- Aug 29, 2006
Peter Foster: A natty little beauty of a car
Tata's new 'People's Car' might be the future
Leader: Indian people's car
Billed as the 'people's car', the four-door Tata 'Nano' promises to do for India's aspiring middle classes motoring what the VW
Beetle and the Mini did to democratise motoring in Europe after the Second War.
The world's cheapest car - a runabout costing just £1,300 - was unveiled in New Delhi to protests from environmentalists but delirious excitement from millions of ordinary Indians.
The car, which is the dream of Ratan Tata, chairman of the Indian car giant Tata Motors which is favourite to buy the Jaguar and Landrover brands from Ford next month, will bring four-wheeled motoring into the reach of millions more of India's middle classes.
As a hologram of a typical Indian family of four wobbling along on a motorbike faded to black, Mr Tata, 70, spoke of the motivation behind the Nano which is half the price of India's current cheapest car.
"I observed families riding on two-wheelers - the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him holding a little baby," he said.
It led me to wonder whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family.
Tata Motors' engineers and designers gave their all for about four years to realise this goal.
"Today, we indeed have a People's Car, which is affordable and yet built to meet safety requirements and emission norms, to be fuel efficient and low on emissions."
Many were surprised by the Nano's natty styling, confounding pre-launch predictions that a car at that price would be little more than "a super-charged autorickshaw" or "two motorcycles joined at the hip".
The four-door vehicle, which has only one wing-mirror, is powered by a rear-mounted 624CC engine which generates just 33 horsepower to carry it over India's famously pot-holed roads.
Inside the dashboard is, to say the least, sparse with a speedometer, a fuel gauge and an oil-warning light, causing one motoring correspondent to observe that "the average wristwatch has more instrumentation".
The basic model has no power steering, wind-down windows and no air-conditioning - a genuine hardship in a country where summer temperatures regularly exceed 45C/113F - although two 'deluxe' models with air-con are planned.
However the car, which costs about double the price of a standard Indian motorbike, will be highly economical to run with its tiny two-cylinder engine delivering 50 miles to the gallon.
Analysts say the Nano has the potential to transform the face of global motoring, although Mr Tata said the company had no plans to sell it abroad "for at least two to three years".
Initially the company plans to produce 250,000 vehicles by the end of 2008 before considering whether to export to other emerging markets in Africa and Latin America where safety standards are less stringent than in Europe.
With car sales predicted to quadruple in India in the decade - 1,000 new cars enter the streets of the capital New Delhi every day - the Nano concept has come under fierce attack from environmentalists.
Outside the auditorium, activists from the environmental protest group Greenpeace held up banners calling for the world to tackle climate change and "CUT CO2" rather than build millions of ever-cheaper cars.
Sunita Narain, the head of Delhi's Centre for Science and Environment has called on the government to tax cars 'like crazy' to pay for a desperately needed upgrade to India's ailing public transport systems.
For the majority, however, the real concern is not pollution but congestion as the streets of India's cities - originally designed to accommodate rickshaws and the odd lumbering Ambassador - are overwhelmed by super-affordable modern cars.
But Mr Tata tackled his critics announcing that the Nano conforms to "Euro IV" emissions standards and dismissing claims that the world's roads would be over-run by millions of his cheap cars.
"The idea that we're going to flood the global market with millions and millions of these cars is not true. Tata Motors doesn't have the resources to do that.
"Even if all targets are hit, sales of the Nano will not account for more than 2.5 per cent of total annual car sales in India," he said.
Instead he focussed on the ideal of bring fresh opportunities to millions of people in rural India, where 65 per cent of the population still live, most without access to decent public transport.
"People talk about India's cities but we live in a country of one billion people, most of whom are denied connectivity, and that is something which we hope will now change with this car."