Tata Nano - Nano second to none!


After exchanging pleasantries with the genial Tata Motors staff, I walked towards the sunshine yellow Nano parked in the middle of the skid-pad at the Tata Motors test track. After writing about it, spreading rumours about it (like almost everyone else), after seeing it and thinking a lot about it, it was time to drive the Nano. It was not a long walk to the car, but with every step there was an overwhelming sense of occasion building within me. I am sure the sensation would be the same in the minds of researchers who were approaching an alien spaceship which had landed on Earth for the first time.
I got into the car, summoned the key and started it. The engine sprang to life with the combined ignition noises of a four-stroke scooter and a car and settled down to a slightly busy idle. Pressing the feeble-looking clutch lever down, I selected first gear. Almost like a racing driver who is about to drive an F1 car for the first time, I didn’t want to stall the car. To ensure that, I ran the clutch a bit as my right leg sank into the accelerator pedal. The car accelerated spiritedly to 35 kph and it was time to shift to second, which took the speedo needle above the 60 kph mark. Third saw the car touch 90 kph and soon we attained v-max of the Nano – 105 kph in fourth gear. There, in a single spirited acceleration run, the Nano had changed everything that I was expecting from the small car. 

It was behaving more like a mainstream car and I was expecting a lot more shudder at the launch, more vibrations on the move and lots more noise than what was present. Soon it was time to jab the brake, reduce some speed and enter the smaller skid pad at the other end of the track. Downshifting a gear, I threw the car into the circular bit and went back on the power. Sure, there was an element of body roll, but the Nano levelled out like any mature car and headed for the next straight. The smooth acceleration, well planted stance and the gutsy nature of the two-cylinder engine in that first drive will remain etched in my mind forever.  In short, this is not a baby car or an alternate to the car as many, including me, thought it would be. It is a well-engineered product that redefines what a small car platform powered by an internal combustion engine can do. And to appreciate that, you have to leave what you have learned about cars at home and get behind the wheel. 

Looks and design
First and foremost, the Nano does not look cheap. It looks like a thoroughly modern small car that could have come from Japan, South Korea or any European nation. Actually no, it couldn’t have come from anywhere but India, where the need for a small car that does not cost the moon is really felt. On closer look, lots of details grab your attention. The single large wiper blade, the three nuts that hold each wheel, beautifully crafted air-intakes on the flanks, the excellent fit and finish of body panels, quality of paint, plastic-to-metal integration and so on. And you also notice how closely related the Nano is to modern Tatas like the Indica Vista. There is a certain crispness to its design that will help it look young years down the line. If you are looking for oddball-ness, then the small tyres stand out, along with the tall stance of the car. This car dwarfs Maruti 800s and Altos and is almost as tall as a Hyundai Santro. Our road test car in yellow was the LX version, with colour coded bumpers, and attracted lots of attention as we hit the road. Where the design triumphs is in the fact that despite the Nano’s utilitarian beginnings and cost-saving development process, this mono-volume car manages to look sporty – a word that couldn’t have been in the design brief. The drooping roof line, the little spoiler and the Gallardo-inspired air intakes are responsible for this. We like rear-engined sporty looking cars, don’t we?

  Interior and comfort
Renault proved with the Espace a long time back that mono-volume is the way to go if you want maximum space utilisation. The simple interior concentrates on liberating space and functionality. The thin front seats add a bit of sportiness to the proceedings, in tune with the exterior. There is ample leg and head room (even if you are wearing a turban – we tested it out) for front as well as rear passengers. This is a proper four-seater – the front and rear doors open wide allowing you easy ingress and egress. That said, there is room for a child, or a not-so-well built fifth passenger in the back bench. The airconditioning in the LX version wouldn’t have ensured a penguin migration, but it worked reasonably well. As far as instrumentation goes, you get a speedo and a digital fuel gauge cum odometer. And trust me, those are more than enough to drive this car. Ergonomically speaking, the power window switches on the central tunnel are not very user-friendly, but then it saves precious rupees by reducing excessive wiring to the doors (remember the Logan?). The dashboard can be used to make a left-hand drive version without expensive re-tooling. Minimal trimming policy notwithstanding, the LX version comes with fabric upholstery and twin-tone plastic. 

The CX version gets two-tone PVC seats while the base model gets all PVC seats like in the Tata Ace. Another difference between the base Nano and the luxury models is the steering wheel – the base model gets a two-spoke unit while the top-end versions get a sportier three-spoke unit. In short, this is a very matter of fact interior, but one that surprises you with its spaciousness. We have to talk about luggage space at this point. The only space to put your suitcase (one large one or two small ones) is behind the passenger seat backrest. And access to this slot is not via a regular hatch door – actually there is no hatch door — instead you load the car after pulling the rear seat backrest down (you need two people or one very long arm to do that easily). But the fact is that there is space for some luggage. And yes, do not keep heat sensitive stuff there – it really gets hot once the engine starts spinning. So Diwali shopping is okay, as long as you don’t stuff the firecrackers in there!

