I’ve been wanting to drive a Tata Nano, the Indian city car billed as the cheapest car you could buy new, ever since I heard that a brand-new $2,500 car existed. Somehow, though, the Nano has eluded me; I even spent some time in India, and despite my efforts, I didn’t even get to drive one on its home turf.
That’s part of why it’s so crazy that, despite having visited Bangalore and Delhi and and Mumbai, it took a trip to Nashville, of all places, to get me behind the wheel of one.
Yet regular readers will likely immediately understand why Nashville has a Tata Nano scurrying around it: the Lane Motor Museum, a place where we get much of our cars for the Jason Drives video series.
I was at my all-time favorite motor museum last week, doing some television thing that I’m not totally sure I’m supposed to talk about or not, and while I was there, Jeff Lane, the man behind the museum, tossed me the keys to the Nano.
I should mention how much this says about how great Jeff Lane is; this is very likely one of the only Nanos in America, and possibly the only one registered to drive on public roads. Jay Leno had one, but even someone with as much pull as him had to send it back to India, since California wasn’t crazy about it even existing in their state. So, yeah, a Nano that can be driven on American public roads is a very special thing—and Jeff let me have it overnight.
I repaid this favor by taking a Tata Nano to a Waffle House for what I believe is the first time in recorded human history. That is, if you don’t count this knockoff Waffle House in Hyderabad. Which I don’t.
In my time with the Nano, I got to drive it a surprising amount, including a couple trips on the highway, and I’m delighted to report that this, the cheapest new car you can buy in the world, does its job.
Really, it does its job much better than it has any right to, considering the absurdly low cost of this thing.
For those of you who don’t keep up with the extreme-extreme low-end of the international car market, let me refresh you a bit. The Tata Nano was an attempt by automaker Tata, which now owns Jaguar Land Rover, to make a car for those Indians who were still doing all their traveling on mopeds or on foot. The goal was to get poor Indian families off unsafe mopeds and into much-safer cars, of some sort. The goal was a “1 lakh” car, an amount of money that translates to about $2,500. Incredibly, they managed to pull the car off.
Also incredibly, the Nano is really something of a failure. Social stigma and the pervasive but pretty irrational human desire to show status have kept sales abysmally low, and, after about ten years of money-losing production, it looks like the Nano is set to be cancelled. Even in India, no one wanted to be seen in the cheapest car you could buy.
That’s a shame, I think, because this car, when taken in full context, is amazing. The Nano wasn’t just a little cheaper than most cars; it was revolutionarily, unbelievably cheaper.
Remember, when this car was new in 2008, it sold for almost exactly 25 percent the price of the cheapest new car you could buy in America at the time.
The Nano is even cheaper historically than pretty much every other people’s car, too. Take the Volkswagen Beetle, for example, likely the closest spiritual ancestor to the Nano. In 1968, the biggest year for Beetle sales in America, a new Beetle would cost you $1699, which is about $12,156 in today’s money.
A Nano cost right around $2500 in 2008, which is equivalent to $2891 today. That’s astoundingly cheap. A Ford Model T, to cite another famous example, was $825 back in 1909; that’s about $21,748 today.
What I’m getting at here is that no matter how much you think you know that the Nano is an inexpensive car, you’re not going far enough: this thing is radically cheaper than pretty much any new car ever has been. You can buy televisions more expensive than this car at any Costco, remember. This is a real, usable, street-legal (well, not here, really, but in its intended market) car for go-kart prices.
The reason I’m pounding so hard on how inexpensive the Nano is has to do with my firm belief that it is an absolute design and engineering triumph. I don’t care that it’s not selling well in India. That doesn’t faze me a bit.
I don’t care that every part of this thing feels like it’s been shaved down to the thinnest, least amount of material they can get away with, or that it’s rattly, tinny, and sort of flimsy. I don’t care that nearly every possible corner has been cut, every chance to save a fractional rupee has been seized. I don’t care because the end result is an absolutely brilliant design.
