Were I running Tata Motors Ltd. of India, I’d have named its new car the "10-9" (for non-math geeks that's the symbol often used to denote the concept of "nano," or one-billionth).
It would have put this new mighty mote automobile up there with the big boys from Cadillac, Lexus, Volvo and BMW, with models such as the CTS, XLR, STS, LS, GS, ES, LX, S40, S60, S80, XC60 XC70 and XC90.
Tata went with the Nano, unveiling the ready-for-market version of the new mini car Monday. (See Saritha Rai's Nano analysis from Bangalore.)
Were we back in the days of cars such as Gremlins, Thunderbirds, Firebirds or even Beetles, this car might well have been called the Mighty Mouse, here to save the day.
Which is Tata’s intent with a car costing only about $2,000 and aimed at rising middle classes in developing countries. Middle class is a flexible term. In India, for instance, it means families earning $300 to $500 in monthly income.
When a prototype was first shown at India’s Mumbai Auto Show a year ago, the Nano's diminutive promise set off a rumble — not from its 34-horsepower engine, but from better-paid middle and upper classes in Europe and the United States who were feeling the pinch of higher gasoline prices and looking for something smaller and more fuel efficient.
Tata is calling the Nano the "people's car," but I think that was long ago taken by a German outfit called Volkswagen. In fact, the Nano sounds very familiar in its presentation: 34 horsepower, engine in the rear, rear-wheel drive, non-collapsing steering wheel, no airbags, no rear seatbelts, no ABS, no traction control, no air conditioning, no power steering.
But could you build that Volkswagen Beetle for America today?
Don't bet on it.
In fact, John Wolkonwicz, senior automotive analyst at IHS Global Insight said that just meeting U.S. safety standards would "increase the price of the Nano to about $8,000.’’
But Rattan Tata, at the introduction of the Nano, promised that it has already passed Indian full-frontal crash tests. I’m still searching to see what those are, and David Champion, supervisor for auto testing at Consumer Reports, said he was unfamiliar with those "standards.''
Yet don’t get me wrong: the burgeoning masses should be able to drive, and if you recall, the American middle class in the emergent years after World War II may have ridden in big American steel.
As for safety? In my family back then — with seven children — the best spot in the seatbelt-less car was on the ledge beneath the rear window.
Tata is aiming this car at India’s growing middle class of between 50 million and 100 million who typically ride bicycles or motor scooters, sometimes with whole families clinging with tenuous purchase on front, back or sides.
And even before these folks hit the roads, India has a problem with not only congestion, but is also a soon-to-be more mobile country lacking infrastructure where cows, pedestrians, wagons, bicycles and motor scooters share the same pathways.
It's also a place where anarchy instead of traffic law seems to hold court, as evidenced by nearly 100,000 traffic deaths a year (more than double the U.S. count), while 2 million pedestrians and motorists each year suffer serious injury.
(For more on India's road problems, see Mark Scheffler's analysis from Delhi.)
And yet, the Nano makes sense for India, and also possibly for Latin America, Africa and other Southeast Asian countries. Not to put the middle classes there in jeopardy, but the Nano could put them on the road to a more mobile life.
It has been odd, however, to watch the fervor with which some Americans and Europeans have greeted the big concept of the tiny Nano.
"Why can't North America with all its technology come up with something better?" one person asked on a Nano-based Web site. "Why is a third world country showing us common sense?"
Another made this point: "Quit whining that it has no special features. This is transportation. You can’t get cheap transportation with bells and whistles. Wake up and see that the rest of the world is watching us be sleepy, consuming pigs.’’
Global Insight’s Wolkonwicz agreed that this debate on American soil is pointless, since Tata has "no plan to bring that vehicle to the U.S.’’
"If Tata wants to enter the U.S. market, they’re going to have to do something better," he adds.
Tata would find more expensive competition that meets European and American safety and environmental standards. There is Daimler’s Smart car, and Scion will soon announce a mini-compact model.
So what should we ultimately make of this new Nano out of India?
Small does not have to be dangerous. But in emerging countries, it may well be a first step toward necessity.
Other recent Wheels columns by Royal Ford:
(Editor's note: this story was updated to add the title of David Champion. He is supervisor of auto testing at Consumer Reports.)