A car like this is born once in a century.
The Nano, in bright yellow with its tiny bonnet open, was gulping fuel down its petite throat at the gas station, where most on-test TATA vehicles usually take a halt to refill. Even a Lamborghini Reventon wouldn’t have attracted half as much crowd as this tiny TATA product. Hordes of people had huddled around it within moments – all for a car that costs less than half the price of an Ariens Zoom Landowner lawn mower I saw on the internet the other day. And boy does it look sensational!
If there was a human being who didn’t know anything about the Nano, he would probably mistake it for the most advanced Kei car powered by the fuel that’ll replace hydrogen. Well even if I am exaggerating a bit, from a distance, the Nano looks phenomenal – outclassing most other small cars in terms of design and aesthetics. The most striking design feature is the air intakes behind the sharp recess in the rear door, à la Lamborghini Murcielago. Not only does it make this small car look terrifically sporty and chic for its price and size, it also feeds much needed air to the claustrophobically packaged engine. The curvy rear with slim vertical tail lamps and a massive rear bumper with a sporty mesh in the centre further augment the snazzy, sporty look of the car. The Nano, as one may wrongly assume, isn’t really a hatch. The sharply raked front windscreen merges seamlessly into a diminutive bonnet with a central ridge and finally into the bumper, giving the Nano its unusual ‘wee’ face. Hundreds of bright young Indian engineering brains have burnt the midnight oil to make that front end smaller. Extremely clever engineering details are meant to maximize the in-cabin space without extending the wheelbase too much. Where you usually have the engine in such small cars, you have a spare wheel, the fuel filler hose, the air-conditioner air intake, the steering box and the brake and windscreen washer fluid compartments. That’s quite a few items but they still take up substantially less space than what an engine and transmission would have. The compact power train has been pushed at the back, behind the rear seats to release invaluable space, and the trick has worked wonders for the car’s in cabin volume. This means that the centre console, the steering wheel and consequently the driver’s seat can be pushed forward by a few good inches, releasing tons of space for those sitting on back-seat. The amount of room you have inside the Nano needs to be experienced to be believed. What augments the feeling of space inside the cabin is the car’s tall-boy design that offers generous headroom, while the high seating position for both front and rear passengers translates to a good all round view. Throw in four big windows to allow ample air and light, and the Nano easily becomes one of the most spacious small hatchbacks cars in the country.
But the team at TATA didn’t stop at just that to optimize cabin space for passengers. They realized that thick seat trimmings eat up precious knee room. At the same time, they were determined to keep costs low for this phenomenal exercise in design. So they came up with a special design and material for the car’s seats that not only took up less space owing to its thinness, but also reduced seating costs by a humongous margin, that too without compromising much on comfort. The seats at the back, though liberal in terms of knee and legroom, aren’t quite as supportive as they ideally should be and make one slide forward. The high positioning of the seats, however, makes it incredibly easy to get in and out of the car. There is ample space to accommodate even three adults if the need arises. For both the front passengers seats there are massive troughs on the dashboard to accommodate anything from bottles to wallets to sunglasses. They are reasonably deep with pronounced boundaries to prevent the items
from falling down even in case of harsh braking or an increase in acceleration. It may look like a simple design detail but the functionality of it is terrific to say the least. The space offered by these recesses is good enough to accommodate some big items as well and all you have to do is just pop them in – no need to pull open any compartments. This does away with the need of having a hundred cubby holes, staying true to the Nano’s seminal philosophy – simple and functional. Not that the car doesn’t have the space to accommodate other items. There’s a twin cup holder ahead of the shifter stick with map pockets on the front and rear doors. There isn’t a glove box, but with those massive recesses in the dashboard, we don’t think there is a need for one.
We were already surprised by the amount of leg space available at the backseat, but were even more amazed by the cross member running across the car beneath the front seats. As we realized, removing the member would release even more leg space. TATA engineers enlightened us about its functionality by stating that it helped enhance the structural rigidity of the car and also acted as a safety aid in case of a side impact. Bringing the cross member down a bit will probably still keep the rigidity of the car intact but will decrease the height of the front seats by a couple of inches. This observation was taken positively by the engineers and they assured us that they’ll think about incorporating the suggested changes in future variants of the car. I must admit I didn’t expect the Nano to run well at all, what with just 35PS of peak power and 48Nm of peak torque. But with a kerb weight of a feather light 600kg, it is more than 250kg lighter than other such cars. What’s more, the 48Nm of torque is produced in a lowly 2500-4000rpm band as opposed to most litre-class small cars that produce their peak power at points between 3500 and 4500rpm. The fact should arm the Nano with a reasonable amount of turning force to pull comfortably at low speeds without the driver having to play around with the stick too much, and it does. Turning the ignition on, I realized that the engine noise inside the cabin was louder than what I was accustomed to. But that’s something you would expect with the car being stripped of NVH reducing materials in order to slash costs. The noise is still well within the limits though and it isn’t intrusive or disturbing by any measure. You’d still be sitting comfortably, listening to music from the car’s stereo (which comes as an option) at a low volume without a lot of engine, road or wind noise intrusion. Engaging the first gear and putting the car in motion was slightly tricky as the clutch takes a little getting used to. You are required to be slightly on the throttle and release the clutch more carefully. Once in motion, the Nano drives like a proper car, busting all the popular misconceptions about its unrefined, crude traits. The four speed cable actuated synchromesh gearbox is surprisingly slick especially keeping in view the cost constraints for the Nano. Some of the more expensive TATA cars are a far cry from the quality of gearshift the Nano offers. Smooth, slick and precise, the long shifter stick is a joy to operate.
I had just gotten down from the Skoda Fabia, which has the best gearshift among hatchbacks in India, and was not at all disappointed by the Nano’s shifter. It’s probably not as fluid and buttery as the Skoda, but is smooth and precise nonetheless. On the move, the Nano pulls reasonably well for the puny engine that powers it. Good acceleration is the last thing you should be expecting from the most burdened car in the world, in terms of fuel efficiency expectations, but the Nano moves ahead with reassurance. The engine always supplies enough grunt to make the car build speed steadily and allows it to cruise very comfortably at 80-90km/h on highways even with four on board and the A/C on full blast. Even on flyovers, fully laden, the Nano doesn’t feel as if it’s running out of breath. It has the torque to keep the speedometer needle climbing up, slowly but steadily nonetheless. The Nano takes about 30-odd seconds to reach the 100km/h mark from a standstill. It may sound like a lifetime to a few, but for someone looking for a practical mode of transport, there’s nothing to complain about that figure. A few more seconds with the right foot pressed against the metal will take the Nano to its ‘restricted’ top speed of 105km/h at which point the service and temperature light in the instrumentation start blinking to make you understand that you’re pushing this puny machine and your luck too hard.