Tata vs. Uncle

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We may soon have access to affordable new cars once more – if Uncle will allow it.

Tata Motors – a major automaker in India – recently announced plans to bring its Nano mini-car to the United states within three years. The Nano is smaller than a BMW Mini Cooper coupe but  being laid out as a four-door – with a short but very tall profile – can realistically accommodate four adults, which cars like the two-door, four seat Mini (and Fiat 500 and Scion iQ) can only do unrealistically – and two seaters like the Smart car can’t do under any circumstances.  The Nano would thus be the first micro-sedan sold in the U.S.  And thus, the first potentially family-viable/primary car micro car sold in the U.S.

In India, the Nano sells new for the equivalent of $2,500 U.S. dollars – a fraction of the cost of the least expensive new car you can currently purchase in America, the Nissan Versa 1.6 sedan – which lists for $10,990.

But, there’s a catch.

The Nano as currently constituted for sale in India will never pass muster with Uncle – whose demands that new cars be made “safe” (according to its Rube Goldberg definitions) as well as “emissions-compliant” (even though the emissions output of any car equipped with a catalytic converter and fuel injection system – which means almost every vehicle built since the late 1980s – including the Tata – is negligible) will make it impossible to get the $2,500 Nano here.

Instead, we’ll get a Nano that’s priced closer to the Versa’s $10k MSRP.

If we’re lucky.

Tata’s founder Ratan Tata told Automotive News as much, hinting at a production car MSRP of around $8,000 or so.

Which is probably optimistic given not just Uncle but also inflation. The purchasing power of Fed Funny Money is depreciating at a rate of about 6 percent per annum, if you run the numbers honestly (something neither the Fed nor Uncle ever does). That means in three years’ time, a Nano that might sell for $8,000 in Fed Funny Money today will require at least $1,440 more (that’s not compounded – and assumes inflation remains “stable” at 6 percent annually).

That puts us right close to $10k – before Tata tallies the tab of complying with Uncle’s demands.

The Nano will probably require at least four air bags – and probably six, given it is a very small car and therefore inherently less crashworthy than a larger, more substantial car. (The Scion iQ – reviewed by me here – has no less than 11 air bags.) The car’s body itself will likely have to be changed up in order to comply with the various bumper impact, side impact and roof crush/rollover requirements set forth by Uncle. Plus back-up cameras and probably auto-start, too. All these things will make the U.S.-spec Nano heavier, less efficient and more expensive. It will be nothing less than a miracle if the car can even be made to comply with the sheafs of ukase without Tata having to design and build an entirely new car.

That goes for “emissions,” double-plus good.

I’ve written before (see here) about the diminishing returns on that front. Most people outside the car business have no idea how little progress has been made since the late 1980s – because most of the progress was made around that time and since then, the automakers have been chasing literally fractional decreases in tailpipe emissions. When you hear or read about a proposed “10 percent” reduction in the emissions output of new cars, you ought to read the fine print – which of course is never published. The fine print is that the reduction won’t be 10 percent of 100 percent. It will be 10 percent of the 3-5 percent of the exhaust stream that isn’t either carbon dioxide or water vapor. Everything else has already been chemically scrubbed by the catalytic converter. An ideal air-fuel ratio is perpetually maintained by a modern car’s fuel injection system. Genuinely harmful pollutants – the stuff that forms smog – are virtually nil. Have been nil for decades.

But Uncle can’t admit this – because to do that would mean no more justification for new ukases.

So, even if the Nano is – like any modern car fitted with a catalytic converter, 02 sensor and fuel injection – already 90-95 percent “clean” at the tailpipe, that will not be sufficient. It will have to be 96-98 percent clean, as is required of current (and soon to be here) cars – no matter the cost (to consumers).

That is the way of Uncle.

Just the other day, I was over at my friend Graves’ place. He has a ’63 Buick Special sedan. In its day, this was a modestly priced, middle-of-the-road car. But it had a V-8 engine and a spacious, open-feeling cabin. And even though it only had a two speed automatic, it still could return 20-something MPGs on the highway – because it only weighed about 2,800 lbs (a current mid-sized car typically weighs closer to 3,800 lbs.) And it only weighed about 2,800 lbs. because it did not have to comply with the “safety” ukases in effect today.

