Hot wheels: Taking the world's cheapest car for a spin

29th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

The 2,000-dollar car, designed to be affordable for millions of middle-class Indians who currently travel on two wheels, often with the whole family on board, has been stripped down to its bare essentials.

Pimpri -- What's the world's cheapest car like to drive? If the basic model of India's Tata Nano is anything to go by, it's going to be hot.

The 100,000-rupee (2,000-dollar) car, designed to be affordable for millions of middle-class Indians who currently travel on two wheels, often with the whole family on board, has been stripped down to its bare essentials.

That means one windscreen wiper, a centrally mounted speedometer on the dashboard, a wing mirror on the driver's side only and a solitary switch for the indicators and lights.

Even the mirror on the front passenger seat sun visor has been sacrificed to the god of economy, while the steering wheel is little bigger than an oversized dinner plate.

There are plastic seat covers, a plastic dashboard and no air vents or air-conditioning -- in a country where summer temperatures can push the mercury to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

Tata Motors opened its doors to the international media Wednesday, allowing reporters to take the Nano for a spin around its test track in Pimpri, near Pune, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) from the western city of Mumbai.

Designers who worked on the car, which was officially launched to great fanfare on Monday, say the lack of air-conditioning and ventilation will not be a problem as most people will drive it with the windows down.

Cruising around an empty track at speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour does kick up a pleasant breeze -- and cause the seat belts to flap noisily, as AFP found out when it put the snub-nosed "People's Car" through its paces.

But slower speeds are likely to mean scorching temperatures inside -- and uncomfortable, sticky backs for drivers and passengers -- when the Nano hits India's notoriously traffic-choked streets from July.

The deceptively roomy four-door Nano, which can carry up to five people but not much luggage, is made for the stop-start driving of Indian cities, where sharp wits, a deft touch on the clutch and a fully working horn are a must.

The little car offers a smooth ride but its rear-mounted, two-cylinder 624 cc engine hardly kicks like a mule when the accelerator is floored, though it does do 100 kph, eventually.

No power steering, not yet a feature on any of the three models about to go on sale, makes turning a struggle, particularly when parking, although the car is so small that it should rarely require a three-point turn.

The two more expensive Nano models -- the CX and LX -- have extra features such as air-conditioning, automatic windows and central locking.

The interior upholstery is also plusher and makes for a more comfortable ride, but that fully wipeable, hot-to-touch flimsy plastic still dominates.

Still, what can be expected from a car that costs the same as a top-of-the-range German washing machine?

Indeed, Tata Motors and its chairman Ratan Tata remind consumers that they have to be realistic about what they are getting for their cash, warning against unfair comparisons with more expensive cars.

Despite initial scepticism -- and jokes that it looks like a fairground bumper car or four-wheel autorickshaw -- most reporters seemed pleasantly surprised.

"It seems pretty good value for 2,000 bucks," said Financial Times Mumbai bureau chief Joe Leahy. "It looks and sounds like a car, which I think is pretty amazing for the price.

"It gets up to 60 (kph) OK, as they say it does. It takes its time to get up to 100 but it finally gets there. The big test will be once it gets out on the rough roads of those Indian villages."

Phil Hazlewood/AFP/Expatica

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