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    by: Rex Roy | AOL Autos
     

    People love the idea of super-cheap transportation. Two generations ago, Volkswagen captured the world's attention with the Beetle (known originally as “the people's car), but when people finally drove it they realized it was more than just a cheap car. It was inexpensive, yes, but entirely fun to drive.

    India’s Tata Motors picked up on the people’s car idea several years ago. Motorbikes and pedal bikes are the go-to transportation options for millions in India, which presented an opportunity. But with the average price of a new car in the U.S. hovering around $30,000, an inconceivable sum in the developing world, Tata would have to do something very different -- the tiny Nano was the result. It's currently on sale in India at a cost in rupees of about $2,500. That sound you hear is over a billion people cheering because they can now envision themselves owning transportation they don't have to pedal.

    The pint-sized sedan wowed crowds at its New Delhi introduction in 2008. Tata is already exporting the Nano throughout the developing world, and speculation swirled that the company would eventually target the U.S. after the car was put on display at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show.

    I only spent 20 minutes behind the wheel of the 2011 Tata Nano, but it was enough to answer the most basic questions about how this bargain in transportation stacks up.

    First, let's consider the 2011 Tata Nano's specifications. At just over 10 feet, it's slightly longer than a Smart Fortwo, but that doesn't make it large. The sub-compact Nissan Versa is about four feet longer, and most Americans consider the Versa really small.

    There's less than five feet separating the right door handle from the left, and within this space, Tata squeezed four seats and a small parcel shelf behind the rear bench. Surprisingly, there is adequate room for four. The tall roof and expansive glass area helped promote a feeling of spaciousness even if there wasn't an inch to spare. One reason the interior has the room it does is that there's no trunk or conventional engine bay. Cargo travels in your lap or on the rear parcel shelf. The rear seat folds to expand cargo-carrying options. The engine is located under the parcel shelf.

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    The other reason for the exemplary space utilization is that there are no crush zones. All vehicles sold in North America have body structures designed to help absorb and safely dissipate the energy of a collision. This type of design requires additional space, engineering and material, none of which is possible given the Nano's $2,500 price.

    Our test model was the mid-level Nano CX. It features taxi-grade, two-tone vinyl upholstery and hard plastic door panels. Painted metal surrounds the door inserts. The roof pillars are also all devoid of trim. Air conditioning and a heater are standard, an extra not found on the base model. Your kids might be amused that the windows require arm-power to crank up and down. Power door locks? Nope. They push down and pull up just like in the old days.

    The vehicle we drove was an Indian-market unit, so the steering wheel was to the right of the center console, as India is a drive-on-the-left country. A small instrument cluster tops the console and features a speedometer, digital fuel gauge and warning lights. The aftermarket radio and dash-top speakers in my tester were dealer-installed accessories, as is the Bluetooth antenna for hands-free cell phone use.

    Our opportunity to drive the Nano came thanks to the automotive supplier, Continental AG. The company produces the engine control computer for the Nano's fuel-injected gasoline engine, a 624-cc two-cylinder engine (about 38 cubic inches for you old-school types). Cranking out approximately 33 horsepower and 65 lb-ft of torque, you might own a riding lawn mower with more oomph. The engine uses a balance shaft to help quell the vibration inherent in a two-cylinder engine.

    While 33 horsepower isn't anything to brag about, the Nano only weighs 1,355 pounds, so there's not a that much to push around. And push is the operative term. The Nano's engine powers the rear wheels from its position behind the rear seats. The engine is accessed through the interior via the panel that forms the floor of the parcel shelf. The hood is held in place with practical wing nuts. Air for the engine's intake and cooling is sucked in through vents in front of the rear wheels. The exhaust pipe isn't much larger than the straw of a Super Big Gulp.

    Rounding out the specs, the Nano has a four-speed manual transmission, 12-inch tires, and equally tiny seven-inch drum brakes. They are power assisted on the CX, but manual on the base model. The brakes, wheels and tires are independently suspended at the very corners of the Nano to help maximize interior space.

    A Third-World Driving Experience

    Sliding into the right front seat of the Nano, its feathery-light door closes easily. The key fires the ignition in a familiar way and the engine starts willingly, quickly settling into a smooth idle. The clutch pedal feels as if it is connected to a few thick rubber bands, but it does its job and the Nano moves easily off the line, and the transmission proves easy to move up and down through the gears.

    Because there is no tachometer, you shift when the power falls off. Recognizing that is tricky because there's so little power to begin with. In a race to 20 mph, you could out-accelerate a Nano on a bike, especially if the Nano is loaded with four passengers. Acceleration to 60 mph takes a long time; you might want to bring a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

    Given enough smooth, straight road, the Nano might have hit 65 mph, but driving that fast isn't the little car's forte. It's designed for congested city streets where speeds rarely top 45 mph. Even at these lower speeds, the Nano still feels floppy and sloppy. Around corners the softly-sprung suspension wallows like a rowboat in angry beach surf. Even slight road imperfections or tiny steering inputs cause the body to roll and flex with a sickening queasiness. Confidence inspiring it was not.

