I’ve just spent a day driving the cheapest new car in the world, the Tata Nano. After a delayed market launch, you can buy one of these bargain basement superminis today, in Mumbai, for the equivalent of £2250.
But I’ve been driving one in the UK: not Bombay, but Brighton, Basingstoke and Beaconsfield.
It’s thanks to the efforts of one specific band of men that I’ve had the opportunity. The guys behind the IDEALS Nano Challenge 2010 have just driven three Nanos from India back to Britain, and all for charity.
If you feel like donating to their cause – and after a day in one of their Nanos, I certainly do – visit www.idealsnanochallenge2010.com
And so it came to pass that Autocar’s first taste of UK Nano motoring happened in an example with 11,000 kilometres on the clock, and stickers all over it advertising, amongst other things, condoms.
And yet this particular Nano easily surpassed my western expectations. If you come to the car expecting a driving experience on a par with an £8000 supermini, surprise surprise, you’ll be disappointed.
But if you remember that this is a genuine two grand car – a rival for a ten-year-old, 80,000-mile Vauxhall Corsa, not a new one – then it begins to look more appealing.
Driving the Nano in the UK isn’t a chore at all. Alright, so it’s powered by an engine that’s roughly the size of two Coke cans strapped together, and that only produces 33bhp. But once you’re familiar with the Nano, somehow that’s enough – even on British roads.
Making decent progress in this car is all about familiarity. You need to work that chattering two-cylinder engine quite hard, but moreover, you need to know to change up through that four-speed manual box at exactly 20-, 30- and 50mph.
There’s no rev counter and no shift light, so it’s very easy to run into the engine’s rev limiter. But if you’re over-cautious, you’ll be frustrated by a lack of basic speed.
On motorways, the Nano doesn’t ride or handle brilliantly. Partly because it’s rear-engined and so slab-sided, partly because it runs so little castor angle on those front wheels, and partly because it’s got a very rudimentary chassis and steering system, you have to make the odd correction to the car’s course at around 60mph, and be very wary of crosswinds.
You’ll also feel the car bobbing up and down on its front axle over motorway expansion joints, a foible that’s common amongst other rear-engined cars. But on 50mph backroads and in town, the Nano’s a decent enough car to drive: basic but acceptable.
It’s also a peculiarly suited car to the UK because its maximum speed is just shy of our national speed limit. Hit 68mph in 4th gear and the rev limiter prevents you from going any faster.
Call me inexperienced if you like but, before yesterday, I’d never driven a new car in which it was actually impossible to speed on the motorway. Like so much about the Nano, there seemed to be a pleasing economy and efficiency about it.
Here’s hoping Tata doesn’t take too much away from this car’s uncompromising bare necessities character, and add too much to its pricetag, when they release the European version.
They’ll need to put a more sophisticated ECU on it in order to comply with emissions regs, and allow for EU-standard anti-lock brakes; as well as that, I reckon the Nano needs more castor angle and disc brakes on the front wheels, a simple power steering system, a fifth forward gear ratio, slightly better damping, an anti-roll bar or too.
And I dare say it’ll need some structural reinforcement if it’s going to perform acceptably in a EuroNCAP crash test.
But that’s all this car needs. Please Tata, spare us the alloy wheels, jazzy accessory packs and funky colour schemes. A cheap selling point is what the Nano is all about: if you forget that, in search of making the car desirable, you’ll take away its USP.