Why India Is Making The World's Most Interesting Cars

I know that's a bold statement to make in that headline there, but I mean it. I should clarify though— "interesting" does not mean "best" in any sense of the word. It's not the fastest, most advanced, most comfortable, or really any superlative (other than maybe "cheapest"). But some of the cars that are currently being built in India— the indigenous designed ones, not the license-built ones— are genuinely interesting automotive solutions to very unique Indian problems.

Throw enough money into a car and of course it'll be fast and beautiful and comfortable. Duh. Car companies are doing that every day. But build something that can handle awful roads, sip fuel, and haul whole families and craploads of cargo and sell it for under $5 grand, that's a genuinely interesting vehicle.

In fact, today's equivalents of post-war people's car legends like the original Mini, Ciitroën 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle, and (earlier) the Ford Model T are all being built today in India.

After attending the LA Auto Show last week and seeing many, many sleek, fast, wildly comfortable and advanced cars, I was a little disturbed at how much I'm taking certain things for granted. Things like stables and stables of horsepower, multiple full-color LCD displays, interior materials that teams of people have spent countless hours trying to make feel downright sensual to the touch— all these things I've come to expect in new cars.

The more I thought about it, the more insane it seemed. Who the hell am I to need all this refinement, God's dad's mentor's boss? No. I'm an idiot who can sometimes go for days without a shower. I love powerful, fast, luxurious cars as much as anybody, but honestly, there's two vehicles that recently have caught my attention and interest more than anything: the Tata Magic Iris and the Mahindra Maxximo.

Why India Is Making The World's Most Interesting Cars

Both are available as small vans (and pickups), two types of vehicles I've already openly written mash notes about. Both are also, by American standards, extremely cheap and absurdly underpowered. Many Americans wouldn't even consider these cars— in fact, the companies themselves dance around the "car" name, occasionally referring to them as "four-wheelers," a reference to the dangerous three-wheel autorickshaws they're designed to replace.

But I'm not so timid about titles. These are both cars, in every sense of the word, period.

Let's look at the strangely named Tata Magic Iris (wasn't that what they called those ugly posters from the '90s that you'd stare at until you saw the Statue of Liberty or whatever?) first. The Magic Iris, introduced last year, is a tiny van based on the Tata Nano rear-engine, rear-drive platform. If the Nano is roughly analogous to the original VW Beetle, this would be the Type II Microbus.

As I mentioned, it's designed to replace the mostly open, dangerous, and uncomfortable 3-wheel autorickshaws. That's why the marketing (for both these vehicles) makes such a big deal out of things we've always taken for granted like a "covered body," "steel roof" and "four wheels." Oh, and "Foot-Operated Brake, Accelerator, and Clutch." Compared to an autorickshaw, this thing is a freaking Maybach. Compared to almost anything else, not so much.

It's a wonderful use of space, a large, very friendly looking box on a short, chassis. It's laid out almost just like an old Microbus, with the driver's butt over the front wheel and the engine tucked down in the back. In what is likely a cost-cutting and comfort-adding measure, the side windows are roll-up plastic and canvas units, as is the rear tailgate, like a very early 2CV. The overall design does seem modern, and appealing in a sort of no-bullshit way.

The 661cc single-cylinder, 4-stroke diesel makes a shocking 11 HP (good news for Spinal Tap-themed bumper stickers), and 23 lb-ft of torque. It's not much, but it's good enough to push the 1500 lb van to about 35 MPH or so, which is really as fast as it needs to go over rough, rural roads or in city traffic. It's got fully independent suspension, and, get this, gets between 70-80 MPG.

This car is so interesting to me because it's like a practical, real-world study in the absolute minimum needed for a viable, usable car. Maybe even more so than the Nano, in some ways. It reminds me a lot of the very first 2CVs— the umbrella on four wheels concept. And, if you think about it, the situation in post-war France and modern, developing India aren't all that different, from the perspective of what a vehicle needs to be to thrive. Very cheap, durable, easy to repair, highly fuel efficient, able to cope with often very poor roads— these specs define both cars.

Most people would think something like this would never, ever fly in the US. Compared to most cars, they're probably right. You wouldn't even be able to take this thing on most highways. But, think about it this way: the Magic Iris costs about $4024. A new Vespa scooter costs about $5999. It doesn't seem so insane now, right? If you're looking for super-basic transportation (and, for some reason, let's say a childhood promise made to Lyle Lovett, you can't buy used) Tata's little van is vastly more practical than a Vespa. And I'm pretty sure no less safe. And while it's possibly less likely to get you laid, you could at least attempt the act inside it, one big perk over the Vespa.

The Mahindra Maxximo (I guess that extra "x" is some leftover raw Xtreme we shipped over to India in the late '90s) is similar to the Tata, but slightly bigger and more powerful. It's a bit less of a strictly-Inidan prospect and I think with some tweaks could be something appealing globally.

It's a minivan design as well, and also features a canvas, fold-down side window. That seems like a feature that could be good on some rugged US-market SUVs and crossovers. Picture a Subaru wagon with fold down rearmost side windows. That'd be pretty cool, I think.

Why India Is Making The World's Most Interesting Cars

The Maxximo has a slightly different layout as well— mid-engined, like a Toyota Previa— the driver's sitting on the engine. And here, the engine is a screaming 909cc two-cylinder diesel making a mind-scrambling 25 HP. The engine's actually quite technically advanced, featuring double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, direct injection, and a "free pedal fuel cutoff system" that sounds a bit like start/stop. Not earth shattering technology, but this is the first application of many of these things on a 2-cylinder diesel, and impressive for a car that costs less than $6500. There's also a CNG version available, and possibly an electric one in the works.

The little van is well laid-out, with three rows of seats, and the back two facing each other, which seems like a nice and surprisingly novel way to use the space.

I'd love to try either or both of these little vans. There's something so pure and honest about their designs— not pretty or sleek or conventionally desirable, but they're such good solutions to the specific issues that make up the difficult Indian market that I can't help but admire them.

We don't normally report about Indian cars all that often, but I predict that we'll see more Indian cars in the west before too long. I just hope they can find their own niche and keep their unique qualities instead of just becoming a cheaper version of the Hyundai Accent or whatever. There's really innovative engineering going on here. These companies could just have taken another low-end hatchback (like they've both done before) and called it good enough. But in they end, both companies realized that those solutions were not, in fact, good enough, and novel designs just for their specific needs had to be developed.

Maybe I just really want a small, cheap, weird, slow van. If anyone works for either Tata or Mahindra, please let me know in the comments so I can start hounding you to let me drive one of these for a bit.