And it only cost $2,600 (base price) back in 1963 because it didn’t have to have air bags, or back-up cameras, or auto-stop. $2,600 is equivalent, in today’s Fed Funny Money, to about $19,662 (see here if you don’t believe me). To put a finer point on it, back in ’63, an American could buy a V-8, rear-drive sedan for about the same money you’d have to spend today to get into a decently equipped four-cylinder powered FWD compact.

Because the Buick did not have “value added” by Uncle.

Just wait till he gets through with the Nano… .

Throw it in the Woods?

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eric

Author of "Automotive Atrocities" and "Road Hogs" (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia. 

  32 comments for “Tata vs. Uncle

  1. chiph
    October 21, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    I can see this vehicle being certified for use on city & neighborhood roads, or any road with a speed limit of 55mph or less.

    I cannot see this car being safe to drive (even for the 1970’s definition of “safe”) on interstates or regional highways.

    • October 21, 2012 at 8:51 pm

      If we had a population that comprehended lane discipline it would not be an issue. It’s not an issue in Germany.

      I mentioned the old Beetle. I’ve owned two of them, one of which I drove every day in DC area traffic, including I-66 and the I-495 Beltway. The car’s top speed, all out, with the wind at your back, was around 85 MPH. If the road was uphill, it sometimes had trouble holding 70. But it was manageable – assuming a competent driver who accepts the limitation of his vehicle and makes the necessary accommodations – such as staying right and maintaining momentum on grades, etc.

  2. October 20, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    I really doubt that India will ever be a factor in the US car market. Heck they failed to get the Mahindra to America. And there was a large segment of buyers just wanting and waiting for that truly compact diesel pick up truck. What kind of luck can we expect them to have with a car that almost NOBODY would want.

    Too bad about the overzealous fed standards. Many companies however, will manage to build cars that will sell.

    India imports? They are way too late to the game. And I just don’t think they have what it takes.

    • Tre Deuce
      October 21, 2012 at 3:39 am

      ‘MikePizzo’

      The Mahindra is already established in the US with their compact tractor line, which is the largest selling line of compact tractors in the world.

      It shouldn’t be too much of a reach for them add the compact truck, given that it can meet US vehicle standards.

      http://www.mahindrausa.com

      • October 21, 2012 at 9:22 am

        I have been hoping they’ll get that little diesel pick-up into circulation!

        If I could wave my magic wand and have just one wish, vehicle-wise, it would be that compact diesel trucks were available once more.

        Remember the Chevy Luv and Rabbit truck diesel? IIRC these little buggers were capable of 40 MPG. I know they were slow. So what? A time – and a place – for everything. I have a sport bike that can run a 9 second quarter mile and muscle car that could get into the 12s. But I also have a couple of four-cylinder trucks I love dearly,too – and they’re far from quick (or fast). I just wish they got better than mid-low 20s.

        A diesel version could.

        • Tre Deuce
          October 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm

          Hi! Eric,I bought a new 1980 Chevy LUV 4X4, the following year we were in another fuel crisis, so I bought a Chevette diesel for my wife. It had the Isuzu diesel and it was far from gutless. The mileage was in the range of high forties to low sixties.

          The Little LUV was one of the best vehicles I have ever owned and this weekend I spotted a very nice one that might be for sale. Will check it out when I get back from Seattle later in the week. I have had it in mind to grab one if I ever saw a nice one. My little Nissan never got those kind of mileage figures, though, it has been a pretty good truck.

          My LUV got around 24-31 MPG in Two-wheel drive. In high 4-wheel, bombing forest roads, fishing hole to fishing hole, it would get around 22 MPG.

          Regards

        • ekrampitzjr
          November 3, 2012 at 5:14 pm

          In July came the official announcement that the US won’t get the Mahindra diesel pickup:

          http://www.autoblog.com/2012/07/11/mahindra-gives-up-altogether-on-small-diesel-pickup-for-u-s/

          Other forums have commented that the mileage with the diesel wasn’t very good, especially given the compact size of the truck: under 20 miles per US gallon.

