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Sunday, April 27, 2008
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Nano Mania
America had the Ford Model T, Europe had the Volkswagen Beetle and India now has the Tata Nano. But will our people’s car be automobile enough to do the job? More importantly, can you make a proper car for this little money? Here’s the most in-depth look you’re going to get.
If you want proof that Tata Motors has captured the imagination of the automotive world, look no further than the Tata Nano. Both competing car and bikemakers have either attacked the car publicly or are quietly burning the midnight oil developing concepts of their own, a clear indication that Tata is on to something really big. And it’s not just local interest that’s been piqued. The interest of the international automotive community has also been aroused, as conventional wisdom claims you can’t make a car for US$ 3,000. But it has been more than just idle curiosity that has put the Tata car and the Indian automobile industry on the global map. It’s the current obsession carmakers have with slashing costs that makes them want an closer look.

Of course, the big question on everyone’s mind is – how? How has Tata taken a more-or-less conventional car and managed to cut a massive slice of cost. Has it used motorcycle components, cheap parts, or is this the real thing? We at Autocar India have been tracking the Nano’s story since its inception, to give you the inside view of the car.

DESIGN AND ENGINEERING
In the Indian car world the proverbial pot of gold lies at the bottom of the pyramid. Basically, the more affordable a product, the wider the appeal and the greater the number of potential customers it has. And the Nano represents this very philosophy. Talk to engineers at Tata Motors and the word ‘Chairman’ pops up regularly. As is common knowledge, the Nano has been primarily Ratan Tata’s vision; to transport families that are currently perched on the fuel tanks and seats of motorcycles in a basic and very affordable car. So Tata engineers set out to design and build not just a new car, but an all-new class of car.

But how minimal can minimalist be? This is a Tata car after all, and that means lots of space. If you’re expecting a tiny car, you are going to be in for a shock. The Nano is not only wider and taller than a Maruti 800, it’s wider and taller than an Alto as well. But the fact that the compact engine sits just above the rear wheels allows it to use space more efficiently. The overall shape is that of a mono-volume – one even more extreme than a Chevrolet Spark or the Maruti Zen Estilo, meaning almost no bonnet section. And since space has been used more effectively and the Nano doesn’t have a nose section like the distinctly ‘two-box’ 800 or Alto, the car is around 20cm shorter than an 800. Still, space available to the passengers is, according to Tata Motors, 21 percent more than a Maruti 800.

Tata has made design and styling a key differentiator with its products, and the Nano is no exception. In fact, styling is one area where there is no compromise. There are no cost-saving flat surfaces or flat plane glass on the Nano. Tata engineers admit that they could have whittled down lots of rupees if they used simple surfaces that reduce manufacturing costs, but that road was clearly a ‘No Entry’. Tata’s focus on design stands vindicated with the Nano. It’s a stunning- looking car by any standards and proves the point that cheap cars don’t have to look cheap. Logan stylists please take note.

The Nano’s styling was penned by a team led by Justin Norek (ex-IDEA and now head of Trilix), in close consultation with Ratan Tata, who signed off every stage of the design process. The result is a pretty futuristic design that’s quite radical by Indian standards. Because of the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout that Tata has adopted, the Nano has very short overhangs, the wheels look like they have been pushed out to each corner of the car. This has allowed for a generous wheelbase – 2230mm, which is 55mm more than a Maruti 800 – on an overall length that is significantly shorter. Stand-out features include a very steep bonnet, triangular front quarter-glass, high roof and mini side vents under the rear doors that cool the engine compartment with fresh air. The bonnet has a central ridge or fold, which is part of Tata’s new design language and, though there is no grille, the ‘smiling grille’ look has subtly been incorporated into the bonnet. The striking headlamps, which vaguely resemble the Zen Estilo’s contribute further to the perky nature of the styling. There are a few traces of the Mitsubishi ‘i’ as well, especially in the overall silhouette and the stylistic cut that runs along the flanks of the car and arcs up to the rear vents.

The rear of the car looks familiar because the Nano uses tall tail-lights similar to those seen on the Indica. Superbly detailed and classy looking, the rear section also has a Tata logo at the centre. Notice the word hatch is not used. This is because the rear of the car has no hatch, access to the motor only available from the inside. Yes, it is welded shut! This maybe taking cost-cutting a bit to the extreme.

The bumpers are nice and aggressive and an integral part of the strong design statement of the car. At the rear, it has a sporty-looking mesh effect and the inverted ‘V’ cut above the centrally-mounted exhaust pipe looks neat. The only letdown in the overall design is the weedy tyres, which make the Nano look dainty.

CHASSIS, SUSPENSION AND BRAKES
Contrary to what a lot of people expected, this is a metal-bodied car with four large doors. Earlier speculation that the Nano would share its platform and some of its running gear with the Ace light truck has proved to be totally incorrect. The Ace and Nano share very little. Still, the Nano is not a pure monocoque construction and has a sub-frame. Tata has used the help of a couple of long members and three cross members for rigidity, which aids in ride, handling and safety as well.