Engine and performance
I can hear the questions coming in – can it climb a hill with four passengers?  How about the mileage? Well here go the answers – this two-cylinder engine has a very flat torque curve and that means excellent driveability at all speeds.  Low-end grunt also means that it can attempt spirited starts from signals and the gearing is adequate to use every ounce of power the motor pumps out. And yes, we did climb a few inclines with a full load and the Nano managed it effortlessly. It is not as refined as the three-cylinder motor of the M-800 or the Alto, but it is more refined than it has any right to be!
This all-aluminium engine displaces 624cc to develop 35 bhp at 5250 rpm and 5 kgm of torque between 2500 and 4000 rpm. The drive to the rear axle is through a four speed gearbox with cable linkages. While the gearing is spot-on (as mentioned earlier) the gear shift action can get smoother. The engine features electronic multi-point fuel injection and a custom-tailored engine management system. Speed is restricted at 105 kph by controlling the fuel feed using the EMS. Extremely low carbon dioxide emission (less than 110 gm/km) and extreme fuel economy are its strengths. Tata Motors is claiming 20 kpl plus for a combined fuel cycle. With a 15 litre tank, the Nano will have a range of over 300 km.    Expect 15-18 kpl in heavy traffic situations, though. Outright performance is not what the Nano is all about, but that didn’t stop us from hooking up the V-Box for a few runs. The car accelerated to 60 kph in 8.66 seconds (8 seconds is the claimed figure) and topped out at 106 kph. The 100 kph run took 31.3 seconds. What the numbers won’t tell you is the gutsy nature of the engine – it is relentless in its pursuit of moving mass and sounds and feels like a hard working, honest motorcycle while at it. We did overtake slow-moving trucks and buses with ease – but it is important to change gears in time to avoid situations where you end up with ten fingers in your mouth. Most of the overtaking on Indian highways happens between 60 and 100 kph – but with the roads getting faster, this is changing too. So it is better to stick to the middle lane on expressways and fast toll-roads, leaving the ‘overtaking’ line for faster machinery. In short, driveability from the powertrain is excellent in town and around suburbs. You can live with it on the highway as long as you realise the limits of the car. 

Ride and handling
As we were talking to the Tata engineers, a few journalists went berserk on the track with the Nano test cars. Honestly, I was a bit worried – you see, it is a tall looking car with puny wheels, but the Tata guys looked least bothered. Were they worried about one of the cars toppling at the launch drive? ‘Well, sir,’ one of them politely said, ‘the Nano is idiot proof when it comes to handling.’ Ahem, talk of being confident. And later, when I was giving the boot to the Nano, I realised that this is a properly sorted out machine. Not for nothing does it have bigger tyres at the back, not for nothing does it have independent suspension all around! With a 42:58 weight distribution and the engine at the rear, it was important to negate the natural tendency of the car to oversteer. And the tyres (only MRFs to begin with) were developed to ensure that even when the rear steps out, it is a progressive affair. Not that it did, but just to quote the Tata man again, it is ‘idiot’ proof indeed. Sudden steering inputs or lane changes don’t upset the posture of the Nano.

And then again, this is not a very fast or a quick car and in normal life it is difficult to put it in dynamically challenging situations. Implant a powerplant with double the power at the back and trust me, the Nano will become quite a handful that needs qualified hands to tame – just like the Porsche 911s of yore.
Ride quality on broken surfaces is good, but the Nano does not like seriously large speed breakers. The small wheels will literally bounce off the breakers before you can say ‘ouch’ and the entire car will be through it (with the rear passengers tossed up and down) before you even start shedding speed. So it is important to keep an eye for big ‘humps’ on the road. What the dynamic engineers and road testers of Tata have achieved with the Nano is truly amazing because they have not, and could not, have relied on expensive stability programmes. Remember, the mighty Mercedes-Benz had to offer ESP even in the most basic version of the Smart to make life easier for certain breeds of elks.

Here is the best way to sum up the Nano: we use only 50-60 per cent of a car’s potential inside the city, right? Well, the Nano is just about 70 per cent – the rest you will hardly miss. The Nano surprised me with its ability to start up, run, stop, go around corners and generally behave like a normal car – which, incidentally, it is. The best part is it is not trying to be something else. Simplicity and honesty make good cars, and here, it is helping create a bit of history.  It takes a lot of vision, trust from a lot of people to back that vision and plentiful frugal thinking to come up with an automotive solution to a genuine issue – in this case, cheap and safe personal transportation for a hell of a lot of people. I always believed that India is now going through a period similar to what Europe did after the Second World War. That way, the Nano is a true inheritor to the Beetle and the 2CV. And having driven both, let me assure you that this one is cleverer! In case you are one of the many like me who wondered about our roads, well, there is still time to change. Because roads will follow – they’ve got to.