          We need a true compact pickup with a diesel in this market. Ford sold 50,000 of its Rangers each year during the last few years the truck was in production in Minnesota, with no advertising and no diesel option. Some other companies would give their eyeteeth for that volume for a niche vehicle. The US–spec Ranger just happened to have become the smallest pickup sold in the US, as everyone else’s grew in size over the years since the late 1980s.

          The bright note is that the Mahindra pickup would probably have turned out to be a Yugo with a truck bed. Complaints abound elsewhere about other vehicles from India. That company might have done us all a favor: given its size, had it really desired, it could have made the truck pass US regulations—so one has to wonder about the real reasoning behind killing plans to offer the pickup here.

      • October 21, 2012 at 5:24 pm

        Yes, they are selling farm implements. But to successfully sell a car requires a certain understanding and appreciation of the values and culture of the target market. It also requires an ability to jump the trade/safety/mpg hurdles of the fedgov. They have managed to bugle and abort that one truck that we “do” want…..just can’t seem to get it to our market.

        Don’t mean to belittle the Indian culture. But every nation has its skills and weaknesses. I’m pretty sure that selling cars to America is just not within India’s skill set.

    • October 21, 2012 at 9:55 am

      I don’t necessarily disagree –

      However, I remember the exact same things were said about Hyundai circa 1987….

      • MoT
        October 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm

        Ugh! Don’t remind me. Back then they were horrible.

  3. ekrampitzjr
    October 20, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    The news about the Nano coming to the US is nothing new. When the car debuted, Tata said then that it intended to bring suitably modified versions to Europe and the US. But…

    Don’t forget that states can cause problems with regulations too.

    Supposedly the state of New Jersey banned the late–1960s Subaru 360 K-class microcar from licensing and use on its roads due to (lack of) safety and (lack of) performance. Malcolm Bricklin allegedly took advantage of a provision in US auto regulations that exempted vehicles that weighed under 1,000 pounds from safety standards when importing that car.

    Which states might be likely to ban the Tata Nano over similar grounds, especially performance?

  4. Doug
    October 19, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    The Nano’s Top Speed is 105Km/h (ca. 65MPH).
    http://www.tatanano.com/specifications.htm

    • October 20, 2012 at 10:55 am

      Yup –

      That makes it almost as fast as an old Beetle. Such a car is absolutely everyday drivable – I speak from personal experience. I drove an old Beetle (1973) every day, in DC area traffic, for several years. And of course in Europe, 200 MPH Porsches coexist with 70 MPH micro-cars.

      I’m not plugging the Tata, per se. I’m making a case for cars like it – small, inexpensive, basic. I have no doubt there are millions of people who would be interested in such a car, because they’re not interested in a $400/month payment for the next six years. Because they don’t need 0-60 in 7 seconds or 130 MPH on top.

      Affordable transportation is virtually nonexistent in this country outside of two wheels.

  5. Scott
    October 19, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Is it just me or does the Nano look like a penguin’s nose as sculpted by Berke Breathed?

  6. John Illinois
    October 19, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Here in central Illinois, you would not even be able to get to the mall with a top speed of 43 MPH. The speedlimits on all of the accessing streets is at least 40, and you know what that means.

  7. October 19, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    This car could be clover’s dream ride…if for no other reason than the fact it’s top speed is 43 mph. Well, assuming they keep the same “powerplant” by the time they add in all the extra weight for safety equipment and factor in another 500 lbs to haul 2 obese people and that probably knocks the top speed down to 39. Even less when going up a hill. Just out of curiosity, what’s the fuel economy like on those things? Didn’t see any mention of that in the article.

    And WTF is up with those wheels? Are they even 12″ rims on that thing? I swear my wheelbarrow has a bigger tire than that thing.

    • October 19, 2012 at 8:29 pm

      Agreed, it’s a pitiful thing

      I used it as an example, to make a point. The point being: We can’t have anything remotely like that thanks to Uncle – which means, nothing like, for example, an old Beetle, or a Pinto or even a K-car – all of them serviceable little A to B units that I bet a lot of people would be very happy to have.

      If Uncle would allow it!

