wiper, one side 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 tiny trunk doesn't open; you access it from the inside, behind the rear seats. There are four gears, plus reverse.

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

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.

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

The car 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.

The Nano was designed for poor Indians, who often perch four-at-a-time on motorbikes and zoom precariously around the nation's expanding network of roads.

But Tata is planning kitted-out versions of the Nano for American and European consumers, who have fatter tastes and tougher safety regulations.

He 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.