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Small wonder

Global carmakers had said it was an impossible dream — a full-fledged car that would meet global safety and emission standards, at the ‘impossible’ price of Rs 1 lakh, or $2,500 — the world’s cheapest. Deepak Joshi and Suprotip Ghosh report.

autos Updated: Jan 11, 2008 02:56 IST

Global carmakers had said it was an impossible dream — a full-fledged car that would meet global safety and emission standards, at the ‘impossible’ price of Rs 1 lakh, or $2,500 — the world’s cheapest.

The impossible dream became stunning reality on Thursday.

When Ratan Tata drove out the first Tata Nano at the 9th Auto Expo in Delhi, he termed it, with characteristic understatement, one of the “more important milestones in our history”. It could actually turn out be one of the more important milestones in the history of automobile manufacturing.

At a time when soaring oil prices and climate change have become global concerns, Tata’s “people’s car” has managed to deliver a fuel-efficient four-wheeler (its 623 cc, rear-mounted petrol engine gives 20 kilometres per litre), which also meets stringent global emission norms. Tata said the Nano’s engine is already Bharat Stage III (Euro III) compliant and can easily meet tough Euro IV norms when they are finalised.

In the process, it has done two things. It has demonstrated that Indian engineers have the capability to design and deliver a car from scribbled outline to commercial production stage, under cost and quality constraints that the world’s largest and most experienced carmakers said were impossible to handle.

The Nano has also done something which no other automobile manufacturer has been able to do for decades: create a completely new set of customers. For India’s rapidly growing middle class, especially those in smaller towns, some form of personal transportation has become a necessity, given the lack of choice in public transportation.

For many at the lower end of this group, this meant, at best, a two-wheeler. Now, with a little stretching, they can aspire to own a modern car. Yes, it does not have an a/c or even a radio, no power steering and only one windshield wiper. But it’s slick, stylish, seats four comfortably, and meets safety norms. The Nano has already passed full front crash tests mandatory for all cars in India, and, according to Tata, is ready to meet off-set and side crash tests when it ventures abroad. And its all-steel, monovolume body will keep the wind and rain out too.

Like Steve Jobs’s iPod Nano, the new Tata car is a triumph of miniaturization. At 3.1 metres (10.23 feet) length, 1.5 metres width and 1.6 metres height, it is about 20 per cent smaller than the smallest (and cheapest) car currently sold in India — the Maruti 800. Yet, it has 20 per cent more internal volume.

There are concerns though. The prospect of millions of two-wheeler owners switching to cars — even such a small one — has alarmed environmentalists and civic activists, worried by the stress this may place on India’s already overcrowded roads. That’s because of the numbers — India churns out nearly 80 lakh two-wheelers per year.

The Nano, set to roll out of its controversy-hit Singur plant in the later half of this year, will have initial volumes of 2.5 lakh cars, scaling up to 10 lakh in three years. The potential environmental impact gave him “nightmares”, said environmental scientist and Nobel peace prize winner Dr Rajendra Pachauri recently.

"Dr Pachauri need not have nightmares. Sunita Narain (head of the Centre for Science and Environment and another opponent) can sleep at night," Tata said at the launch. "The Nano will be less polluting than any two-wheeler."

It remains to be seen whether these worries turn out to be well-founded. The Rs 1 lakh price tag ("It was media speculation, but we took it as a challenge," Tata said) might be difficult to hang on to, given rising costs. "But a promise is a promise," Tata said, adding, "I am a shy person. The media attention and expectation were traumatic… But the challenge has just begun. We have to deliver on our promise. The nation has to accept it. There is a along way to go."

Meanwhile, India Inc has one more reason to say, Chak De!