Trust me, the last time I felt the same sense of occasion before driving a car, it involved a screaming yellow Lamborghini. Today, the colour remained identical -- sunshine yellow -- and like the Lamborghini, the engine was mounted at the back, but there were more butterflies in my tummy as I cranked the Tata Nano to life.
You see, with the Lambo, you expect brutal power and performance. But with the Nano... well, I did not know what to expect. The anticipation, the endless lowdown from the rumour mills, the hushed conversations with contacts and a zillion questions from friends and relatives later, I was about to drive the Nano.
The two-cylinder 624cc engine hissed like a modern scooter before waking up and settling to an idle. The cable-linked gear lever helped me select first and presto, we had motion!
First things first, the Nano does not look or feel like a very 'cheap' car. It is a very thoughtfully designed piece of kit, with an agreeable level of fit and finish. Nor would you expect the kind of space it has in its interior.
The mono-volume (single box) construction with wheels at extreme ends has liberated a great deal of space -- it feels more spacious than the Maruti Suzuki Alto or the M-800 -- and getting in and out of the car is a breeze, even at the back. You sit taller than say, in an Indica, and you get a commanding view of the road and the surroundings thanks to a larger greenhouse. No, you certainly don't get claustrophobic in there.
First gear takes takes you to 33 kph and a quick shift to second is capable of showing you almost 60 kph (in 8.66 seconds). Mind you, there are no excessive vibrations or loud noise accompanying the progress. The gutsy little 35 bhp engine surprises you with its energy levels though.
Like with all new concepts, there are a few things that you have to come to terms with in the Nano. Like the single blade wiper, the fact that the tyre sizes are different for the front and rear, that the engine cannot be accessed from outside (you need to open eight wing nuts inside the car to do that), that the spare tyre is up front, you fill fuel after opening the bonnet and so on.
The plastic quality is passable, but the cloth upholstery in the LX version we drove was very good indeed. The instrumentation inside the car consists of a speedo and a digital fuel gauge that also houses an odometer and nothing more. All of that is stacked in the middle so that it is easier to make a left-hand drive version as and when the Nano goes abroad. Frugal engineering continues with power window buttons housed in the centre console instead of the doors.
By third gear you have reached 90 kph and the fourth gear gets you to the three-digit figure. Zero to 100 kph in 30-odd seconds may not trouble the Lamborghinis of this world, but it is the manner in which the Nano achieves its top speed of 106 kph that surprised me. The engine is spinning away lazily at these speeds -- it is not stressed -- and that means longer engine life.
While you use only 50-60 per cent of the performance of any other modern car inside city limits, Tata Motors is giving you only 70 per cent and nothing more. Still, the Nano is perfectly driveable in traffic and gets off signals without being passed by other vehicles except 21-year olds on Bajaj Pulsars. Tata Motors expect a mileage of 20 kpl with a bit of highway use thrown in. Congested traffic might bring the figure down by 10-15 per cent.
I was one of those who doubted the dynamic capabilities of the Nano when I saw it at the Auto Expo in January 2008. After all, it is a tall car with a small foot print and that does not normally agree with the laws of physics.
Now throw the engine at the back end of a car and give it a 42:58 weight distribution and you are asking for trouble. Or so I thought. The Nano cannot be flipped by even spirited driving. As one of the Tata engineers said as a journalist was going a bit too fast at the Tata Motors test track's skid pad, "The Nano is quite idiot proof." Sure it is.
To begin with, we are not dealing with speeds of a Lamborghini in any case. The different sized tyres, independent suspension at the four corners and fine-tuning of tyres and dampers have resulted in a car that is stable throughout the speed range. A clever bit of engineering ensures your Nano cannot exceed 105 kph in forward and more than the 'desirable' speed in reverse; this is done by cutting the fuel flow to the engine.
A masterstroke of nannying for the Nano indeed. The brakes of the Nano are adequate to stop the car, but disc brakes up front would have been welcome -- sure, it would have added to the cost but hey, even bicycles have disc brakes these days! Also disappointing is the lack of a left-side rear view mirror -- every motorcycle sold in India offers that.
The Nano starts, goes, overtakes, stops like any other modern car -- and that is what most people, including me, didn't expect. It has been engineered to a fault and deserves the success it is bound to get.
What is important is keeping the price minimum over the next few years. The moment it gets any closer to mainstream cars as we know them today, the equation changes since most customers would want maximum car for their money.