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Tata Motors revs up its Nano plans

The Indian automaker has hefty hopes that the masses will flock to its diminutive Nano, a 10-foot-long "people's car" that'll be in showrooms soon.

Tata Nano, deluxe
The deluxe version of the Tata Nano (photo from January 2008). Tata Motors

An update has been added to this story. See below for details.

The Tata Nano may be small in stature, but it could be a big deal for car buyers in India.

Mumbai-based automaker Tata Motors on Monday announced that the time has come for the commercial launch of the Nano, a diminutive design intended to put four-wheeled transportation in the driveways of ever more Indian families. Some analysts also say the Nano signals positive development in the Indian auto industry.

"Nano is good for India. It marks the country's coming of age," Abdul Majeed, auto analyst at PricewaterhouseCoopers, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview.

When it unveiled the Nano in January 2008, Tata billed it as "the people's car," a step up from overcrowded, unsheltered scooters. (On Monday, for whatever reason, the "people's car" phrase was not to be found on the company's press material or the Tata Web site.)

That remains the driving notion behind the car. "It is to the credit of the team at Tata Motors that a car once thought impossible by the world is now a reality," Ratan Tata, the chairman of Tata Sons and Tata Motors, said in a statement Monday. "I hope it will provide safe, affordable, four-wheel transportation to families who till now have not been able to own a car."

Just 3 meters long by 1.5 meters wide by 1.6 meters high (about 10 feet long by 5 feet wide and tall), the Tata Nano provides what the company says is "an incredibly spacious passenger compartment which can comfortably seat four adults." The company goes on:

The Tata Nano has the smallest exterior footprint for a car in India but is 21 percent more spacious than the smallest car available today. A high seating position makes ingress and egress easy. Its small size coupled with a turning radius of just 4 meters makes it extremely maneuverable in the smallest of parking slots.

Under its wee hood, the 600-kilogram (a little over 1,300-pound), four-speed Nano has a 2-cylinder, 624-cc, rear-mounted gasoline engine that can push it to a top speed of 105 kilometers per hour (about 65 miles per hour) and up inclines with a 30 percent grade. It gets 23.6 kilometers per liter, which translates to roughly 56 miles per gallon.

Tata Nano, red
The standard version of the Tata Nano (photo from January 2008). Tata Motors

The car will go on display at dealerships at the start of April, but deliveries won't begin until July. Expected to be priced starting at about $2,000, the Nano comes in three models:

• Tata Nano Standard: three color options, single-tone seats, and fold-down rear seat.

• Tata Nano CX: five color options, with heating and air-conditioning, two-tone seats, parcel shelf, booster-assisted brakes, fold-down rear seat with nap rest.

• Tata Nano LX: the features of CX plus complete fabric seats, central locking, front power windows, body colored exteriors in three premium colors, fog lamps, electronic trip meter, cup holder in front console, mobile charger point, and rear spoiler.

On the matter of safety, the company said:

The Tata Nano's safety performance exceeds current regulatory requirements--it passes the roll-over test and offset impact, which are not regulated in India. It has an all sheet-metal body, reinforced passenger compartment, crumple zones, intrusion-resistant doors, besides mandatory seat belts, and complies fully with existing Indian safety standards. Tubeless tires--among which the rear ones are wider endowing extra stability--enhance safety.

The Nanos will be available "in limited numbers" at first, Tata said, but a new, dedicated factory scheduled to get cranking in 2010 is expected to produce 350,000 Nanos annually.

Protests over a proposed factory location spurred Tata to move its Nano plant to a more business-friendly state, according to the Associated Press. The AP also reports that analysts generally expect Tata to make no more than about 50,000 cars in the coming year.

Update 11:57 a.m. PDT: Even with the work cut out for it in the domestic market, Tata also apparently has its eye on the European and U.S. markets. According to the Indo-Asian News Service, Ratan Tata said Monday that the company hopes to have a version for Europe by 2011 and one for the U.S. perhaps by 2012.

For both those markets, though, Tata Motors would have to boost the safety features of the Nano and meet higher emissions standards, as well.

"It would not be a $2,000 or $3,000 vehicle, but it will encompass all the features required as per European regulations and by the customers like protective airbags," Tata said, according to the IANS. "Given the present indications, we plan to further develop the European model for the U.S. markets, like providing a better crash protection system."

Swati Prasad, writing for ZDNet Asia, reported from India. Jonathan Skillings of CNET News reported from Boston.