A Bugatti Chiron is, with the exception of safety and emissions regulations, an unrestricted car. It is arguably the ultimate expression of automotive technology. And yet, when it comes to the fundamental job of being a car, moving humans and some of their stuff from one place to another, the Nano can do that job about as well, for twice the number of people, for—get this—nearly one thousandth the price.
It’s also a thousand times cheaper, and can do the same job. Who cares if the Chiron can go 200 mph faster? The Nano is an engineering triumph, and the Chiron is an engineering stunt.
The Nano is not just a scaled-down conventional car. It’s a clean-sheet design, and the result is something far more usable than a more conventional design would allow.
Effectively, the entire length of the car is usable for people or their stuff. The underfloor rear-engine design, sort of like a scaled-down Volkswagen Microbus, is incredibly space-efficient.
The fact that the Nano is a four-door car still boggles my mind. Cutting two of the doors would have been an easy way to keep the costs for the Nano down, but Tata understood that their market would want a four-door car, so that’s what they get.
Yet the Nano isn’t cramped inside. At all. In fact, it feels downright spacious, thanks to the tall roof. You sit quite high in the Nano, giving that “command position” that SUV-owners like to crow about, and, speaking of SUVs, the Nano has surprisingly good ground clearance as well—about seven inches—because it’s designed for the more rugged landscape of India.
The biggest design compromise on this first-generation of Nano is the lack of an opening hatchback. Later Nano versions did add an opening tailgate, but for this first attempt, to get to the rear luggage area (or the engine, for that matter) you have to go in through the back doors and fold down the rear seat.
The luggage area back there is reasonably sized, but getting to it is sort of a pain. Up front, under the little shield-shaped stumpy front hood, there’s no official cargo area, but the spare tire is set low enough that I found you could pretty easily cram a duffel bag in there.
I tried it. It works. I think we can count that as a little front trunk.
You also have to fill the fuel from the front compartment as well, because another little cost-savings was not bothering with a fuel filler flap in the body. That’s fine, it just makes it more like a pre-’68 VW Beetle.
I know this is very subjective, but for what it’s worth, I like the look of the Nano. I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it’s clean and friendly-looking.
It has a face that reminds me a bit of an owl, which I think isn’t such a bad thing. It’s also designed with quite a modern design vocabulary, so much so that it didn’t get as many surprised stares as I’d have expected it to get on modern roads.
I think most car-blind normies just see it and think “Smart car or something” and then turn their brains back off and think about coffee or sports with balls or the stock market or whatever the hell people who aren’t obsessed with cars think about. Sex, or food, or something, I guess.
It feels modern enough, and doesn’t really shock anyone. I was surprised by this. And a little disappointed; what’s the point of driving a Nano through Nashville if people aren’t going to point and stare?
Cheap. Of course it’s cheap. Think somewhere between a Mitsubishi Mirage on the high end and a side-by-side ATV like a Polaris or something on the low end. That said, it’s basically fine, and I was never actually uncomfortable. After all what am I, a prince or sultan or something? It’s totally fine.
The seats are made from some kind of foam that’s a good bit more dense than I think most people are used to. I suspect this was done for durability’s sake, but it does make the seats strangely firm.
You get used to it, though, and it’s really not all that uncomfortable, it’s just not exactly what most people are used to. The fabric appears to be hard-wearing and looks decent enough.
The dashboard plastics and switchgear are cheap, no question, but it’s worth noting that after a decade of what appears to be reasonably hard use for this car, only one lever—the fresh/recirculated air lever—had a broken knob. Oh, and the hood release pull was sort of wonky, too.
The centrally-mounted instrument binnacle is sort of awkward, but it works, and even has the decadent, corrupting indulgence of two separate turn signal dash lights, something I haven’t enjoyed in my decades of Beetle ownership.
Speaking of decadent indulgences, there’s even power windows for the front two windows! Holy crap, who was this car for, Vishnu? This was the higher-spec Nano, of course, and as such has not just those magic, gravity-defying windows, but also body-colored bumpers and air conditioning.
Those two little triangular windows in the A-pillar also seem like an impossible luxury on a car this cheap, but there they are, letting in glorious, free sunlight.
