The Tata Nano Hasn't Set the World on Fire, But It Has Burst into Flames a Few Times

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 10, 2010

An Ambassador at large: Note the custom hood ornament. (Flickr/runran) I lived in India for two years, and during that time our family enjoyed state-of-the-art transportation - a diminutive Hindustan Ambassador. It's too bad Tom and Ray aren't based in Bombay, because the material would be really rich. The Ambassador was problematic on so many levels, as well as being a heroic polluter. Here's one question I'd ask: "Guys, what do I do when the column shifter comes off in my hand?"This actually happened to our chauffeur. Yes, our chauffeur. We had a chauffeur-driven clone of a 1956 Morris Oxford. Hindustan made this car well into this century. In fact, for the millennium they introduced the "Ambassador Classic," which included a radical design change--the column shifter was finally abandoned for four on the floor and "a tweaked-up suspension," which I shudder to imagine.

I hear that Sonia Gandhi, head of India's Congress Party, still prefers an Ambassador to any other form of transportation. We would gladly have given her ours, especially if we could have gotten our hands on one of the nifty Plymouth Savoys that were briefly assembled in Bombay.

Eastern Europe had its own version of the Ambassador in the Trabant, which it resembled in many particulars, including its ability to warm the planet all by itself. Time surveyed the '75 Trabant and its "two-stroke pollution generator that maxed out at an ear-splitting 18 hp" and declared it "a hollow lie of a car constructed of recycled worthlessness." But it was worthy of making the "50 Worst Cars of All Time" list.

Tato Nano sales are plummeting: Blame foreign objects. (Flickr photo/Daniel Gasienica) I digress. I was thinking of the Ambassador because its role as India's entry-level car has largely been usurped by the $2,500 Tata Nano. India had a closed auto market when I lived there, but many different models (including a lot of Japanese cars) are available there now. But the Nano represents a car for the masses.

So why is it failing in the market? Not surprisingly, the Nano got more than 200,000 advance orders when it went on sale about a year ago. And sales are dropping, from 3,065 in October to a pitiful 509 in November. This is the car that was going to motorize the Indian middle class? What happened.

Well, as Crazy Arthur Brown put it, "Fire!" Yes, the Nano has burst into flames on several occasions, including an incident that occurred as the owner was leaving the dealership with his brand-new car. The poor thing was still wearing its celebratory garland of marigolds when it went up. Some six fires were reported.

The press release that Tata put out about all this is a masterpiece of non-sequiturs, particularly when addressing the reliability question. For instance: "Some owners have taken their Nanos on country-wide trips or to altitudes like Khardungla, the world's highest motorable road. This adequately corroborates the Tata Nano's reliability and safety." What? A few made it across a mountain road and this means they're safe and trouble-free?

And I particularly liked this, which references an investigation by "a team of internal and international experts" and may refer obliquely to the fire problem: "The incidents in few Tata Nano cars are specific to the cars which had such incidents," it says. "We have noticed instances of additional foreign electrical equipment having been installed or foreign material left on the exhaust system." The problem is attributed to "users in the hinterlands not fully familiar to cars."

The Magliozzis would tell you never to leave foreign material on the exhaust system. Distinct no-no. Emphasis on the "foreign" here.

Despite the 200,000 advance orders, Tata delivered only 70,000 Nanos by the end of October. You still can't get the car in all parts of India, but that's coming. The company is now trying to build a market by familiarizing some of those folks who "do not know driving" in the hinterlands with the inner workings of the automobile.

The Tata Nano is not likely to be sold in the U.S., but Tata did bravely prepare an upgraded European edition that was shown around auto shows. Crash testing is going to be a challenge, of course, as it has been for many Chinese cars.

Talking about the Nano makes me think of its American equivalent, the Smart car. The Smart has had some of the same sales problems as the Nano. The car enjoyed a glittering year followed by a big drop: 25,000 were sold in 2008, followed by a 40 percent drop in 2009, and it's not doing too well in 2010 either. In October, Smart moved just 367 cars, a 44 percent drop from the same month the year before. For the year, 5,146 had been moved at that point.

So what went wrong? According to Consumer Reports, the Smart stands at 67 percent owner satisfaction, but it's down from over 80. Compared to the VW, 77 percent like their Mini Coopers, and 93 percent their VW Golf TDIs.

The new four-door Smart might look like this. I'm not sure this proves Americans just don't like very small cars. The Smart is getting pretty long in the tooth, and it always should have been better than it is. It's noisy, and a transmission-related hesitation alienated some buyers. We'll see how well the electric drive Smart does. I drove it, and liked it much better than the gas version.

Let's remember America's love affair with the Volkswagen Beetle. College students crammed into them, and ad awards were won by making a virtue of being small, frugal and cheap to buy. A four-door Smart is coming in collaboration with Nissan, and maybe that will revive the brand.

Small is beautiful, E.F. Schumacher said that and he was right. But not all small things are beautiful. I think I said that.

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