Why is a soon-to-be success story gathering dust at TATA dealers across India? Much like the initial growing pains of the Ford Model T, the $2000 Nano currently lies on waiting list. Given the lopsided supply/demand and construction conflagrations with the government, I reckon enterprising Indians are flipping the Nanos living in parking lot limbo for profit. Still, my precious few moments sitting in somebody's dusty Nano left me impressed. Not because it was a perfect machine: I saw automotive history in the making.
Rarely in America is a car designed around a vision: witness the overweight performance icons clawing for yesteryear's glory, car based trucks and globally designed, badge engineered atrocities. Not with the TATA Nano: behold the homegrown hero.
The Nano is born from an undying need for affordable transportation in a country with a growing but repressed middle class. This group needs a family vehicle superior to tube frame rickshaws and 150cc motorcycles carrying four or more people. Yes, really: I saw a family of four riding a motorcycle through the congested, fast paced, life threatening streets of Bangalore. Make no mistake: a car at this price and size is the automotive embodiment of If you Build It, They Will Come.
It's all about the lakhs; the Nano is designed around a price befitting the Indian working class. One look around the beast shows the good, bad and ugly of the situation.
Exterior fit and finish is respectable, until you spot the unfinished rear hatchback seams, hurriedly painted over. That stylish rear hatch is glued shut, so cargo is only accessible from the rear seat. And the list of price-conscious ideas doesn't stop: three-lug wheels, single arm wiper blade and an adorable looking center exit exhaust.
But the expansive glasswork and exotic-ish side air extractors look more expensive than the asking price, making the VW Beetle references more believable. Even the brand honest taillights, aping the larger Indica sedan, might foreshadow an Indian styling hallmark for generations. So TATA got the branding thing down right, at no extra charge.
The Nano's stoic interior is a successful implementation of common sense engineering. The interior polymers wouldn't blush next to a Dodge Caliber, aside from the buffet of plastic flash casting on the dashboard's nether regions and wavy A-pillar trim fashioned by a sharabi in a dark, dank corner of a sweatshop. With cloth-trimmed and painted metal doors, an ergonomic center stack, rubber flooring and Corolla-like seating for five Americans (i.e. eight Indians), the Nano's ambiance is acceptable by American work vehicle standards.
Options like power front windows and air conditioning might prove popular, but the center mount gauges and cubby-intensive dashboard make the Nano ready for an owner's personal modifications: religious figurines and stickers (that Hindus, Muslims and Christians frequently install) need apply to the Altar of Nano.
But design on a budget has downsides: the driver seat's footprint barely covers the engine's oddly-placed battery, the engine's under the rear bench (i.e. the heated seat comes standard) and the front cargo hold is hastily crammed with stuff: spare tire, gas filler and braking components. Anything larger than a bag of Basmati won't fit. Even worse, opening the hood lets debris slide down the HVAC's unprotected intake tube. Conversely, four wheels with a roof beats two, with none.
But in India, size is a concern: the closer to motorcycle dimensions, the better. [NB: Nano means small in Gujarati.]
First, the doors take up the vast majority of the sheet metal, indicative of a design maximizing passenger space with a tiny footprint. There's the 624cc, two-cylinder, all aluminum engine. It's small by Indian car standards-the Maruti/Suzuki 800cc sedan comes next-but it's a small-block Chevy relative to a Honda scooter. Which makes interstate travel possible, without resorting to filthy, crowded and unsafe buses.
Speaking of not dying, standard seatbelts (that nobody will use) and 7 drum brakes keep the Nano's occupants from turning into commercial-truck chapati: the stoppers are much larger than any scooter. Hell, the Nano's brakes overshadow a rickshaw's wheels. And with the modest increase in size, Indian traffic gets a little safer with a level playing field for all participants. Airbags be damned, TATA makes the safest vehicle at this price point.
To the naysayers: imagine America if there was no Model T. Jaded Americans might scoff, but sovereign nations are just that. And middle-class Indians shall no longer soak in their own sweat, reeking of exhaust on their commute to the office. Witness the American dream, garam masala style: the Nano's chances of stateside success rival that of a Slumdog becoming a Millionaire. This car makes an Aveo seem like an Accord, it has no business on 90% of American roads. Still, this is the right car and the right time. The Indian people shall now overcome.