The Tata Nano, aka The World's Cheapest Car, was perched inside the Detroit Science Museum, sharing space with a flying pterodactyl, a hot-air balloon and a jet-engine powered car called Cyclops.
In a building filled with offbeat objects, this egg on wheels seemed oddly appropriate. Last year, the Nano caused a sensation in India when it went on sale for $2,200.
Indian automaker Tata Motors might bring it to the United States in three years or so. Would the Nano's "Less is more" esthetic sell in America?
To find out, I attended a Jan. 14 reception hosted by Tata Technologies, one of the Tata conglomerate's many subsidiaries. I had a notepad full of questions, but you can boil them down to these:
1) Can I really buy one for $2,200?
2) Can I fit inside?
3) Is it a death trap?
"Can I really buy one for $2,200?"
When Mister Tata decided in 2003 to launch development of a $2,200 car, he told his engineers to start with a clean sheet of paper.
So they designed a vehicle with a trunk – but no trunk lid. The car has just one windshield wiper. It has a driver's side mirror, but none on the passenger's side. No air conditioning in the base model. No airbags. The car's two-cylinder engine makes do with just one fuel injector.
And so on. When the car rolled off assembly lines, the engineers had delivered a car that would lure Indian families off their motorbikes. But a car like that is simply too basic for Americans.
So what might a U.S. model look like? We can get a rough idea from the Nano Europa, a vehicle that debuted at the 2009 Geneva Auto Show and is scheduled to go on sale in Europe in 2011.
The Europa will feature air conditioning, two front-passenger airbags, antilock brakes and a larger three-cylinder, 1-liter, 60-hp engine with a five-speed manual gearbox. The bigger powertrain is important: the 35-hp Indian version goes from zero to 60 in 17 seconds – not fast enough for Europe or the States.
A Tata engineer told me the Nano Europa could do it in 8 seconds or so, which I found hard to believe, but we'll see.
Tata has not announced pricing for the Europa. But after a close-up inspection, Autocar magazine guesstimated a price of $6,500 to $8,000.
If we get a Nano, it would very likely need an engine bigger and more expensive than the Europa's. But since British prices tend to be high, perhaps we might expect a U.S. price of $7,000-plus.
"Would I fit in one?"
Yes, sort of. The Nano may be cheap, but Tata's engineers paid attention to the packaging.
With a length of 122 inches, the Nano is nearly two feet shorter than a BMW Mini. Yet I sat comfortably in the front passenger seat, and had plenty of room in the back seats as well.
The driver's seat was a bit of a squeeze, with my legs jammed up against the steering wheel. I could easily steer this car with my knees (Kids, don't try this at home).
To create extra space for passengers, Tata's engineers jammed the Nano's engine under the rear seat. The car also has a tall roof, which permits a comfortable upright seating position. Mercedes-Benz adopted the same strategy for its 98-inch long Smart ForTwo.
A bigger problem is the Nano's smallish luggage space. The vehicle's trunk is perhaps big enough to hold some grocery bags. That limits the car's usefulness.
The bottom line on comfort: I'm 6'4". If I can fit in a Nano, you can fit in a Nano.
"Are they deathtraps?"
Apparently not. Last July, a modified Nano passed a crash test administered by the United Kingdom's Vehicle Certification Authority. After Tata added an airbag and beefed up the vehicle's structure, the car survived an offset front impact crash at 40 mph (see video), and a side impact crash at 30 mph.
Readers should note that researchers tested the Indian version of the car, rather than the Europa, which is eight inches longer than the Indian version. Those extra inches will be used to improve the front and rear crush zones.
It suggests that the Nano may indeed get a four-star rating in Europe's New Car Assessment Program crash tests, as Tata fervently hopes. By way of comparison, the BMW Mini got Euro NCAP's top five-star rating while the Smart ForTwo got four stars.
In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires a 35 mph frontal crash test and a 38.5 mph side-impact crash. If the Nano can pass Europe's safety tests, it can probably pass ours.
"Would anyone in America want to buy a Nano?"
Currently the cheapest new cars in America are the Nissan Versa, with a list price of $9,990, and the Hyundai Accent which retails for $9,970. Those prices aren't even close to our hypothetical Nano's price.
But the Nano's real competitors are used cars. For $6,000 or so, you could buy a six-year-old Honda Civic, or maybe a five-year-old Toyota Echo for $6,500.
There are lots of options, and that's why analyst Rebecca Lindland of the research firm IHS Global Insight believes the Nano wouldn't stand a chance in the U.S. market. "I've got one word for you: Yugo," Lindland says.
She is referring, of course, to the infamous Yugo subcompact that graced our shores from 1985 through 1991. The car boasted a low starting price of $3,990 – and not much else. The Yugo flopped.
"In the U.S., $7,000 will buy you a pretty darn well-equipped vehicle," Lindland says. "And this is not an emerging market. These days, even the cheaper cars have Bluetooth."
Lindland is probably right about The World's Cheapest Car. In America, less is not more. Less is less, and more is not enough.
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