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The small joys of life

The Indian car owner’s journey from owning the road in a Maruti to claiming a right to it in the Nano.

autos Updated: Oct 06, 2009 19:21 IST
Joy Chaudhuri

Small in size, as they may be, the Maruti 800 and the Tata Nano are two cars that are most in demand in India. But the question is, does the 2009 Nano give you more value for money than the 1983 Maruti 800?

The Maruti 800 was India’s first whiff of in-house modern car technology. It boasted of a 796 cc, in-line three-cylinder engine that was both peppy and frugal, a monocoque chassis, overhead cams and disc brakes. It was cheap, reliable, nimble and fun to drive. The car even led an increasing number of women to take the wheel for the first time.
The 800 was originally designed for the European and Japanese markets, but it did Indian duties with the same vigour. Little wonder then that for years the Maruti 800 remained the largest selling car in India. The sales numbers might have dropped today, but it continues to sell still. Even so, its spiritual successor, the Tata Nano, is here.

Enter Nano
The Nano is the new status symbol. Stop anywhere and hordes of people want to touch it, see it, sit in it and some even ask to drive it. Even Audi owners will halt to check out a car that costs just about a little more than two of Audi’s side mirrors!

Early owners of the Nano are guaranteed celebrity treatment. Your face will be on a thousand mobile phones, and yours will be the final word. It’s not too hard to see why. The Nano is a car that the common man can aspire to own. The 800, too, had received a similar welcome in the 1980s; in 1983, there were long queues outside Indian Oil petrol pumps where the 800s were first displayed.

26 years in the making
The cars are separated by twenty-six years. Here are some quick facts:
* The 800’s 796 cc engine makes 39 bhp. The Nano is not far off — its 624 cc engine makes 35 bhp.
* The 800 has a three-cylinder motor while the Nano uses two.
* Both use two valves per cylinder and are driven by one overhead cam.
* Though both cars generate about the same power, the 800 is quicker and peppier. The Nano takes 9.1 seconds to get to 60 kph while the 800 reaches the mark a second faster. The gap widens at 80 kph and 100 kph. After introducing the Nano’s accelerator to the floor, you have to wait nearly half a minute to see 100 kph on the speedo. The 800 is four seconds faster.
* The Nano is designed for the narrow, crowded streets of India, for broken village roads and rush-hour traffic. Despite the lack of grunt, it does its job well, cruising through when the engine is warmed up. Plus, the car literally turns on a dime — adequate power and extremely nimble. The peppier 800 has no advantage here.

Making you feel good
You’ll be surprised in just how many ways the Nano dwarfs the 800 — the Nano can seat five people comfortably while the 800 just about squeezes in four. Also, you the seats are higher in the Nano. The 800’s small dimensions make you feel more vulnerable on the road. The Nano is the big winner here.

Let’s look at the feel-good factor. Back in 1983, the 800’s cabin felt upmarket and of high quality as compared to the Ambys and Padminis. The Nano’s cabin is a bit crude, but you could argue saying it isn’t fair to quibble about it because of its price. The plastic parts such as switches, knobs and beadings in the Nano are far better than those in the 800. The point here, however, is that in 1983, when you bought an 800 you felt you were getting a top-quality product. In 2009, when you buy a Nano, you are ready to accept this compromise. So the 800 scores here.

During its launch, it was predicted that the 800’s passengers would be injured even if the car hit a dog. This was before Indian consumers knew about crumple zones, a structural feature designed to compress during an accident to absorb energy from the impact, (which the 800 had) and seatbelts (which it didn’t). The critics had to eat their words. Safety concerns were also raised about the Nano, which comes with seatbelts, and has passed the European crash test at MIRA. So both score equally on safety.

As we already know, the Nano beats the 800 on space. This means that in terms of comfort, the Nano has won half the battle. What seals the deal is that the old 800 came with leaf springs in the rear; the Nano’s independent suspension provides a better ride. This, along with the car’s massive 180 mm ground clearance, means that the Nano handles rough roads, potholes and ditches with poise.

Which one of these is more fun to drive, you ask? Well, the first time you drive the Nano you will bounce off the redline in the first two gears, but quickly learn to stay in the engine’s mid-range. Since it’s a rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive car, the engineers have given it narrow tyres in the front, and wider ones at the rear. So if you want the tail to step out, you will be disappointed. Corner hard and there will be body roll but you won’t fear keeling over. On the other hand, the 800 caught the imagination of enthusiastic drivers who till then had to make good by modifying their Padminis.
Paying the price

So which car gives the customer more value for money? The 800 cost Rs 48,000 when it was launched. And the price of petrol was about Rs 6.20 per litre. So the cost of a Maruti 800 equalled 7,741 litres of petrol. Today, the price of petrol hovers around the Rs 48 mark. If the cost of a Tata Nano, too, equalled 7,741 litres of petrol, its price would be Rs 3.7 lakh. But the top-line Nano costs just over Rs 2 lakh. So, it’s the Nano that gives you more bang for your buck. And while we’re at it, it beats the 800 on the mileage front too!
Autocar India