There is a chance - just a chance - that this odd-looking little bubble of a car, with its dime-size wheels and tiny tailpipe and weird two-cylinder whir, might turn out to be the Ford Model T of the twenty-first century. True, there's plenty that might prevent the new Tata Nano from causing the seismic shock that some predict it will inflict on the global car industry. But like other transformative cars, it has a quantum-leap quality. The Model T revolutionized how cars are made, the Mini rethought how they're laid out, and at $2500, the Nano turns upside down our previous ideas about how much cars should cost.
What you, me, and everyone else who cares as much about a car's dynamics as its dollar value wants to know is how the Nano drives: surely a whole car that costs less than some upholstery or audio upgrades must be terrible, right? Not remotely, and we're in a unique position to tell you. We haven't driven it, but we've been to Tata's test track in Pune, India, and scored a ride in the Nano. Nobody else outside Tata has experienced it "in action." Tata is very protective of its new baby, and it didn't mean for this to happen and isn't very happy that it did. It won't happen again for a while.
But before we tell you what we thought, it's worth seeing this car in context. Tata Motors might have grabbed the world's attention in 2008 with the unveiling of the Nano and its purchase of Jaguar and Land Rover, but it has been making trucks in India for more than fifty years. When Ratan Tata took over as chairman of this family-owned, 140-year-old, impossibly diverse, tea-to-IT conglomerate in 1991, he decided to make cars, too. From scratch, he built Tata Motors into India's third-biggest carmaker in a market which, although now slowed by the same economic misery as everywhere else, has seen sales skyrocket from 40,000 in the mid-'90s to nearly 2 million today. When growth resumes, billion-strong India will dwarf European markets and join the United States, China, and Japan as an automotive superpower.
Tata Motors' lineup might seem pretty freaky by Western tastes, but the company has grown by understanding exactly what its customers want. It already does cheap very well. The Tata Magic is a 700-cc minivan with fabric bodysides that sells for about $5800. It has eight seats but typically carries far more and is exactly what rural Indians need - very cheap, with room for the whole family.