From the Editor: It's a Small World

February 1, 2008
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The world’s most inexpensive car was unveiled at the Ninth Annual Auto Expo in New Delhi, India, in January. Priced around $2,500, the Nano from Tata Motors caused quite a stir. The car won’t be available for sale in India until later this year, but people are already lined up to buy it. “The People’s Car brings the comfort and safety of a car within the reach of thousands of families,” claims the company.

Tata chairman Ratan Tata says he came up with the idea of the low-priced car for India’s masses when he saw a family traveling on a two-wheeled scooter. The father was driving, a child standing in the front and his wife seated behind holding a baby, and all were getting wet in the rain.

While owning a car is a luxury for many of the people of India, the price of the Nano brings the car within reach of the middle class in a country where only seven out of every 1,000 people own a car. To be an affordable vehicle for the Indian middle class, the Nano eliminates many of the luxuries that Americans can’t live without in a car.

Reminiscent of the early Volkswagen Beetle, the trunk is in the front and is only large enough to hold a briefcase or a small bag of food. In the rear is the two-cylinder 0.6-liter gasoline engine with 33 horsepower, giving it a top speed of about 60 mph, according to Tata, and it gets 50 miles to the gallon.

The basic version of the car has no air conditioning, radio, passenger-side mirror, central locking or power steering, and only one windshield wiper.

Other cost-saving measures include a hollowed-out metal steering column to save on steel; cheaper bearings; and using a super strength glue in some joints rather than welds. Such construction does call into question some of the car’s quality and safety standards.

However, despite such concerns, a week after the Nano was introduced, top executives from General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. said their companies’ engineers are working on low-cost vehicles similar to the Nano.

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said that such a low-cost vehicle would have to meet Toyota quality standards, and that building a car that sells for $2,500 could be difficult.

Jim Queen, GM’s group vice president of global engineering, told reporters that GM could offer a vehicle to compete with the Nano but it needs to better understand the business case before it invests in such a straegy.

The Nano is an exciting entry in emerging markets; it will be interesting to see how the vehicle holds up.

So impressive is the Nano that Time magazine has suggested that it may well be one of the most important cars ever designed, ranking it with the likes of the Ford Model T, Volkswagen Beetle, Ford F150, Chevy Bel Air, Toyota Corolla, Plymouth Voyager and the Toyota Prius.

What do you think? Could the Nano be poised to be one of the most important cars ever designed? Share your thoughts with me at campbellg@bnpmedia.com or online at www.qualitymag.com.

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