      • Scott
        October 20, 2012 at 1:32 am

        It was inevitable Eric. When courts in the US started awarding product liability damages against car manufacturers (which we can mostly thank Ralph Nader for), the manufacturers had to do whatever the lawyers told them to if they wanted to stay in business, and every few years they raised the “safety” bar a little higher. That’s how it happened.

        You see the same thing happening with pharmaceuticals and soon it will happen with so called nutraceuticals. It’s happening now in California with food and the GMO labeling law that’s on the November ballot; if it passes, retailers can be sued for selling foods that contain GMO organisms even if no harm has been demonstrated and the retailer had no way of knowing the food was tainted. Meanwhile the grower/manufacturer/distributor goes free.

        I’m not a fan of GMO food myself and I figure as long as you can’t label GMO crops as organic the current standards are fine. But the point of the proposed labeling requirements seems to clearly be increasing lawyers income.

        Our basic constitutional framework has been eroded and now finally crippled by our legal system. Free speech can be qualified, the right to keep and bear can be qualified, the right to privacy can be qualified, and in every example “safety” has been the watchword and “liability” has been the banner under which the battle has been fought.

        Weasel words. They have been the slow death of our nation, and they’re spoken by corrupt lawyers in search of ever increasing personal gain.

        I was listening to a presentation by Joel Bowman of Agora Financial this morning discussing anarcho-capitalism and I realized I’m not an anarchist, I’m a constitutional capitalist, the difference being that I do believe there should be a very simple and basic statement of individual rights, “unalienable rights” if you will, and that the sole legitimate purpose of government (if it can be said to have one) is the protection of those rights through the defensive use of force if necessary. I believe that was the ideal set forth by the founders of my country and I also believe it has been corrupted beyond recognition by centuries of attack waged by none other than members of the Judiciary. We have been sold down the river by lawyers who have promised us wealth and safety in return for our freedoms. Our Constitutional protections have been razed, our industry sacked and our workers impoverished by men with the dead eyes, ephemeral ethics and flexible feeding habits of Carcharodon carcharias.

        • October 20, 2012 at 10:37 am

          Excellent, Scott – and excellently said.

          I’d only add that the lawyers rely on the moral cowardice and greed of Clovers – and that without that, they’re powerless.

          In the past, most “decent people” would accept responsibility for their own lapses in judgment. For example, if a man stood on the top a tall ladder and fell, breaking his leg, it would not have occurred to him to sue the manufacturer of the ladder because there was no warning label on it not to do such a stupid thing. He’d say to himself, “boy, was I dumb!” – and not do that again.Today, people look for excuses to sue, sue, sue! Ow! my neck! Oh! my back!

          While there have always been “slip and fall” types out there, what’s happened in my lifetime (I’m 45) is that such douchebaggery has become much more mainstream and routine than it once was. In turn, shyster lawyerism has burgeoned. It’s a feedback loop. Now every other person is a Johnny Cochran – or an OJ.

          • Eric_G
            October 21, 2012 at 1:50 am

            At one time, engineering was considered a profession at least the equal of lawyer (and was compensated at a similar level). Now that lawyers’ income is far and away higher than the engineer’s, guess who calls the shots when it comes to manufacturing.

          • BrentP
            October 21, 2012 at 2:22 am

            Eric, I was convinced by a PI who looked into the OJ case that OJ merely protected the actual killer, his son. It’s the most factual and reasoned thing I ever saw on the case. “OJ, guilty but not of murder” or something close to that.

            Eric G: This society doesn’t care much for engineers. Hasn’t for a long time. The last time this nation cared about engineers was probably 1969. Someone had to beat those Ruskies to the moon. Since then not a shit has been given. What they get is amazing but it’s never good enough. Always want more for less. They never ask this of any other profession, but us engineers were stupid enough to give it to them, now they expect it. Always better, always cheaper, always more features. And that’s cheaper in numerical dollars. Not constant value dollars. Beat inflation. If it wasn’t for engineers this country would have been dead a long time ago.

            • October 21, 2012 at 9:41 am

              I’ve read about that, too –

              Still, we know for a fact he beats up women – and so, a piece of shit thug who deserves to be where he is.

