But it wasn't cheap enough for Ratan Tata. Despite Bollywood leading-man looks, he is genuinely shy, and such is his monastic devotion to his business that he has never married and lives alone in a Mumbai apartment with his dogs. The Tata family is Parsi, and Ratan has repeatedly said that his overriding aim in business is to be able to lay his head on his pillow at night knowing that he has not harmed anyone.
So if the Tata Nano sounds more like a social mission than another new-car project, that's because it is. India's insane traffic claims more than 90,000 lives each year, and the vast majority of victims are on two feet or two wheels. Appalled by this carnage, Ratan decided to create a car that fathers carrying a family of four on a scooter might be able to afford, and so told his engineers to create a car costing no more than one lakh (100,000 rupees), or a little over two thousand bucks. He couldn't have been blind to its commercial potential, but when you meet him, you're left in little doubt that his commitment to corporate social responsibility runs rather deeper than the usual executive claptrap.
When news of the project first started to leak three years ago, insiders told us to expect something utterly uncarlike to get the price that low, maybe with a fabric roof and no windows. What we got - when the unveiling of the Nano in January last year garnered more attention for New Delhi's motor show than Detroit's - was something that looked more like a conventional Japanese or Korean city car than Fred Flintstone's ride. As expectations rose, the world's economy plummeted, and suddenly a two-thousand-dollar car looked very appealing to a whole lot more people.
But Tata isn't immune to the downturn. Its $2.3 billion purchase of Jaguar and Land Rover looks badly mistimed. It has been hit hard by the slowdown in the Indian car market and is finding it hard to raise capital. And it was forced to abandon the Nano's virtually complete plant in West Bengal after riots by displaced farmers and start from scratch in Gujarat at a cost it can barely afford, putting volume production of the Nano back about six months. The speed at which Tata can ramp up production in India and then begin the exports and overseas production that will make this car of global impact will be slowed; in that time, others might copy it, or we might haul ourselves out of recession and decide we don't need or want a car this cheap. Revolution, or footnote? The way history will view this little car hangs in the balance.