Other bits to stiffen the chassis include the frame of the front seats that runs across the inside width of the car, a ribbed roof which increases the ‘section modulus’, as well as the fixed-hatch at the rear.

The suspension is all independent; the front suspension struts are supported by a lower A-arm for improved steering feel and directional control. And Tata has spent a bit on the rear suspension as well. The coil-sprung independent rear suspension consists of twin arms with lots of articulation.

But why does a low-cost car need to have such an elaborate suspension? That’s exactly the question we put to the Tata engineers. The main source of the problem seems to be the location of the engine and the rear-biased 30:70 weight distribution, which was producing a fair amount of oversteer at high speeds. Apart from a well-specced suspension, using the widest possible track and putting a wheel at each corner, Tata turned to lower-profile rubber, a stiffer front suspension, wider tyres at the rear, as well as measures like shifting the battery and fuel tank to under the front seats. Tata engineers have opted for softer compound MRF rubber. The rubber is 135/70 at the front and wider 155/65 at rear of the car on 12-inch rims. And like many rear-engined cars, ride at the front might be a touch stiff. The engineers even toyed with moving the radiator to the nose of the car to help balance out weight distribution, but this was deemed too expensive. Tata engineers admit that sorting out the dynamics was one of the biggest challenges and it remains to be seen how good the Nano’s handling is. The brakes, however, are anything but expensive. The Nano does not use expensive disc brakes, but relatively inexpensive drum brakes instead. Further, some versions do away with even the servo system or the brake booster! As can be seen from the ‘standing on its toes’ stance that is common with all Tata cars, the Nano has a healthy amount of ground clearance. With no overhangs and 180mm of clearance, you may even be able to go off-road with this.

ENGINE AND GEARBOX
The Nano’s motor is an all-aluminium, 624cc, in-line, two-cylinder motor. Like with every other bit on the car, it is pared down for costs. Valve gear is a simple two valves per cylinder, driven by a single overhead camshaft. Placed under the rear seat, this tiny motor is offset to the right, with the gearbox placed across on the other side. The engine is situated somewhat inside the rear axle line to benefit handling, but other bits like the radiator are behind it.

The engine management system has been supplied by Bosch and this ‘Value Motronic’ version is essentially a low-cost version of Bosch’s full-fledged Motronic system. The Value Motronic uses a simple ECU with software that is especially tailored for this car. This customised setup allows Bosch to use comparatively basic electronic circuitry. Also heavily reduced is the number of sensors that relay information to the ECU. A normal Motronic system may have up to seven or eight sensors, but the Nano’s engine makes do with only four basic ones. This system costs less than half of what a normal system does and yet meets Bharat stage III emission norms. However, to meet Euro IV, the ECU would need to be upgraded.

It started out life as a 583cc engine, but the capacity was eventually enlarged to 624cc to give the Nano near-Maruti 800-like performance. Tata eventually went for a ‘square’ engine size, which means the bore and stroke length are virtually identical. Tata engineers hinted that engine capacity could be increased, as the design allows for an increase in stroke on this block. The Nano isn’t the most powerful car in the market; in fact, it’s the least. The tiny engine cranks out a mere 33bhp, which is comparable to the Maruti 800’s 37bhp. Performance should be similar, though, owing to the Nano’s meagre weight. Another big challenge with the Nano was to control NVH, both from the engine and the road. The sheet metal frequencies were optimized to control boom and vibration. Refinement may still be an issue as, given the cost constraints, knocking out unwanted NVH would have required costly sound- deadening materials. A practical solution has been to shift the boom or resonance from 3000rpm (the normal driving range) to 5000rpm. What this implies is that it’s only when you rev it hard that the Nano will be particularly noisy.

The fuel tank is situated under the front passenger seat and holds a mere 15 litres, an indication of the fuel efficiency of the Nano, which Tata claims will be upwards of 20kpl. However, we feel the tank capacity is too small and needs to be increased to give the Nano decent range. Another reason to avoid frequent trips to the pump is because the fuel filler is in the bonnet. This isn’t as convenient as conventional (and costlier to design) fuel flaps, but Nano owners will get surely get used to it like VW Beetle owners did.

The Nano uses a cable-operated four-speed gearbox, whose shift action felt direct, but a bit notchy. Fourth is an overdriven ratio and first and second are too short to provide strong initial acceleration. Tata is in the process of developing a CVT automatic, similar to the ones you see on scooters, but this ’box won’t be ready in time for the launch. There is also provision for a five-speed ’box which is essential to meet future Euro IV norms.