              OJ, to me, is the archetype of all I despise about jock-sniffing/fuuhhhhttttball veneration. If he hadn’t been a star in the NFL, no one would have wanted him to move in next door. He would have been looked upon as what he is: a thug. But because he can run/catch a ball, he is worshipped (and excused). Michael Vick is another example. The NFL (and college sports) is full of low-IQ violent predators who are treated as demigods by flaccid middle aged suburbanites, who hold these animals (because being able to run fast, throw/catch a ball are animal skills) up as icons, while showing complete indifference to those who excel in fields of human endeavor that involve the mind.

        • Tomas
          October 21, 2012 at 7:56 pm

          Scott, it’s an opportunity for us to make an informed choice. Why should the one who profits from the product get to,decide what I’m allowed to know? Same for politicians, why do they get to,hide their true colors? Why isn’t anyone interested in knowing what these feral creatures are really all about? Off topic, but I just found out that mittens Romney is all for disregarding the constitution, as long as there is consensus. Say what? Really, as long as all the thieves agree on a ban on weapons, then it’s a ok? Wtf over?

          • MoT
            October 21, 2012 at 8:18 pm

            Consensus? But consensus amongst whom?
            That’s the million dollar question and one you’re dead right to want to know.

          • October 21, 2012 at 8:47 pm

            Exactly, Tomas –

            Which is why it matters not a whit which of those authoritarian thugs is (s)elected. Either way, we get an authoritarian thug. The only difference, if you can call it that, is one is a left-wing authoritarian more inclined toward a socialist authoritarian state and the other a right-wing authoritarian who is inclined toward a corporatist/fascist state.

        • joeallen
          December 9, 2012 at 9:49 am

          In early 80s Lee Iacocca gave a speech to the Bar Association. He stated the best way to improve competition against Japan was to introduce our legal system to Japan. Hasn’t happened yet.

          • December 9, 2012 at 10:12 am

            I’ve not been to Japan (Dom, feel free to chime in here) but from the outside, they – the Japanese people – seem to be less “maggoty” than the average American in that they have are less inclined to grift and grab, to have a higher standard of personal conduct. The average Japanese seems to be industrious and honest. But maybe this perception of mine is entirely off base.

      • BrentP
        October 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm

        Government standards have always been about enforcing mediocrity. One is the liability situation you describe. The courts will likely find a company not at fault if their product met the minimal government standards even if it is absurdly dangerous. Also it is a competitive device to thwart higher quality products, and that is often with regard to food.

        The industrial food machine knows that if people have options or can see the difference they won’t choose their products. For instance, a small beef company wanted to test every single cow it processed into meat for mad cow. Every single one. Why? It wanted to market a premium product and sell in Japan. They figured that they could recover the cost because their customers would pay more that. The problem with a free market is that once one company offers more customers might expect the others to offer more so the FDA/USDA prevented the company from doing anything more than the required minimum.

        Government enforces mediocrity because competition is a sin.

        GMO is that standard of industrial mediocrity.

  8. MoT
    October 19, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    I’m amazed that the Japanese haven’t tried to introduce their variant of their ‘K’ cars here. If Tata were even thinking about it, and I’m amazed they are, then the Jap version is far superior. What gives?

  9. Doug
    October 19, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    The Nano is trash – no better than a glassed-in golf cart. Anyone buying this over a cheap Japanese or Korean car is not dealing with reality. I had an ’88 Trabant when I lived in the States and I would still choose it over the Nano despite the 20 year difference. The Trabi was a piece of shit but it looked and handled better. There were/are even a few tuning options.

  10. mithrandir
    October 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Time will tell. As listed I could only see that (Tata) car being viable in a city environment. A 43mph top speed would be impractical in most areas that I regularly drive.

    • October 19, 2012 at 12:45 pm

      Probably it’d be easy to get the car capable of steady state cruising speed of 70 or so (an early ’80s K-car could do that). A basic A to B car doesn’t need a top speed capability of more than 90 or so, all out. And if it can do that (90 or so) it’s got beans enough to hold 70 – which is enough for “basic transportation.”

      The problem is being able to do that while also meeting all existing and pending government requirements. Which necessarily add weight. Which means you need more engine. Which means more cost… and lower mileage… etc.

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