Page last updated at 15:10 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

Nano: Triumph of Indian ingenuity

The Nano during a test drive
For a car that weighs 600kg, the Nano feels robust (Photo: Himanshu Pandya)

India's Tata Motors has launched Nano, the world's cheapest car. Hormazd Sorabjee, one of the first journalists to test drive the car, says it feels more expensive than it is.

I have to admit I had a nagging fear that the Tata Nano wouldn't live up to the media frenzy that's been surrounding it.

It's been the most awaited car in the world and the delay in putting it on the road - due to the relocation of its production facilities - only increased the sense of anticipation.

The Nano feels rigid, well-screwed together and deftly darts from one pothole to other with ease

Now, 14 months after the Nano was unveiled to a reception fit for a rock star, the moment of truth has come for the world's cheapest car.

There's been an apprehension that Tata's self-imposed price target of 100,000 rupees ($1,979, £1,366) would make the Nano an apology of a car and sceptics expected a glorified golf cart.

However, after driving the Nano in the western Indian city of Pune - home to Tata Motors - on the highway and rural back roads, it's turned out to be quite the opposite.

The Nano feels significantly more expensive than it is and a car you certainly won't be ashamed to sit in.

Well designed

Questions like, "Is it a proper car?" can be dismissed once and for all.

Getting in and out of the Nano is easier than in an Mercedes S-class and that's no exaggeration. The doors open wide and high seats allow you to slide onto them with the utmost ease.

Delhi traffic
'The more crowded the street, the better the Nano gets'

The well-designed but basic interiors are far from Merc luxury, but you can't miss "luxury" touches like front-power windows and air-conditioning on the deluxe version - which must be another first on such a cheap vehicle.

The seats are flat and hard with simple, hard-wearing fabrics designed like a seat in a bus.

Don't forget that in India, if a car is officially a five-seater, it's unofficially twice that number - which leads me to another great thing about the Nano - its ability to take heavy loads.

For a car that weighs a mere 600kg, the Nano feels incredibly robust.

You expect the doors to rattle, the seats to squeak and those dinner-plate sized wheels to buckle driving over rough Indian roads.

But instead, the Nano feels rigid, well-screwed together and deftly darts from one pothole to another with ease.

The suspension copes with any sort of surface and the Nano's massive ground clearance can shame some off-roaders.


As expected in a car with such dinky proportions, the ride does get a bit choppy on uneven surfaces and there's a tendency for the nose to bob up and down but those graduating from a scooter won't have cause to complain.

Crank the Nano's 623cc engine and it fires with a muffled "pud, pud, pud". The thrum of a two-cylinder motor is obvious but again, it doesn't make the racket I expected.

It feels sprightly off the mark and comfortably keeps up with the flow of city traffic.

In fact, the more crowded the street, the better the Nano gets. The turning circle is astonishing, possibly the tightest on any car. The ability to hang a U-turn on any street, the high-seating position and great all-round visibility only add to the Nano's user-friendliness.

Indian road
Some of India's roads may be a challenge for the Nano

But while the Nano feels completely at home in a congested, low-speed driving environment, it's out of sorts on an open road.

The little Tata runs out of puff quite quickly and progress after 70kph (44mph) is painfully slow and top speed is limited to 105kph.

This certainly isn't a highway car but that's not going to stop people from using it as one.

Pocket science

That's the concern Tata engineers had as well and have worked quite hard to ensure that it's fairly stable with a full load at maximum speed.

The brakes are reasonably effective as well and do the job. I had to keep reminding myself that I was driving a car that costs just over 100,000 rupees to judge the Nano in the right perspective.

It thrilled me with its "proper car" feel and I also learnt to forgive it for its shortcomings. I can live with the ridiculously small 15-litre (3.3 gallon) fuel tank because the car's phenomenal efficiency (18-20 kilometres to a litre; 82-90 mpg) would give it decent range.

However, I would have liked a bit more power to make overtaking less of a planned operation and the glass to open at the rear like a conventional hatch. The only way to put the handful of bags in the Nano's "boot" is by flipping the rear seats forward. I found that cumbersome and annoying.

Of course, for this incredible price the Nano is bound to have compromises but the brilliance of this car lies in the way Tata has finely judged exactly what Nano buyers expect and what they don't.

That's where the foreign car companies would fail. The Nano, made by pocket science and not rocket science, is a triumph of Indian ingenuity.

The author is the editor of Autocar India, the country's leading motoring magazine.

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