BANGALORE — So what's the car of a million dreams across India?
If Tata Motors has it right, it will be the Nano: a cut-rate engineering marvel with a rear engine and front trunk space. Oh, and a price tag of about $2,000.
The tiny Nano will lack many of the standard accoutrements of cars in the West.
It won't have airbags or back-seat safety belts. There won't be power steering or an anti-lock brake system. But with a base price of 100,000 rupees, middle-class India may just stampede its way to car-dealerships when orders for the Nano begin in mid-April.
“The euphoria over the Nano is unmatched,” said Premanand Shenoy, chief executive of the Prerna Motors, a Tata dealer in Bangalore. “We have already held staff meetings on how to handle the thousands of people expected to walk in that day.”
The Nano project took off after Ratan Tata — the famed chairman of the Indian conglomerate that spans salt, steel and software — promised to build a “people’s car" for the masses now driving two-wheelers.
In India’s traffic-clogged city roads, millions ride on scooters and motorcycles — with sometimes as many as four or five people hanging precariously to the same vehicle.
The Nano aims to fulfill middle-class India’s desire to own a car, helping the not-so-rich claw their way up another rung of prosperity. Analysts estimate that latent demand for a low-priced car could boost the Indian car market's size by 65 percent, even in the face of a slowing economy.
Nirupa Venkatesh, a Bangalore-based dentist, is eager to order the Nano as the family’s second car. She and her husband, a gynecologist, already own a Toyota SUV.
“I want the Nano because it is cheap and (the) best,” said Venkatesh, who like many price-conscious Indians wants a no-frills product. She will use the car to shop, run errands and drop her 9-year old daughter off at school.
The Nano's size will be a help in India. Venkatesh says the ultra-small car will be easy to park and maneuver in traffic-gridlocked Bangalore.
Ravi Shankar, who runs a small business selling wedding decorations, also plans to order the Nano. His brother-in-law and three other friends all hanker for a car. The Nano is good-looking, fuel efficient and made by the reputed Tata, they said.
All of them have monthly incomes ranging between 12,000 rupees and 15,000 rupees ($250 to $300), and they all aspire to be first-time car owners.
Shankar currently rides a motorbike but said his dream is to “arrive in style in a red car” in his village, Harohalli, 30 miles away.
In the face of this demand Tata will make fewer than 100,000 cars this year. But a new factory in the western Gujarat state will help step up production at the end of 2009.
Tata says there is also demand from overseas markets such as Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Preparing for an overseas Nano launch by 2011, the company has applied for patent protection for more than 37 inventions and innovations involved with Nano's creation.
Should Detroit be worried?
On Nano’s Facebook page (yes, there's a Facebook page), one potential U.S. customer wrote: “I saw the Nano on TV a year or so ago, and have watched it online. What are the chances that the Nano will come to America? Personally, I’d love one – and am just waiting.”
Back in India, the Nano is being hailed as a shining example of indigenous "reverse" engineering. Ratan Tata first declared the price of the car to be $2,000, and his engineering team worked to build a car with that price target.
Still, some Indians worry. A hot-selling cheap car will mean more traffic on the roads, and more pressure on India's weak infrastructure and emergency services, to say nothing of the country's exhaust-choked air.
But that, too, may just force the Indian government to step things up.
“Infrastructure will have to rise to the occasion,” said Swati Ramanathan, a Bangalore-based urban planner. “After all, who are we to put a lid on people’s dreams?”
Read more about transportation: