The $2,000 car has arrived, and it's not too bad

The world's cheapest car, the Tata Nano, goes on sale in India in the next few days. The price tag beats the price of even many scooters: just $2,000.

Beside the fact the car looks like an enclosed golf cart, the features of the standard are plain as paper: four-speed rear wheel transmission, no airbag, no air conditioning, hand-crank windows, a four-gallon tank, and a top speed of 75 mph. The crash rating isn't much higher up the scale than paper, either, and savings were achieved by simplifying everything, including by reducing the number of wheel nuts from four to three. On the upside, there's room for five people (maybe not five American people), and you get between 43 and 47-miles per gallon. And, of course, there's that stellar price tag. A BBC reviewer said it "feels significantly more expensive than it is."

In New York City, a similar-looking vehicle, the Smart car (price for a new one: $17,000), has been appearing in greater numbers. They've been a big hit, creating more space for parking, and a smidgen more comfort and security than a Vespa (price: from $3,100). Tata has noticed the surge, because it plans to start offering an American version of the Nano within three years. Expect ours to be more expensive, though, if it's going to meet safety requirements to make them roadworthy here. It will also probably have a new name, since Apple is using "Nano."

The $2,000 price tag may not generate much capital for Tata Motors, which bought Land Rover and Jaguar from Ford and still owes money. But as that purchase suggests, Tata is an experienced vehicle maker with financial clout, so if the Nano sells, it won't likely go the way of the Yugo, which failed in no small part because of the Soviet-bloc ineptitude of its Yugoslavian maker.

Anyone who has traveled in a car on India's highways still sees the word "Tata" in their nightmares. Traffic is a virtual free-for-all there, and often, motorists find themselves staring down the front grill of a massive, multicolored truck as it weaves into their lane. The Tata name on many of the trucks soon becomes forever imprinted in drivers' brains, if not their foreheads.

The international trend toward motorizing is undeniable. Many of us imagine Asian cities like Saigon and Beijing as being clogged with bicycles, but in fact, people there have been gravitating toward scooters and mopeds for years. As people are forced to live farther from work, the democratization of transportation will likely have some positive short-term effects on helping people go earn a living every day.

I personally think that the last thing that this country needs is more cars on the road. But until our citizens demand adequate public transportation, we're stuck living on the road, and we're going to need affordable vehicles. With traffic the way it is, it's not like most of us drive our cars over 75 miles per hour very often, anyway. Driving more economical cars is smarter living than what we're doing now.

The Nano costs less than many Apple computers. It may be the first car you can actually put on your credit card. I anticipate a psychological aspect of owning a Nano, too: The less you pay for your car, the less you'll cling to the burdens that come with owning it. I imagine car theft will decrease, too. The Nano has the potential of being a "step down" car. It's what you own while you're waiting to get out of your car completely.
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