Car Awards

2008 Tata Nano

Here it is at last, the $2500 car that Ratan Tata proposed several years ago, perhaps the most significant new car since the Ford Model T was introduced 100 years ago. As with the Ford, the design and engineering is less important than the philosophy behind the car’s conception. Although the clever shape was created by Justin Norek in Turin, the Nano was engineered and executed in India by a highly motivated and usefully underequipped team with a mind-set that no long-established manufacturer could summon.

A few years ago, Renault designed the “$5000” Logan for production in its newly acquired Romanian Dacia factory. The Logan is a fine effort, good enough that I would buy one were it not for the eight-month waiting list, but it’s not in the class of the Nano. The Logan was made by taking cost out of existing amortized Renaults; the Nano’s creators eliminated costs in the first place.

The Nano comes to market later this year, and it will have optional air-conditioning, various other amenities, and eventually even a CVT automatic – yet still cost less than a bare Logan. The Nano has only one wiper. So? There was only one on the Mercedes-Benz E-class a few years ago. But to allow it to sweep the entire windshield, there was a monkey-motion gearbox that cost more than the whole Nano wiper system. The Germans couldn’t help themselves; the Indians could and did.

The egglike Nano is quite charming in person. Its austere cabin is spacious and agreeable, its stance – despite small-seeming 165/55R-13 tires – reassuring. Visibility is excellent, and its high seating position is good for integrating with contemporary traffic. The Nano actually looks substantial despite its size, and it feels safe and solid.

Tata’s chief designer, Pierre Castinel, who was one of my students long ago, said that the leather-lined deluxe Nano (shown in Geneva alongside the orange entry-level model seen here) might cost twice the base price – but that’s still only five grand. He also noted that very little needs to be done to meet European certification standards. We have become used to 400-hp cars, when all we really need for most of our driving is something close to the Nano’s capabilities. As with the Logan, western Europeans will be as eager to buy the Nano as are people in developing countries. Selling a million a year wouldn’t be out of the question.

Would Americans accept the Nano? I doubt it, but our beleaguered manufacturers ought to be working hard to devise equally basic cars that we will want, suitably adapted to our real-world driving conditions, meaning at least 85-mph speeds and acceleration quicker than eighteen-wheelers. That will be tough, but they ought to be working on it now.

1. The sides of the car are pretty flat, but this crease line at the top of the doors helps break the visual height of the body sides, and every bend in the sheetmetal strengthens it.

2. An upward-swooping line in the door pressings leads into the air intake for the rear-mounted two-cylinder engine. It is both decorative and useful in stiffening the panels.

3. Taillights are placed high for protection and are at the corners of the car for clarity at night. They are surprisingly big, a choice consciously made to allow them to serve as decor. There is even a CHMSL in the fixed backlight.

4. Roof ribs can act as airflow straighteners, although high speeds are not the Nano’s primary goal. These four ribs are present to stiffen the roof panel and reduce interior noise.

5. The whole front end is very simple, with just a crease at the center of the hood to provide character. It is exceptionally good for pedestrian-impact safety, too.

6. The simple and inexpensive single wiper provides more than adequate bad-weather visibility.

7. These headlamps – far more elaborate than one might have expected – are almost the only jewelry on the Nano exterior, along with two Tata badges and the rear lamp clusters.

8. Bulges in the body around all four wheels help plant the car visually. Large plastic bumper faces at both ends have near vertical joint lines and small grilles.

9. The front quarter windows have only a small transparent area, but they’re actually useful from the driver’s seat. Bonded glass increases body stiffness as well.

10. The wheels on this base model are styled to be something more than ugly black discs. The three-bolt pattern recalls early French economy models.

11. Air intakes are a sporty element, worthy of an Italian supercar yet perfectly functional on this very attractive minimalist design.

A. The centered instrument binnacle and the symmetrical panel allow both left- and right-hand-drive versions to be built with minimal investment in tooling.

B. There’s plenty of storage space in the Nano. Bins in the instrument panel provide useful, but not covered or lidded, storage.

C. Yes, there is an air bag in the steering wheel, at least optionally so. The interior is Spartan but complete.