FOLKS’ WAGON

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tata-nano20140422VW’s Type 1 (later finding its place in automotive history carrying the name Beetle). Ford’s Model T. Both cars had put hordes of masses on four wheels, changing the lives of millions, and altering the landscape of the places in which they were built and sold.

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Tata’s Nano, which at around $2,000 was billed as the world’s cheapest car at the time of its release in 2008—and which was intended to draw the motorcycle-riding people of its native India—was supposed to do the same.

Trouble was, politics and labor unrest reared their ugly heads. The factory that was supposed to churn out the first Nanos was shut down just before it was finished. When the car finally hit showroom floors, it turned out that the motorcycle-riding Indians who should have been drawn to the Nano were more status-conscious than expected. If they are moving up in life and could now afford to buy their first motorized four-wheel transport, they would not want to be seen in one that carries the distinction of being the world’s cheapest car.

So back to the drawing board Tata went. Only it’s the drawing board in the marketing department’s offices (if there is such a thing). And what emerges is basically the same car but one that has been kitted out with a few more convenience features—an optional radio, for instance. And carpeting, door panels and other furniture. One variant gets power steering. Another is fueled by CNG. All part of Tata’s new marketing tact pitching the Nano as a “smart urban car.” It’s “world‘s cheapest” no more.

In Tata showrooms these days the car gets star billing and is quite a crowd-drawer, as a recent trip to Mumbai, India, had proven. The Nano now comes in a variety of bright colors and even some graphics. It has turned young and hip. Funky t-shirts and other merchandise are sold alongside the car. True to its rationale for being, it is still affordable, even if priced higher than the original barebones version. All right, it may not exactly be flying off showrooms, but signs point to more Indians starting to warm up to the cuddly car.

Fact is, Tata has been teasing it will export the Nano to some right-hand-drive markets in Europe. The car has no left-hooker version just yet so don’t bet the car will land in the Philippines soon, despite Tata’s recent entry. But talks have it the Nano’s second-gen model may get to the US.

How does the Nano drive? Well, let’s just say you get what you pay for (current prices hover above $3,000). The four-speed manual gearbox, which feels like dipping a spoon in gooey chocolate, is easy, if a bit ambiguous, to shift. The plastic steering wheel, placed low in the dash, seems it isn’t connected to the tiny, 12-inch front wheels. Yet somehow these things let the car go toward the direction you want.

You sit high in the Nano, a result of really tall chairs. But even then headroom remains abundant. In the rear there’s space for a couple of passengers, both of whom will be amazed at how much room there is in there. Credit here goes to the Nano’s upright proportion, making the car a genuinely safer and more convenient alternative to motorcycles—which Indians, like most people in developing countries, treat as family cars.

In the Nano a bit of luggage can be stowed beneath the hood as the engine is mounted behind the rear wheels. And there is no hatch in there (a cost-cutting measure) so the engine is accessed only by folding the car’s backseat.

Power—all right, whatever it is that the fuel-injected, two-pot 624cc engine manages to spin out—is nonetheless adequate for a car that tips the scales at just a little over 600 kilograms. At Tata’s proving grounds inside the company’s expansive manufacturing facility in Pune, about three hours’ drive from Mumbai, the Nano propelled itself briskly enough—or at least reaching velocities no human can manage on his own feet. The car acquitted itself on the highway-like stretch of tarmac, too, returning a comfy-enough ride as it seemed to skip and hop over the road. Hard to tell for sure as there’s very little feedback coming from the mechanical bits. Brakes are vague at best.

But despite its apparent shortcomings, what’s surprising is that the Nano is actually good fun to drive, a reminder of the days when cars were simple and honest. And it has that elusive quality; it puts a grin on your face, either when you drive it or when you merely see it in showrooms or on the road.

Really, it’s so bad that it’s, well, good.

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