My biggest complaint about the interior’s design is that there’s no really good place to stick a phone so you can see the screen for navigation or whatever. In a car like this, that should be even more important, since a phone is likely to serve as the car’s whole infotainment system.
Of course, this is a car from 2008, before smartphones as we know them really, really caught on, so I can’t really blame Tata for that.
I drove this Nano in some conditions never expected of it—specifically, on American freeways. Even with that in mind, I have to say the Nano drive far better than it has any logical right to.
The fact that I could take this 37 horsepower, two-cylinder, tall, narrow, light car from halfway around the world at 55 to 60 mph on a rainy highway and not collapse into a quivering pile of sobbing fear is an absolute testimony to how good this car is.
Sure, it was skittish as hell in crosswinds, and 18-wheelers blasting by wasn’t what I’d call a party, but, overall, even at highway speeds this thing was never designed to do, the Nano felt comfortable and stable enough that I could drive it pretty much like I’d drive most cars.
It was loud and thrashy, sure, but I could still listen to music pumped out of my phone’s speaker, sitting on the dashboard. There were some sort-of alarming-sounding rattling noises happening as well, which I think were wheel bearings. If I recall, the wheel bearings on these early Nanos were really only rated to 45 mph, and Jeff told me he’d had this one up to 65 mph or so a few times. I think those bearings are no longer happy.
Steering is a bit heavier than you’d expect, since it’s unassisted, but with most of the weight at the rear, it’s not bad at all.
The car is tall and narrow, which, combined with a rear-engine weight bias, might make these sort of a handful on a track, a hilarious idea in itself that I’d absolutely love to try.
The little 624cc engine is always working pretty hard, and while 37 horsepower and 38 lb-ft is laughable by most standards, it just doesn’t feel that slow pushing this 1,400 pound wheeled bread loaf around. You have to be an active shifter, downshifting frequently, but it’s engaging and, yes, sort of fun.
I know I’m sort of a pervert about little underpowered cars like these, but I really enjoyed driving this thing around. You wring it out and work together with it, feeling out what it needs to give you its best. You’re both in it together, and I like that.
By its very definition, this is a car built on compromises, and some are bigger than others. I’ve already mentioned some, like the lack of a rear hatch, crosswinds skittishness, the flimsy feeling, and so on. Most of these are pretty understandable.
My one real big complaint has to do with the weird automatic locking system the car has. For some reason, when you open the car, the doors auto-lock after 30 seconds or so, and there’s no safeguard to pop the lock open if the door opens and shuts like most cars have.
You know how you have to lift the handle on most cars when you shut the door to keep it locked? The Nano doesn’t do that. That means when I started the car, then decided to get out of the car to take off my jacket, when the door accidentally shut I was locked out of the car, which was sitting there, idling. Dammit.
I had to slim-jim my way back in. This auto-lock feature should have been one of the things cut for cost-savings, because it’s just a pain in the ass.
Honestly, though, that’s the only real flaw I can think of that isn’t somehow explained or justified by how absurdly cheap this car is. That’s saying something.
I don’t exactly know what it says about me, but I felt very much at home and comfortable in the Nano. Often when I drive very high-powered and luxurious cars, I’ll have these nagging feelings that, come on, do I really deserve heated leather seats and 600 horsepower? Of course I don’t.
I live with myself every day; I have a pretty good sense of who I am, all my flaws and failings and whatever, and I’m pretty sure the Nano is just about right for me, an affable dipshit.
Even if we disregard what could be read as my weirdly low self-esteem, you have to respect the Nano for doing the job it does so marvelously inexpensively. I genuinely believe the design is brilliant, and even if it’s too leaden with the cheapest-car stigma, the Nano has my respect, and has proven itself to be an incredibly honest, capable machine, one that looks its restrictions square in its cold little eyes and gets on with the job, anyway.
The Nano is the true spiritual heir of what the original Volkswagen Beetle, Citroën 2Cv, BMC Mini, and Ford Model T strove to be. I can think of no higher praise than that.