Great balls of fire: Tata Nano is powered by a two-cylinder, 624cc engine. Image: Minesh Bhagaloo
Great balls of fire: Tata Nano is powered by a two-cylinder, 624cc engine. Image: Minesh Bhagaloo
Tiny proportions make it an ideal city car.
Tiny proportions make it an ideal city car.
The cuzzie was able to sit behind his driving position in the rear seats of the baby Nano.
The cuzzie was able to sit behind his driving position in the rear seats of the baby Nano.

We’re the first South African motoring publication to drive the Tata Nano, the cheapest car in the world.

And, to be honest, my expectations were something along the lines of a wheelbarrow with doors powered by a lawnmower engine, with handling to match.

But at Tata’s 2200 acre plant in Pune in India recently, the Nano I drove didn’t seem to live up to all the carry-your-fire-extinguisher type hype I’ve seen in the media since the car’s launch in 2008.

The baby Tata has had a significant recent upgrade, but with a three-model range in India starting at around R21 600 – from US 2 000 dollars (R16 200) at initial launch – and ending at around R30 300, there’s an interesting value proposition behind that ignition key.

Sure, it’s no Hyundai i10 or Toyota Aygo in terms of fit and finish, but the 3.2km test track at the plant showed a car certainly batting above its price tag. The first surprise was the performance – which is a big word to use when talking about something powered by a rear-mounted 2-cylinder, 624cc petrol engine making 28kW and 51Nm through the rear wheels.

But be that as it may, I found myself doing 100km/h at the end of third down the main straight – and at 1600 metres above sea level nogal (which saps some of that limited naturally-aspirated power).

The Nano accelerates through its gears smoothly (even with the aircon running) with more gusto than expected – thanks in part to its low 600kg kerb weight. At idle it does sound like a tuk-tuk (those three-wheeler taxis in India), but this becomes more of a buzz under acceleration (the exhaust note was tweaked with the facelift).

That’s pretty much where the acceleration ends though, with the engine cutting off in 4th (the final gear) at 110km/h, which emphasises the focus of the Nano being primarily an urban commuter. The lack of a rev counter means you tend to hit the rev limiter thanks to the short gear ratios, and the tiny non-electric steering wheel has an arcade game-like feel to it.

Handling is not sharp, but the Nano feels safe and again better than the pricing would indicate – an anti-roll bar was also part of the recent upgrade.

The trolley-like 4m turning circle should certainly work well in the city too. Drum brakes all around with no ABS aren’t exactly high-tech but stopped the super-light Nano adequately. Fuel consumption is claimed to be 3.9l/100km (which justifies the tiny 15-litre tank) and emissions 92g/km – the lowest of any car in India and below SA’s emissions tax levels.

The next surprise lay in some of the aesthetics of the car. The seats have been improved and felt supportive. The centre console housing the instrument cluster was of a clean and modern design, and space in the cabin was certainly not what I’d expected – I could comfortably sit “behind myself” in the back seat.

According to the Indian carmaker the interior was completely revised with the December 2011 facelift. Granted, I did drive the highest spec car, but build quality seemed acceptable – even in terms of wind noise which at the 110km/h top speed was not intrusive.

Form doesn’t follow function in all areas though, with no access to the rear-mounted engine. It’s sealed away behind the back bumper meaning you can’t even check oil – with visible air vents below the rear doors helping engine cooling.

The fuel filler sits under the front bonnet, and there’s no opening boot lid to speak off – you have to drop the back seats to load a bag. The aircon, probably due to the engine size, is underpowered too – think of an asthma sufferer blowing through a straw.

Worth mentioning, though, is that at thirty grand it had spec including front electric windows, aircon, central locking, front fog lamps, rear spoiler, and colour coded bumpers and mirrors. -The Star