Taking the World's Cheapest Car for a Spin

The Nano costs about $2000, making car ownership accessible to many who could otherwise not afford it. But it comes without such frills as air-conditioning, a stereo or airbags. Video by Raymond Thibodeaux and Emily Wax for The Washington Post
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

MUMBAI -- I didn't want to be the first Western journalist to crash a Nano.

But I was so curious about the world's cheapest car I was willing to take that chance.

With a sticker price of about $2,000, the new Tata Motors' Nano has been mocked as a lawn mower for four. It has no air conditioning, stereo or air bags. Those cost extra. It does come with a single windshield wiper, kind of skimpy for a country with a monsoon season. Oh, and the Nano comes only with manual transmission.

But in a country where it's not uncommon to see a family of four or five perched precariously on a motorcycle, it puts the dream of car ownership within reach of India's emerging middle- and working-classes.

I was excited but also a little worried about test-driving the "people's car" -- as it's also known here -- not only because of the stick shift but also because of India's traffic.

Jostling for space on the roads is like a scene out of a "Mad Max" film. There are hulking commuter buses, ox-pulled carts stacked with chicken coops, cycle rickshaws with cooking gas cylinders strapped to the backs, silver swan-shaped marriage floats tricked out with loudspeakers and squeaky Soviet-era taxis. India's roads are a true expression of the world's largest democracy -- a free-for-all for anything with wheels, hooves or feet.

"If you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere," said a chuckling Sugiyan Kapadia, 31, owner of the aptly named Good Luck Driving School.

The mini-car is the brainchild of one of India's top industrialists, Ratan Tata, who had a dream to move millions of Indian families off their two-wheelers and into a safer, all-weather alternative. Many auto experts here have likened the Nano to the Henry Ford Model T that revolutionized American life a century ago. The down payment for a Nano is about $70.

"I made a promise and I kept that promise," the soft-spoken 71-year-old Tata said at a glitzy launch party Monday. "I dedicate this car to the youth of India who designed it and will use it to transport their families. It shows that nothing is really impossible if you set your mind to it."

The global economic downturn has only made the car more desirable, and not only in developing nations, Tata said. The company is planning to launch a version of the Nano in Europe in 2011, and after that a souped-up Nano for the U.S. market.

"At first I thought the U.S. customer might not go for such a small car," Tata said. "But the economic realities may change that."

Luckily for me -- and the Nano -- we did the first part of the test-drive on a racetrack at the company's Pune plant. No cows, no careening taxis.

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