Tata Nano: The People’s Prius

Hummer sales are falling, econobox sales are rising, and pretty much every high-powered SUV now comes in a hybrid model. But all this greenery amounts to little more than cosmetic change in the face of Global Warming—or, more accurately, in the face of 4-dollar-a-gallon gasoline. How can a cash-strapped, environmentally aware, patriotic American do more to limit the rise in temperature?

Sure, if you’re a Hollywood star you can buy a Prius starting at $22,000. But what if your personal balance sheet runs more to upside-down mortgages than blockbuster residuals? You can still show your colors with a car that costs about five times less than the cheapest cars now on sale in America and ten times less than a Prius. The Tata Nano, which debuted at the 2008 Delhi auto show, boasts fuel economy numbers over 50 mpg in the city and over 60 on the highway (the Prius tops out at 45). What’s more, it has a top speed of only 65 mph. As you learned in driver’s ed, speed kills and wastes gas, so even if you’re lead-footed your Nano mileage may not vary quite so much as your Prius mpgs.

Even with India’s high vehicle taxes, the Nano will sell for less than 2,500 weak American dollars, about half what its nearest Indian competitor, the Suzuki Alto/Maruti 800, costs. Let’s put that in perspective. According to numbers compiled by Forbes, the Nano is far cheaper in real terms than earlier generations’ cars: four times less than a VW Bug, and nearly eight times less than a Model T. It’s only one-tenth the price of a decked-out Prius and gets much better mileage than “cheap” American cars. A Toyota Yaris (29 city/36 hwy) or a Chevy Aveo (24/34) will set you back a good twelve grand. Sure, those cars have air bags, but it’s time to let those life insurance premiums lapse anyway. At $2,500, the price alone is revolutionary.

Yet the Nano revolution is about more than price; it’s about environmental street cred as well. When it comes to cred, looks matter most. Why else would the Toyota Prius be so much more fashionable with the enviro jet set than the Honda Civic Hybrid? People drive the Prius because it’s ugly. The Civic Hybrid, cloaked as a plain old internal-combustion Civic, won’t win you any green points pulling up to the red carpet on Oscar night. But the Prius screams, “I swing with Susan Sarandon.” Like Pat Nixon’s “respectable Republican cloth coat,” the Prius proves your willingness to sacrifice for the good of the planet. There are other cars that sip fuel like a Nano, but they look like a Reagan-era Corolla or a 1985 Yugo. The wacky Nano makes you instantly recognizable as a driver of the future. If you think people will notice your green credentials in a Prius, wait till they see you in this thing: it’s almost spherical, slightly taller than it is wide, with bagel-sized wheels that look aftermarket.

At heart, the Nano is an engineer’s car. The two-cylinder engine is in the back, which Ferdinand Porsche proved long ago is the right place for it (if horses had been used to push wagons instead of pull them, we’d all be better off). With a rear engine you don’t need power steering or complex constant velocity joints, and you get great traction. To balance the tiny (38 cubic inch) engine, they put the fuel tank under the front seat, and hardcore value engineering means the only way to access the engine or the luggage compartment is from inside the car.

Nevertheless, unlike the defiantly unstylish Model T, the Nano is stylish. That it has any styling at all for $2,500 is remarkable, but the Nano features Italian styling, including a “swoosh” cut into the car’s rear quarters and air scoops at the rear wheels. Italian sports cars use scoops to cool massive ceramic disc brakes, whereas the Nano’s brakes are old-fashioned (read: cheap) rear drums. The Nano’s scoops cool the engine instead—but why miss the chance for a bit of Ferrari flair?

For the time being, you’ll have to go to India to get one, and a flight and six nights in Delhi will double the price of the car—but that’s still less than half what a Yaris will set you back. Don’t feel bad that the jet trip to Delhi will create (per passenger) as much CO2 as driving the car for three years. I assure you, the plane is going there anyway. You deserve a holiday. Fly business class and Al Gore might even be your seat mate.

Most importantly, buying a Nano shows you’re thinking globally rather than provincially. No discussion of climate change is complete without a lamentation about the motorization of India and China. This works out nicely for leftist bloggers who can cluck that if we hadn’t invented motorized society we wouldn’t be in this mess. Meanwhile, right-wing bloggers can counsel complacency in the face of brown and yellow hordes who will drink up any gas we nobly save.

Therein lies the hidden beauty of first worlders buying up Nanos from the third world. By driving up the demand and therefore the price, we’ll keep them out of the hands of would-be planet wreckers—i.e., Indians who don’t currently drive. Whereas we’re already a fully motorized society (first in the world in cars per capita), so any driving we do in fuel-efficient Nanos will be a boon for the planet. And they’ll still be cheap enough (and small enough) that you can keep one around for errands and green-vamping, while saving the Mercedes for nights out on the town.

For $2,500, we can stop squabbling over who is cooking the planet, the rich or the poor. We can leverage globalization, making a virtue of unseemly income disparities. Sure, the Indians may think they need to drive down the road to enlightenment, but we Americans have learned that that road only leads to the mall.

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