At last we’ve driven the new Tata Nano. The world’s cheapest car is launched today in India – and CAR was there to bag a drive in the new Nano that’s rocked our very notion of affordable transport for the masses.
It’s a car that creates huge interest, especially on the crowded streets of India. Not bad for a car that’s cheaper than some lawnmowers in its home nation. We don’t blame the crowds that form around the Nano. This is a car that could revolutionise the way Indians get around. And it sure looks intriguing.
The Nano is rear-engined, so you get air intakes nestling in the recess behind the rear doors. The tiny two-cylinder engine is claustrophobically packaged, so each and every means of extracting the hot air is used by the engineers, including a vent built into the rear valance.
Tata Nano: the first impressions
Before we progress to on-road dynamics, take a moment to soak up the Nano’s weird proportions. It’s tall and narrow, and a little bit odd. It’s not even a hatchback – the rear window is glued to the bodyshell – and that sharply raked front windscreen provides an unusual, wee face.
The packaging also frees up more space for bodies inside. With no engine up front, the centre console, steering wheel and driver’s seat can be pushed forward by a few good inches, releasing hundreds of litres of space for the back benchers.
And it’s absolutely vast inside the Nano. The tall-boy design affords generous headroom and a great view out. Throw in four big windows to allow ample air and light, and the Nano easily becomes one of the most spacious small hatchbacks around.
>> Click ‘Next’ for more of CAR’s first drive review of the new Tata Nano
Doesn’t the Nano feel a bit cheap inside?
The Nano’s is certainly simple and functional. There are a few cubbyholes for journeyman clutter, but no glovebox, the seats feel thin and the quality of plastics is a step down from European minis but absolutely fine when compared with a moped.
How does the new Tata Nano drive?
If we’re being honest, we didn’t expect great things from the Nano dynamically. The key figures are minute – 35 horsepower and pound feet – but don’t forget the Nano weighs a lightweight 600kg, some 250kg lighter than most rivals.
And peak torque is produced in a lowly 2500-4000rpm band, while many sub-litre class cars need thrashing to rental levels to keep up. Turn the ignition on, and you’re met with more engine noise than you’re accustomed to. Blame the omnipresent cost cutting and almost total lack of any NVH reducing materials. It isn’t intrusive or disturbing though.
Engaging first gear and putting the car in motion is slightly tricky as the clutch takes getting used to. You have to balance throttle and clutch pedal carefully in the Nano, but once in motion it drives like a proper car, busting all the popular misconceptions about its unrefined, crude traits.
What are the Tata Nano’s controls like?
The four-speed cable actuated synchromesh gearbox is surprisingly slick, considering the penny-pinching ethos of the Nano. The gearchange is smooth, slick and precise, the long shifter stick is a joy to operate. We drove a Skoda Fabia to the Nano launch – but the Tata’s transmission compares favourably: not quite as fluid or buttery, but smooth and precise nonetheless.
>> Click ‘Next’ for the rest of our Tata Nano road test
Tata Nano: the performance
On the move, the Nano pulls reasonably well for the puny 600cc engine that powers it. Good acceleration is the last thing you should be expecting from the world’s cheapest car, but the Nano moves ahead with reassurance.
The engine always supplies enough grunt to make the car build speed steadily and allows it to cruise very comfortably at 50mph on highways even with four on board and the (optional) air-con on full blast. Even on flyovers, fully laden, the Nano doesn’t feel as if it’s running out of breath.
It has the torque to keep the speedo needle climbing up, slowly but steadily nonetheless. Mind you, this is all relative. The Nano takes about half a minute to reach 62mph, and that’s pretty much its maximum speed. That may sound like a lifetime to many, but for someone looking for a practical mode of transport in India, there’s nothing to complain about. V-max is in fact limited to 65mph – and you won’t want to stay there for long, as the service and temperature light in the instrumentation started blinking furiously. Don’t try your luck too far…
Tata Nano: it’s all about the tractability
The true litmus test of the Nano’s performance is its ability to pull reassuringly from low speeds in high gears, even when fully loaded. And it sure is tractabile! With the thermometer needle nudging 42 degrees in Pune and the air-con on full blast and four 80kg adults on board, we still didn’t defeat the tiny Nano.
From 20mph, the Nano pulled without a sign of splutter or resistance. Sure, speeds built up painfully slowly, but you get there in the end. There's a pronounced engine boom in the cabin around 45mph, but it’s perfectly tolerable. Moreover, every time you think the car is making a lot of noise, just remind yourself of the money you have paid for it and your complaints will subside.
Tata's engineers say they plan to introduce a five-speed transmission version (with a pair of disc brakes at the front wheels) very soon. With the fifth cog in place, the ratio for fourth can be shortened which will hopefully do away with the engine boom in the cabin.
>> Click ‘Next’ for the rest of our Tata Nano road test
Tata Nano: the handling test
Being a 600kg car, the Nano doesn’t require a power steering. Which is a good job, as it's not even optional. Manoeuvring the Nano in the city with its incredibly low turning radius and the four wheels at the four corners of the body is a breeze, although low-speed wheelwork can feel like hard work.
The car changes direction instantly, giving auto rickshaws with their direction-changing abilities of a housefly, a run for their money. The effort required to turn the car reduces hugely once the Nano gets to speed. Even minute inputs to the steering wheel make the car change direction rather overenthusiastically, a tad precariously at times especially at higher speeds.
A tipply-topply tallboy then?
Sort of. The Nano doesn’t feel too stable once it nears its top speed. Sudden direction changes make it go all wobbly and shaky – and those minuscule 12-inch wheels don't make this a car to throw around a handling circuit. Brake hard and the car’s rear tries its bit to move out of line, as we realised during our brake test. And this was the case with the top of the line variant of the Nano which comes equipped with brake boosters, unlike the base variant which doesn’t have the feature.
The suspension is generally on the stiff side. The springs are well sorted but the damping needs a bit of tweaking to prevent the suspension emanating a disturbing thud every time the car hits a pothole (of which there are many on Indian roads). The harshness of the suspension won’t bide well for its longevity either. No wonder the warranty is for 18 months or 24,000 kilometres.
Tata Nano: CAR's road test verdict
We spent seven hours with the Nano and drove it on all kinds of surfaces to understand its qualities and quirks to the last detail. By the end of the drive, we were mighty impressed with the car’s virtues especially the liberal space, the comfort, the fuel efficiency (28kmpl on the highway and 20kmpl in the city), the slick gearshift, the pulling capabilities at low speeds in high gears and the level of refinement for a price so cheap.
Downsides include its dodgy stability at high speeds and under harsh braking, plus stiff suspension that's way too thuddy for such a small car. But we can forgive it these glitches the moment we remember its price of £1500.
The Nano remains a phenomenal feat achieved by Tata Motors. It has ingenuity and cleverness stamped all across its body and it holds true to its promise of redefining low cost motoring.
The real test of the Nano will begin now, on real world Indian roads and with rather ‘unreal’ Indian drivers behind its wheel. If it manages to survive this ultimate torture test, the Nano will bring the world under Tata’s feet. Yes, for the price, the Nano is that good.