Monday, 14 January 2008

Tata's 1 lakh car

Tata's new cheap car caused a bit of a stir last week. It was originally touted as the first 1 lakh car, a slightly obscure description for an international audience (1 lakh is an Indian counting unit of 100,000 and this is a reference to the car's target price in local currency), so at the launch it was described as the Nano, which I think is a pretty good name if Tata can secure the rights to use it in its main markets.

In its press releases, Tata also referred to its new baby as the People's Car and said that it was part of a 'blitzkrieg' of new product announcements. I assume this unfortunate echo of Nazi language is unintentional, although if the Nano does as well as the Beetle, I'm sure Tata will be very happy.

Anyway, to the car itself - I haven't driven it and I haven't even seen it in the metal but I like what I've been able to find out about the Nano very much. A few observations. The Nano's mechanical layout - a small rear-mounted engine in a five-door hatchback body - is broadly similar to that of Mitsubishi's 'i' car, and the Smart For Two, two of the more interesting small cars on the market today. The other thing I found interesting about the Nano is that it is recognisable as what you might call a 'complete car'. By that I mean that every element that anyone would consider essential in a proper car is present, even if in pared down form. The Nano has four road wheels, a steering wheel, and space for a full complement of passengers. I had feared that in its efforts to cut costs, Tata might have been forced to produce, say, a three-wheeler or something with motorbike-style handlebars, or without full bodywork.

Although it doesn't seem to be everyone's cup of tea, I also quite like the Nano's styling, which, at the rear, is similar to that of Tata's larger Indica, the car that was briefly sold in the UK in modified form as the City Rover. That was sneered at by some reviewers because it had a few rough edges by western standards, and Rover probably pitched its price a bit too high, but its industrial significance - that Tata was capable of producing a car that was broadly competitive in international markets - was completely underestimated.

I'll be very interested to see whether Tata really can deliver the car for INR1 lakh, which, according to my calculations, is almost exactly £1,300. From the coverage I've seen, Tata seems to be conceding that this is the target for a very stripped down version (something like the red car in the second photo above with unpainted bumpers), but nevertheless, the Nano is still going to be a lot cheaper even than other bare-bones specials aimed at developing countries, such as the Renault/Dacia Logan or the Fiat Palio.

There seems to be a certain amount of angst out there about the prospect of large numbers of Nanos flooding onto the roads in the hands of India's growing middle class, and the consequences that may have for climate change. I have to say I don't particularly share that concern; I think it's just impossible - as well as wrong - to insist that Indians shouldn't be allowed to get onto the lowest rung of the motoring ladder when we ourselves in the west drive far heavier and thirstier cars. A better idea might be to ask whether our big, heavy European motors shouldn't look a bit more like the Nano. Most of the car journeys we make on this small and crowded island are short and are undertaken at fairly low speeds - a suitably adapted Nano would probably be able to do the job in the overwhelming majority of cases.

No comments: