The Indians send signals

Indians travel in a torrent. They go three to a bicycle, four to a motorbike and five to a rickshaw.

They go so many to a minibus that they spill out of its open doors, and so many to a bus that the number of passengers on the roof matches that on the inside. And they all race together down terrible roads, over roadworks started but long ago abandoned, through the fierce heat and the stink of the drains and their own clouds of thick black soot, all constantly on the horn.

They ignore traffic signals and cops and lane dividers and one-way signs. They barrel past oxen and camels pulling impossibly heavy canvas grain containers that sag like fat bellies over the edge of the cart. They tear past rickshaw riders straining at their pedals to move enormous loads and past women in electric-coloured saris carrying almost as much on their heads as the camels.

They don't stop for the roadside shrines and painted, emaciated sadhu holy men, or even notice the holy cows and performing bears and stray dogs and the stiff, dead specimens of all of the above. They only narrowly avoid the blackened, barefoot, barely clothed children who live in the rough tarpaulin tents on the roadside and the lepers who, when you finally stop, thrust their twisted limbs into the car to plead for alms.

Nothing can prepare you for your first taste of Indian rush-hour driving; nothing. If your first 50 metres through downtown Mumbai or Delhi doesn't turn you into a sweating, swearing, wide-eyed whimpering mess, you're a stronger man than I. So, why are we here? Well, two reasons.

First, India is rapidly becoming the next automotive superpower. From 40,000 sales in 1982, Indians will buy nearly two million cars this year. In Europe and the US, the downturn has caused sales to plunge terrifyingly; in India, growth has simply slowed. When it resumes, billion-strong India will dwarf the European markets and join the US, China and Japan at the top of the table. All the major car makers are piling in, though not all will succeed. And it's far from just some plump, profit-heavy new market for the big players to pillage as their home markets turn to dust. India is turning its attention outwards. It is starting to export. Tata has bought Jaguar and Land Rover for US$2.3 billion, and stakes in companies that make cars that run on electricity and compressed air.

And secondly, Tata is about to launch the Nano. At $4000, this car takes everything we previously thought about how much a new car should cost and stands it on its head. It will make car ownership a possibility for hundreds of millions of people who thought they'd never be able to afford one. Privately, Tata bosses say they could make a million Nanos each year once it's introduced in other markets. Some analysts think that's conservative and the Nano might just turn out to be the Model T of the 21st century.

And what we all want to know is how it drives: surely a whole car that costs less than some premium-brand options must be terrible, right? Wrong, and we're in a unique position to tell you. We haven't driven it, but we've been to Tata's test track in Pune, India, and scored the only passenger ride in the Nano. Nobody else outside Tata has experienced it in 'action'. Tata is very protective of its new baby.

But before we tell you what we thought, you need to appreciate this car in context. Each year, 130,000 people (roughly the population of Cairns) are killed on Indian roads, but only 15 percent of them die in cars, buses or trucks. Far more are swept off their bicycles or scooters. Families of four often travel together on one motorbike; the consequences of an accident hardly need explaining. Ratan Tata - the shy, Bollywood-handsome chairman of this family-owned, 150-year-old, and impossibly diverse tea-to-IT conglomerate - wants to build a car that those currently on two wheels might reasonably afford. This is crucial. The Nano isn't out to compete with other cars; instead it aims to create its own new market. If it succeeds, it will have a major impact on India's appalling road-safety record. It will also worsen its chronic congestion and pollution. And if it fulfils even a fraction of its sales potential in India and other emerging markets, it will make Tata Motors' acquisition of Jaguar and Land Rover seem a minor distraction.

So how do you judge this $4000 car? What do you compare it to, when there hasn't been anything like it before? Do you start with the view that because this is a car, its comfort and features ought to be compared with those of other cars, even if they cost several times as much? Or do you start with the price, and an assumption that anything that offers four wheels, four doors and a roof for the cost of a scooter must be a good thing? We don't think you should do either. We think that you have to make the same mental leap as Tata's boss and engineers did, and chuck away all your preconceptions and expectations, your notions of value and car-ness. Start again; it's not easy.

Basics first. When we first started reporting on this car three years ago, our sources told us to expect something utterly un-car-like, possibly without glass or doors and with a fabric roof and plastic panels. Since its unveiling at the Delhi motor show in January 2008 we now know that it is a proper, four-door steel monocoque; it looks suspiciously like a normal car.

Now that we've sat inside a production cabin, we're pleased to report that it feels like one in here, too. The engineers say that they're most proud of the way they've maximized space, and it is mightily impressive. At 1.6m the Nano's height disguises its length; up close it's bigger than it appears in the pictures, though hardly long at 3.1m, or 60cm longer than the original Smart. But because the mechanical package is so tiny and the front and rear ends so bluff and upright, virtually its entire length is usable cabin space. It is, frankly, massive inside. The Nano's rear bench will take three, and one six-footer can sit behind another with head- and knee-room to spare.

But after that, the standard car comparisons start to run out. To save on all the pressings and hinges and catches, there's no rear hatch. To access the 100-litre boot, you flip the rear seats forward; a glass-only hatch might be offered as an option. There's only one windscreen wiper and one exterior mirror on the driver's side.

The fuel tank is a tiny 15 litres, but at around 4.7L/100km, you'll get a 300km range. The tank sits under the front seats, but you'll look in vain for an external fuel filler flap. Again, too many pressings, hinges and catches; instead, it's a simple plastic funnel hidden under the tiny front bonnet along with the washer filler, the full-size spare, the un-boosted, non-ABS brakes, the unassisted rack and pinion steering, and not much else. You don't need power assistance when the car only weighs 600kg; less stuff, less weight and less cost make an appealing virtuous circle. The entire engine - 624cc, two cylinders and 24kW - and rear suspension assembly is held in a cradle which attaches under the boot with just four bolts. Reducing the cost of building the Nano is as important as reducing the cost of its parts; the 12-inch wheels attach with three bolts, rather than the usual four or five.

There will be three trim levels, with the base model available in just three solid colours and with black rather than body-coloured bumpers and door handles. It is staggeringly simple inside, but surprisingly well-made and it reminds you just how little stuff you actually need in a cabin. The seats have been designed with the minimum possible padding but remain comfortable. The entire instrument panel carries little more than an airbag-less steering wheel, a single stalk and a centrally-mounted speedo, but it's made of an impressively thick, pricey-looking plastic.

There are a couple of blanking panels under the speedo; the middle trim level fills one of them with an air-con control, and also covers some of the exposed metal pillars in the cabin. The top trim level adds a heater, and a console around the gear lever with cupholders and controls for the electric front windows. There are no factory options; you just choose one of the three trim levels, but if you want to save up and add the air-con to your base model later, or indulge in such luxuries as a nearside exterior mirror, or dinky 12-inch alloys, or a radio, your dealer will oblige.

If all this makes the Tata Nano sound disappointingly like a real car, it's because that's exactly how it looks and feels. The big question is whether it will drive like a real car; surely this is where its car-ness falters? Seems not. We were taken for a drive in a prototype with three Tata engineers aboard. It proved instructive; 24kW sounds just about enough to move an unladen 600kg car, but would be much less impressive if the car, its passengers and their luggage weigh in at closer to 1000kg.

The engine note lies somewhere between a putt-putt and a whirr. The four-speed gearbox changes with a clunky action, as we discovered sitting in the driver's seat while stationary; the linkage back to the rear must be awkward. But using it enthusiastically, our driver showed the Nano has more than enough acceleration to cope with city traffic, and enough poke to maintain a decent cruise; claims of a 105km/h top whack feel entirely plausible.

The tall body and narrow track mean it assumes some hilarious roll angles through bends, but even fully laden and pushed hard, the front end resists understeer and the car feels stable. It has an easy, loping ride and the body soaked up the worst of some coarse tarmac surfaces and the noise and vibration of the eager but hard worked motor. This is just a prototype, and experienced only on Tata's test track, but the car felt tantalisingly good, as if Tata has forgotten to make it a misery to drive.

And it might get even better. Tata is examining more powerful, three-cylinder petrol engines, common-rail and turbo-diesels, a five-speed gearbox and an automatic. Tata's investments in Norwegian electric-car company Miljo and French firm MDI (inventors of the compressed-air car) mean the Nano is likely to run on both before long. For export, it is actively researching how to include some airbags, anti-lock brakes, stability control, more side-impact protection and reduce emissions. It will look different too, with a wider track and bigger wheels.

When a car is this cheap, the proportion of its value accounted for by raw materials becomes much greater. Those costs have eased in recent months, but then angry protests from farmers displaced by Tata's new Nano factory in West Bengal forced it to take the extraordinary step of abandoning the virtually complete facility and starting a new one from scratch in Gujarat. It won't be ready for a year at least; production will start at one of Tata's other plants in the meantime, albeit five months behind schedule and at lower volumes.

So if it does cost the target of 100,000 rupees, or $3000 when it finally goes on sale around April, we'd be surprised. With taxes and the dealer's margin, Indian buyers are likely to pay around $4000 in total. But they'll be glad to, and so would we; you're getting one of the smartest, most significant cars in years. Just be glad you don't have to drive it in that traffic.

Tata Nano

Body steel, 4 doors, 5 seats
Drivetrain rear engine (east-west), rear drive
Engine 624cc in-line 2cyl
Power 24kW @ 6000rpm
Torque 48Nm @ 2500rpm
Transmission 4-speed manual
Size l/w/h 3100/1500/1600mm
Wheelbase 2468mm
Weight 600kg
0-70km/h 14sec (estimated)
Price $4000 (estimated)
On sale Late '09 (India)

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