    So those were the negatives. But, the Nano has it charms.

    Compared to motorcycles, motorized tricycles, and bicycles, the Nano is a real car that's actually affordable to the rapidly growing middle class in developing countries. It surrounds occupants in steel, puts a solid roof over their heads, and even provides a climate-controlled interior. And with an estimated EPA fuel economy of 52 mpg city, 62 mpg highway, the Nano is economical to operate. This car is a huge step forward in terms of transportation for a lot of people who’ve never had the opportunity.

    That said, the Nano is clearly not ready for the U.S. Americans who want transportation for $2,500 have an endless supply of used vehicles to choose from, nearly all of which would outperform the Nano while providing more safety.

    Representatives from Tata Motors freely admit that to enter the U.S. market, the Nano would require crush zones, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and electronic stability control, which would dramatically increase the vehicle’s cost. Estimates of $8,000 have been tossed about -- so much for ultra-cheap transportation in America. (Currently the cheapest new car for sale in the U.S. is the Hyundai Accent, starting at $9,970.)

    Looking ahead a few years, however, Tata Motors shouldn't be counted out. It recently purchased Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford Motor Company so it has access to top-notch automotive technology. Additionally, development of the Nano is supported by an already huge and advanced manufacturing operation. If anybody can bring the world a modern people's car, Tata could. Stay tuned.

