The last few days have seen the news that Tata is upgrading the Nano to a three cylinder engine potentially putting out anywhere between 70PS to 80PS of power. The story broke cover on the website of a very reputed magazine which has quoted Ratan Tata himself as having said this. Usually when rumours and gossip start circulating, auto webzines and regular magazines cite “our inside sources”, so when this news’ source is Ratan Tata himself it feels a bit strange. Adding to the mystique of this whole thing is that while Ratan Tata’s name has been used liberally, even the reputed automobile publication that started all failed to specify a context and that is what makes the whole thing intriguing. And poor little websites like us who have no contacts with anyone anywhere will faithfully reproduce the story, hoping that there would be more hits on the website and improve the rankings of the website. We resisted the urge to carry that story and waited for a few days to see if any clarifications would emerge about the context in which Ratan Tata supposedly said whatever he said.
Some of the automotive webzines have even carried their own analysis of what prompted the move to a three cylinder 80PS engine. Some of the analysts have cited the failure of the car being a result of the poor man’s car image that it carried and therefore people have stayed away from it. Now, Tata has learnt its lessons and is positioning the car as an upmarket offering to correct the mistake it made. Like all urban legends most of the analyses are based in projection of individual beliefs as universal beliefs. When the “follow the herd mentality” mentality kicks in more and more people will spread this theory that has germinated in the corner of some individual’s mind and thus urban legends are created. My take on this is that the Nano three cylinder 80PS petrol engine is very much an urban legend. I can feel some of you bristling with anger at this holier than thou attitude that I seem to be taking. I would like to clarify that there is no holier than thou attitude here. I shall present you with facts about the Nano which will clearly demonstrate to you as to why this whole thing is just an urban legend.
There is nothing like beginning at the beginning so just to ensure that we are all standing on the same ground let me narrate the famous story that apparently made Ratan Tata brief his engineers for the creation of the Rs. One Lakh car. The story is that in Mumbai while Ratan Tata was travelling in the rain he saw a couple of families consisting of husband, wife and two kids travelling on two wheelers in absolutely treacherous conditions and then he thought about how a four wheeler with a roof over the head would be so much more safer. Ratan Tata later clarified that the One Lakh was not to be taken literally, and that it was only a figure that he suggested so that his engineers would work on an inexpensive car that could be afforded by more people. It was the automobile press that gave publicity to the Rs. One Lakh figure and in fact the same publication that has broken this news had an editorial in which it called the car the TATA ONE. But a number of times Ratan Tata has said that he was looking at a car that would be more spacious, convenient and cheaper than the Maruti 800.
We all know that all kinds of ideas, including the use of plastics, no doors, just a tarpaulin roof were all considered and rejected since the man who gave the brief and the marketing team at Tata Motors insisted that this car will have to be a proper car. The only thing that they were willing to compromise was on luggage space since the car would be driven within the city. That was also the reason why a two cylinder 624cc engine sitting at the rear and driving the rear wheels was chosen. The same reason went into the creation of a petrol tank that is smaller than some of the petrol tanks on motorcycles. But apart from all that, the car was to be a proper car, not some half -hearted or completely botched up four wheeler.
A lot of thought went into the creation of a proper but inexpensive car. For example when you see the wheels on the Nano you will see that they are secured by three nuts and bolts instead of the use of four. You will also see that despite the high ground clearance the tyres are small. The dash board is very spartan and originally came in a shade of gray alone (though for the 2012 model things are a little more colourful). But the top end Nano not only came with a full HVAC system, it also came with mechanical central locking, anti-glare mirror, fog lamps, body coloured bumpers and front power windows. Yet the cost of this high end LX model was lower than the base Alto’s price on the road. As the owner of a Nano, I can assure that its air-conditioning is best in the class. But that is not the point that I am making. The point is that the Nano though a proper car was built to a price and this has extended into its mechanical components and the monocoque body shell. The Nano’s engine originally liberated 35 horses and the 2012 model has a re-calibrated ECU that allows the engine to put out a further three horses. This engine in a light weight car (which is what the Nano is) with a driver alone or just one passenger along with the driver can reach speeds in excess of 120 km/h. Yet the car’s top speed is electronically limited by the ECU to 105 km/h only.
The question then is what is the reason for this limitation? Let me introduce you to a couple of terms which are significant in the context of automobile engineering (my apologies to those who are already familiar with these). The first term that is necessary is friction, the second is torsional rigidity, the third is strength of material and the fourth is tolerance. The Nano has wheels that have only three wheel nuts. Increase the speed of the Nano beyond the top speed of 105 km/h and the wheel nuts and bolts will start melting due to the excessive heat generated by friction. The Nano has a corrugated roof, and that is to bolster the torsional rigidity of the monocoque which is subjected to lateral and vertical forces when it is in motion. In order to keep the weight of the car light, the monocoque’s rigidity has been limited to accepting different forces acting on it only to a certain extent, and if the forces increase beyond that the car’s monocoque does not have the strength or the tolerance to absorb them and that would mean that the car will start to fall apart.
While unquestionably the Nano is a proper car, it is that in the context of certain limitations. If those limitations are not respected or adhered to the car will no longer be proper and needless to say, it will cease to be safe. So to tell this story in one line, the Nano as it has been conceived and exists today cannot take an engine that puts out 70 or 80PS of power. Given how tightly the existing engine itself is put in place it is difficult to believe that an engine with an additional cylinder can be shoe horned into the rear. In fact the reason why Tata is not introducing a diesel version though a twin cylinder diesel is available on the Tata Ace could have something to do with this. The diesel engine is two cylindered but it is bulkier, heavier and occupies more space. The breaking story also talked about how the new Nano will have bigger wheels and even bigger tyres. Please look at the wheel wells, take a peek inside them and see if that is possible. It will also become to put the spare wheel in the front or in the bonnet where it exists today because a bigger size will not have the space to fit in there.
Now to the part that the car is not selling because of the perception that the car is cheap. As a Nano owner I have been part of many surveys that have been conducted by Tata to seek feedback about the car. I have been told by the dealers and the personnel who call from Tata Motors that the LX variant is the highest selling followed by the CX which has an air conditioner only. The base variant is the one that sells the least. What can be surmised from this is that people have sufficient money to buy the variant with all the bells and a few whistles as well. Tata Motors has therefore shifted focus on to selling the LX and CX models, given more colours to choose from, differently coloured interiors and the all important ORVM on the left side. The mistake that Tata made was in underestimating the buying potential of the target audience. The chappie riding a two wheeler with wife, kids, mother in law and luggage can pay up to Rs.2.5 lakhs (on road price) and therefore will go for something that looks upmarket. The Nano is also a second car for many and is a favourite with women who not only find it cho chweet but also find it a breeze to drive. So it is not as if the rich are shying away from buying a car that is considered to be cheap. They are the ones who are actually buying it.
Lets face it, the Nano cannot take an 80PS engine. It will mean complete re-engineering to make it compatible with that kind of power. So either Ratan Tata has been misquoted (he maybe referring to a European specification that needs this or is talking about a car that fits in between the Nano and the Indica and a car called Dolphin is supposedly under development to sit in that space) or has been simply misunderstood, unless for some strange reason Ratan Tata was just talking nonsense. Whatever it is, this whole thing is a huge urban legend in the making or it is that for some inconceivable reason Ratan Tata has given up on a great idea and its execution, both of which have won his company approbation all across the world and made even the mighty Carlos Ghosn invent the term frugal engineering.