By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 24, 2009; C01
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.
The Nano's lightweight, two-cylinder engine musters about 35 horsepower -- roughly 10 times that of most lawn mowers. It tops out at just over 60 mph, but considering the congested traffic in most of India's big cities, that limitation is not a problem.
On the track, with one of the car's engineers offering encouragement from the passenger seat, it felt comfortable and surprisingly sturdy and spacious. The seats are set high off the road, allaying some people's fear that it would be like driving a go-cart. In a country where a family car must provide space for mothers-in-law, the car has vast legroom (the engine is in the rear).
Although the podlike Nano would not be regarded as a chick magnet in the United States, the engineers say it is different here: The car is certain to be viewed as a step up in small towns where most bachelors ride motorcycles or take the bus. With its groovy Web site and Facebook page, online games and hipster accessories, the Nano is creating a cult popularity similar to the iPod. There's already a run on art deco T-shirts and fuzzy dashboard teddy bears for the Nano.
The car "will go down in the Automotive Hall of Fame. It shows that India can really think outside of the box," said Adil Jal Darukhanawala, an Indian auto analyst. "It's a matter of self-esteem and national pride. India wants to send a man to the moon soon. The Nano can take us to the launching pad."
One of Tata's biggest hurdles is keeping up with demand, expected at about a million cars a year. Most Indians putting a down payment on a Nano this month will wait at least a year before delivery.
After 30 minutes on the test track, we decided I was ready to take the car into traffic. I thought it might be wise to trick it out with some good-luck charms, including a string of lemon, chili and charcoal that hangs off almost every bumper in southern India, intended to "lessen the impact of a collision." But with no accessory wallahs (peddlers) around, we dived right in.
The Nano zipped around farming tractors stacked with sacks of rice. We beat out lumbering buses and maneuvered around bicyclists with typewriters strapped in the back racks.
The Nano easily careened past a pushcart vendor plying mangoes and a car speeding down the wrong side of the road. Nothing unusual for Indian traffic.
And the Nano turned heads. Most Indians have never seen a real one, just photos in newspapers. Chai wallahs (tea vendors), sidewalk barbers and schoolgirls with braided hair and white uniforms all craned their necks for a glance.
The Nano has also sparked controversy: Last year, farmers and opposition party leaders forced the company to move its $350 million factory to a more business-friendly state. And the Nano is expected to make both traffic and pollution worse. Indians bought 1.5 million cars last year, and the country is expected to soon outpace China in auto sales.
But many Indians are proud of the car craze. Today, only eight of every 1,000 adult Indians own a car -- compared with about 770 per 1,000 American adults. Experts say that as more of the country's 1.1 billion people buy cars, India could soon overtake the United States in emission levels. (The Nano gets about 50 miles per gallon and is 12 percent less polluting than a typical motorcycle, according to Tata Motors.)
"The Nano will create traffic chaos -- no question. But I'm desperate to buy it. It's a really cool car," said Kapadia, of the Good Luck Driving School. "It's a great thing for India because now the poor can afford it. And happiness is much more important than traffic."