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    1 - 20 of 258 Comments
    tamuerarikare Nov 01, 2010 6:17 AM
    I haven't driven Tata Nano bu I wiah to apply to a pontential buying agent of Tata Nano cheapest car! Tamuera Rikare email address:tamuerarikare@aol.com
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    nycapd1 Jul 28, 2010 7:05 AM
    If I had drivers license I wouldn't buy the car. Because well, look at the size. It's even smaller than the Ford Fiesta. Okay, the price is reasonable ($2500). The car doesn't look safe to me. It is a stupid idea for companies to make small cars like this one. They probably haven't thought that there are going to be a lot of accidents with this car. Just like the design of the Chevrolet Lumina Van. It has a very long windshield. I'll bet there were a lot of accidents with that van. People who work for auto companies are getting dumber and dumber each year. Because they just don't thin k of the public. They just design the car and thats it. I feel that they shouldn't bring this car to the United States. They should just leave where it is.
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    glennmajetich Jul 25, 2010 5:44 AM
    in india, tariffs double price of imports. $25k Chevy cost a little over $45k. My friend who lives there paid $170k for a 7 series BMW. I saw almost every car in India was a TATA or Myrindha (spelling) and plenty of Hondas which I beleive are built there, but very few other makes. I knew when TATA bought Landrover and Jaguar they would use those distribution lines to bring thier TAta cars and trucks over here and of course we will not add a dime to the cost.
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    pepelefrenchy151 Jul 24, 2010 4:40 PM
    Typical American feedback. Make fun of everything and insult people that you don't even know. SHAME on you!!!! Every nation has IT'S LAWS AND HISTORY. Child Labor, so what? We american stick our nose in everybody elses business and we can't fix our own problems. Every child over 8 in the USA, Just About< has a cell phone and text each other wyhile walking the street. Is that Progress. What happened to good ole conversation? Talking to someone face to face. Hell, 2/3 of americans do not even know their next door neighbor name. We have ex servicemen, children, living in the street, under bridges and in carton boxes and we dare tell others how to live their lives? How DARE we. Let's clean up our house before we start telling other how to clean theirs. I have much more to say, but will save it for later.
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    grgkir Jul 24, 2010 12:25 PM
    We all know what happens when a regular sized car ******** by a semi. What would if this tincan got hit by a semi? Just dig a hole and drop whats left into it.
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    ironjustice01 Jul 23, 2010 7:24 PM
    BEFORE anyone gets TOO insulted by the slandering of Tata by ME by insinuating there to BE a 'link' between the 'possibility' of child labor BEING involved in the cheaper price by a LONG SHOT of ANYONE in the production of vehicles. The undercover operation was about brake parts and these brake parts were delivered to a DISTRIBUTOR who THEN sold them to the 'market'. The PRODUCER of the brake parts DECLARES in writing he doesn't use child labor. NOW whether or not he DOES use child labor is up to HIM. He is only caught if someone catches him. Now the 'market' is NOW not involved in child labor they just buy up the brake parts. Now whether or not Tata buys THEIR parts FROM this 'market' is the thing. Like any production company they just may. Would be standard practice. In the old days they just hid the kids in barrels in the basement UNTIL the authorities split. That was in the early days in the west of Canada and the US during the depression , etc. History repeating itself in developing countries.
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    ironjustice01 Jul 23, 2010 7:10 PM
    I think I saw an article about a hidden camera episode of child workers pounding out car parts. I would really have to see how one goes about building such a nice car for so little cash.
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    tims05vibe Jul 23, 2010 4:55 PM
    well look at it this way, you can buy a cheap used riding lawnmower for parts if your car breakes down. and you could pimp it out by putting the back wheels of the mower on the back to make it look alittle more sporty.at the price they are asking in India you could get a coulpe of them and see what you could do to make it look better.
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    johnny22single Jul 23, 2010 3:53 PM
    THIS VEHICLE/CAR???????. NEED'S TO AT LEAST HAVE A SUZUKI HYABUSA 4CYLINDER IN IT. AT THE VERY LEAST!!!!!!!!!. THE HYABUSA ENGINE GET'S-----> OVER 50 MILE'S PER GALLON JUST ON REGULAR UNLEADED!!!!!!. JUST DO THAT AND THE COUNTRY WILL BUY THEM.!.
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    vlvocoupe Jul 23, 2010 3:28 PM
    **KURUKA** 1940s. One every 55 minutes it shows what America can do, so what happened? We could make cars that people can afford but the people got dumb! And they pay what the makers ask. Just like Cable TV. It started out that you were paying for NO COMMERCIALS Now you watch over 25 minutes of them per one-hour show. Thats how dumb Americans became. Your paying high prices for watching commercials, just like paying high prices for cars just because youve been told thats the way it is.Report This WHAT IS THIS? SOME KIND OF CRYPTIC MESSAGE OR SMOE DUMB FOREIGNER TRYING TO SPEAK??
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    vlvocoupe Jul 23, 2010 3:25 PM
    **KINDENPRAIRIA** kingedenprairie Jul 22, 2010 10:30 PM GOD Bless IndiaReport This THEY DON'T BELIEVE IN GOD YOU IDIOT. **KURUKA** kuruka Jul 22, 2010 10:06 PM The MB & the Smart car are the same size. The MB cost $80,000. Now think about how much Mercedes Benz is making along with the other manufacturers are making profit wise? When Henry Ford made the B-24, 20,000-pound, four-engine bomber with over 2 million parts in the 1940s. One every 55 minutes it shows what America can do, so what happened? We could make cars that people can afford but the people got dumb! And they pay what the makers ask. Just like Cable TV. It started out that you were paying for NO COMMERCIALS Now you watch over 25 minutes of them per one-hour show. Thats how dumb Americans became. Your paying high prices for watching commercials, just like paying high prices for cars just because youve been told thats the way it is.Report This JUST WHERE ARE YOU FROM? ARE YOU AN AMERICAN? I THINK THAT CLASSFIES YOU AS A DUMB AMERICAN, HUH? IF YOU AREN'T AN AMERICAN, GO HOME TO WHEVER IT IS YOU CQME FROM, WE DON'T WANT YOU ILLEGALS IDIOTS HERE ANYMORE.
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    blatzpac Jul 23, 2010 2:35 PM
    a car that doubles as acoffin? what a novel concept!
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    bdgoedde Jul 22, 2010 10:52 PM
    Last week we were in a 5 car pile up on a crowded expressway. Everyone walked away without apparent injuries. No ambulance was even called. Cars 1,2,4, and 5 were still drivable. However, car 3 was crumpled in both front and back. As previously mentioned, that driver also walked away from his mid-size. If he had been in a cracker box of a car he probably would have been killed or seriously injured. It's going to be sad to see the crash data start coming in for these cars.
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    kingedenprairie Jul 22, 2010 10:30 PM
    GOD Bless India
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    lemaza49 Jul 22, 2010 10:19 PM
    Ese carro es peligroso. Si te chocan quedas atrapado como aplastado dentro o te da 3 vueltas patas arriba....jejeje. El impacto es importante. Hay muchos locos manejando por la calle y se hace necesario que el carro pase el test de colision.
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    loufalce Jul 22, 2010 10:10 PM
    Where do you put the key after you wind it up?
    Report This
    kuruka Jul 22, 2010 10:06 PM
    The MB & the Smart car are the same size. The MB cost $80,000. Now think about how much Mercedes Benz is making along with the other manufacturers are making profit wise? When Henry Ford made the B-24, 20,000-pound, four-engine bomber with over 2 million parts in the 1940s. One every 55 minutes it shows what America can do, so what happened? We could make cars that people can afford but the people got dumb! And they pay what the makers ask. Just like Cable TV. It started out that you were paying for NO COMMERCIALS Now you watch over 25 minutes of them per one-hour show. Thats how dumb Americans became. Your paying high prices for watching commercials, just like paying high prices for cars just because youve been told thats the way it is.
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    DevAutos Jul 22, 2010 9:12 PM
    YOU HAVE MORE PROTICTION IN A TATA NANO THEN YOU WOULD ON AOPEN MOTOR CYCLE. CONCORD NH
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    davebevil Jul 22, 2010 9:08 PM
    If I could fit in it, I'd buy one tomorrow (for $2500 that is). I wouldn't even think of buying one for $8000. It would be great for my commute to work. Hell, it'd pay for itself in the first year in gas savings alone. I wouldn't be any more concerned about safety, than I am when riding a motorcyle.
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    cbcircustim Jul 22, 2010 8:59 PM
    Don't tell Ralph Nader, What you have is a low power no leg room corvair. Isn't it amazing how much money can be saved not having union labor and idiotic government agencies interfearing, and keeping lawyers out of the way
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    1 - 20 of 258 Comments
     
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