INTERIORS AND COMFORT
The interiors are quite basic and distinctly austere. You can spot a lot of the penny-pinching inside here. The plastic quality and other bits like switches, knobs and beadings are quite crude, but it’s far better than a Maruti 800 and we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is a Rs 1-lakh car. However, a single sun visor on the base version is just too stingy and Tata would do well to spend an extra 50 bucks and give a visor to the front passenger as well. The seats cannot be reclined, have in-built headrests and the exposed seat mountings look crude and basic as well. Then, there is only a single control stalk near the steering wheel on the base version and no glovebox either. But when it comes to sheer passenger space, the Nano shocked us with its roominess. This is a genuine four-seater that can seat four large adults in pretty good comfort. We were amazed by the head and legroom in the Nano, and the rear seat, with its high ‘H-point’, matches the comfort of some larger hatches. The 800 and Alto’s interiors feel like sardine tins in comparison. Luggage space is only 150 litres, similar to the 800’s, but people are going to want and expect more. And since this is going to be a semi-urban car, it is going to be driven on the highway, and we hope that doesn’t spawn roof-mounted luggage carriers for the Nano.

More of an inconvenience (especially with rear passengers seated) is the convoluted system of flipping down the rear seats and removing the shelf to access your luggage. Please get the rear glass to open! The driver’s footwell is also a bit cramped; the pedals are bit too close together and offset as well to avoid fouling with the wheel hump.

Another neat touch is the Nano’s stylish dashboard, which is impressively shaped and quite functional. As on most new Tata cars, the instrument panel is mounted in the central console. It is a simple device with a speedo and little else, warning lights used for other details. The central console forms a prominent ridge in the centre of the car, and the speedo is mounted really high up, On either side of the dash are deeply carved-out storage areas, where you can throw just about anything from phones to sweaters, pretty neat. However, the high ridge makes visibility for shorter drivers a bit of a problem.

While the base version has no creature comforts, the Nano has been designed to take a fair amount of equipment. Front power windows and air-conditioning are standard on the top-end version and there’s an audio option too. Let’s not forget that the Nano has been conceived for export markets as well, and that means leaving provision for airbags, ABS, power steering and other kit that other countries might want.

NOT QUITE ONE LAKH, BUT STILL THE CHEAPEST CAR IN THE WORLD

The one-lakh car may have a new name, but does it live up to its original billing? Symbolically, it does, but even the base model (no air-con), priced at Rs 1 lakh, isn’t quite Rs 1 lakh. This is the dealer price, which doesn’t include VAT and transport, so an ex-showroom price of Rs 1.2 lakh is the real starting point. Add to that registration and insurance and the price goes up further. Besides, the better-equipped models are likely to be more expensive, so realistically you’re looking for a price of Rs 1.5 lakh for a car with basic creature comforts like air-conditioning. So if you forget the emotional connection with Ratan Tata’s aim to give the car at this magic price and factor in the rising costs of raw materials and inflation, as well as the tax component (which works out to a staggering 39 per cent of the car), to have achieved this price is a miracle.

THE FINAL TEST IS NOT OVER
Despite having the odds and conventional wisdom stacked against it, Tata seems to have pulled it off. We haven’t driven the Nano, but from the manner in which it has been engineered, from what the specifications tell us, it will drive like a proper car.

What Tata needs to do is ensure that the Nano is well sorted out before its commercial launch towards the end of this year. There is still a lot of work to be done. Making the rear-engine, rear-driven setup handle well has been something the engineers have had to work hard at, and getting acceptable performance without compromising on fuel economy is another. Tata doesn’t have a great track record for reliability and hence the company has to ensure that it runs without breaking down. The good thing is that it has had a lot of help with these challenges. More than 80 percent of the car is outsourced; many suppliers actually are Tata companies and a lot of them have worked closely with Tata to provide solutions. And if Tata gets it right, the Nano could be the new revolution on wheels, not just in India, but around the world. The future of a new segment of micro-cars starts here.

Factfile:- TATA NANO
Price From Rs 1.2 lakh* (est.)
Engine Twin cylinders, in line, 624cc petrol
Layout Vertically-aligned, rear-mounted, RWD
Bore x Stroke 73.5 x 73.5mm
Compression Ratio 9.5:1
Valve gear 2 valves per cylinder, SOHC
Power 33bhp at 5500rpm
Torque 4.89kgm at 2500rpm
Top Speed 105-110kph#
Fuel efficiency (overall) 20kpl#
Boot capacity 150 litres
Transmission: Four-speed, manual
Steering Mechanical Rack and pinion
Length 3100mm
Width 1500mm
Height 1600mm
Wheelbase 2230mm
Track (F/R) 1325mm/1315mm
Ground clearance 180mm Fuel tank 15 litres
Suspension (F) MacPherson Strut with lower A-arm
Suspension (R) Independent coil spring
Kerb weight 580-600kg


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