The Tata Nano, that had been the star of Auto Expo 2008, has been plagued by a series of controversies and ups and downs ever since it was first announced. The idea of a ‘people’s car’ has long been a holy grail for many countries. After the World War II, a battered Germany produced the Volkswagen Beetle that later became a global best seller. Japan too had their post-war ‘K’ cars, Italy had the Fiat 500 and France the 425 cc Citroen 2CV that was later upgraded to 625 cc. They had all been huge successes until they became technologically obsolete. Now with skyrocketing fuel prices, the small car becomes relevant once again. But now, apart from fuel miserliness, it has to also meet the modern crash safety and low pollution standards.
With Nano’s fame as being the world’s cheapest car, it soon suffered from over-adulation leading to too much hype which quickly swung the opposite way to give rise to negative perceptions. The political turmoil over land acquisition in the original Singur location in West Bengal also led to a much delayed roll out that further disappointed potential buyers. Though it was not a perfect piece of machinery, it was, however, quite a remarkable achievement and roughly lived up to Ratan Tata’s promise to produce a car that had the inner space of an Ambassador and offered the fuel efficiency of a Maruti 800 and would cost even less.
A low-cost car unfortunately also implied a cheap car that was not what most prospective upwardly mobile young people wanted. And, it was not all that cheap costing only a bit less than the old 800 and its successor, the Alto, that offered better value and prestige. For this price, an even more prestigious second-hand car was also a possibility. And at a price that is four times the price of an average motorcycle, it really did not attract many from India’s huge two-wheeler market.
As a product, it did offer cute styling, generous inner space, good pick-up and good air-conditioning. But it had very little storage space and a hard mechanical steering. It was quite safe but its ride and handling was like that of a set of roller skates and though it could speed up to over 100 kmph, it was not happy above 80. This made it very inadequate for highways though it was perfect for short city driving where it could find parking much more easily than any other car.
About 70 per cent of all cars are made by their component makers. So the Nano was the product of huge joint innovations by many players. Bosch, for example, created a totally new fuel injection system with one injector feeding the two cylinders turn by turn with precise electronic controls. The body was all steel but more plastics lowered the weight and costs. Many accessories were minimised. Every supplier had had to shave weight, add value and contain costs. The costs were also to be minimised by scaling up production to about 2,50,000 units every year, going up to a million units in five years. Tata Motors also required that their main component makers set up their plants next door to their tax haven site in West Bengal and later in Gujarat. These lowered costs by eliminating many taxes. Sagging sales would unfortunately defeat these projected scales of production.
Tata Motors has just introduced an upgraded model of the Nano called the ‘Twist’ with power steering that is essential to attract a large potential market of women drivers. It also has a few additional features like glove compartments and provision for an improved music system.
Much of India is poor no more and India’s commuters deserve comfortable mobility in a climate that is hot, dusty or wet for better part of the year. Even with better public transport, people want their own personal transport. So the Nano fits into that space. Surprisingly, the density of traffic on Indian roads is far less than in most countries and the roughly 200 million people who are carried daily on 50 million two and three-wheelers, 15 million cars and 3 million buses are now too important for any government to ignore. They could become politically significant and will demand better city roads and parking places. The Indian market is not forgiving to perceived failures and Tata Motors will have to do a lot to change the image of the Nano from a cheap car to a fun car. I personally own a Toyota Altis but find our Nano perfect for city driving.
(The writer, a car enthusiast, is one of India’s most respected auto journalists)