Tata's Nano, world's cheapest car, on sale in April

NEW DELHI (AFP) — The Nano, the car billed as the world's cheapest, will be in automobile showrooms for sale in April, its Indian maker Tata Motors announced Thursday after months of delays.

The sporty-looking four-door Nano, dubbed the "people's car," has drawn worldwide attention due to its planned price tag of just 100,000 rupees (2,000 dollars) for the basic model -- cheaper than some laptop computers.

"The much-awaited Tata Nano will be (formally) launched at a function in Mumbai on March 23," said Debasis Ray, spokesman for Tata Motors, India's largest vehicle maker and part of the sprawling tea-to-steel Tata Group.

The cars will be on show at Tata Motors dealerships in the first week of April. Bookings will start in the second week of April.

The launch "will be a big day for the company," Ray told AFP.

He said details about pricing and distribution would be announced at the launch, originally targeted for around last October.

A violent dispute over ownership of farmland at the site in communist-ruled West Bengal state where the Nano was initially due to be built delayed its rollout.

"I'm very sure there's latent demand for the Nano. I expect long queues in front of showrooms," said Gaurav Lohia, analyst at K.R. Choksey Shares and Securities.

The company has already been taking the Nano to religious shrines across the country to seek "divine blessings" for the project, media reports say.

Secular but Hindu-dominated India is a deeply religious country and business launches are usually timed to coincide with "auspicious days."

The launch comes as Tata Motors is going through a tough patch with an economic slowdown and tight credit hitting sales.

The company, which has seen vehicle sales plummet, recently reported its first quarterly loss in seven years.

Tata Motors was feted last year as an Indian corporate success story with its 2.3-billion-dollar purchase of British luxury icons Jaguar and Land Rover. But with the global downturn, the purchase has become a financial millstone as sales of prestige cars have tumbled.

Tata Motors is making arrangements for the widest possible network to book the Nano -- "across the length and breadth of India," Ray said.

The Nano now is due to be assembled in western Gujarat state, one of India's most industry friendly states.

But the first Nanos will be rolled out from existing Tata plants in what Tata group chief Ratan Tata has described as a "makeshift kind of operation."

Only a small number of Nanos are expected to be available at first.

"It will take a year-and-a-half to get full production on stream" at the Gujarat plant, said analyst Lohia.

Ratan Tata, who conceived of the ultra-cheap vehicle to get Indians off unsafe motorcycles, said the company's focus would remain on India.

He told Germany's Bild newspaper the company aimed to sell 500,000 to one million vehicles a year at home but added "we also have the American and the European markets in our sights."

He said a European version of the Nano meeting all European emission and safety standards would be presented at the Geneva Motor Show next month.

But he said the price of the European version would be much higher -- at around 5,000 euros (6,390 dollars).