The new Indian “Car for the Masses” promises to be the Yugo of 2008.
Or does it?
The new $2500 vehicle is not aimed at Western consumers, but at more frugal Third Worlders with less disposable income.
What does it take to build the world’s cheapest car?
For Tata Motors of India, which will introduce its ultra-cheap car on Thursday, the better question was, what could it take out?
The company has kept its new vehicle under wraps, but interviews with suppliers and others involved in its construction reveal some of its cost-cutting engineering secrets — including a hollowed out steering-wheel shaft, a trunk with space for a briefcase and a rear-mounted engine not much more powerful than a high-end riding mower.
The upside is a car expected to retail for as little as the equivalent of $2,500, or about the price of the optional DVD player on the Lexus LX 470 sport utility vehicle.
The downside is a car that would most likely fail emission and safety standards on any Western road, and, perhaps, in India in a few years, when the country imposes tougher environmental standards.
But Tata is not looking to ply California’s highways. Instead, the company wants to provide four-wheel transportation for the first time to people accustomed to getting around on two, including hundreds of millions of Indians and others in the developing world.
Even so, the “People’s Car” (a nickname, since Tata has kept the real name under wraps, too) may ultimately affect what many people drive around the world, since it is part of a broader trend among carmakers to try to build less expensive cars.
“It’s basically throwing out everything the auto industry had thought about cost structures in the past and taking out a clean sheet of paper and asking, ‘What’s possible?’” said Daryl T. Rolley, head of North American and Asian operations for Ariba, which helps supply parts to Tata, BMW, Toyota and other carmakers. “In the next five to 10 years, the whole auto industry is going to be flipped upside down.”
The French-Japanese alliance Renault-Nissan and the Indian-Japanese joint venture Maruti Suzuki are trying to figure out how to make ultra-cheap cars for India. And struggling Western automakers are looking to see where the cost-obsessed ethos of the developing world can help their bottom line. In the most recent example, Ford was expected to announce Tuesday that it would make India its manufacturing hub for low-cost cars.
Some analysts are predicting that just as the Japanese popularized kanban (just in time) and kaizen (continuous improvement), Indians could export a kind of “Gandhian engineering,” combining irreverence for conventional ways of thinking with a frugality born of scarcity. Or, as Indian auto executive Ashok K. Taneja describes the philosophy, “When I need silver, why am I investing in gold?”
Some of the few people who have seen the car describe a tiny, charming, four-door, five-seater hatchback shaped like a jelly bean, small in the front and broad in the back, the better to reduce wind resistance and permit a cheaper engine. “It’s a nice car — cute,” said A. K. Chaturvedi, senior vice president of business development at Lumax Industries, a supplier in Delhi that developed the car’s headlights and interior lamps.
Driving the cost-cutting were Tata’s engineers, who in an earlier project questioned whether their trucks really needed all four brake pads or could make do with three. As they built Tata’s new car, for about half the price of the next-cheapest Indian alternative, their guiding philosophy was: Do we really need that?
The model appearing on Thursday has no radio, no power steering, no power windows, no air-conditioning and one windshield wiper instead of two, according to suppliers and Tata’s own statements. Bucking prevailing habits, the car lacks a tachometer and uses an analog rather than digital speedometer, according to Mr. Taneja, who until recently was president of the Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India, representing many of Tata’s suppliers as they signed deals with the company.
Frugal engineering pervades the car’s internal machinery, too, with even greater implications for the vehicle’s safety and longevity.
To save $10, Tata engineers redesigned the suspension to eliminate actuators in the headlights, the levelers that adjust the angle of the beam depending on how the car is loaded, according to Mr. Chaturvedi of Lumax. In lieu of the solid steel beam that typically connects steering wheels to axles, one supplier, Sona Koyo Steering Systems, used a hollow tube, said Kiran Deshmukh, the chief operating officer of the company, which is based in Delhi.
Tata chose wheel bearings that are strong enough to drive the car up to 45 miles an hour, but they will wear quickly above that speed, reducing the car’s life span but not threatening consumer safety, according to Mr. Taneja. The car’s top speed is 75 miles an hour.
Reducing the weight curbed material costs and enabled the company to use a cheaper engine. People familiar with the car describe a $700 rear-mounted engine built by the German company Bosch, measuring 600 to 660 cubic centimeters, with a horsepower in the range of 30 to 35. By comparison, the Honda Fit, one of the smallest cars available in the United States, has a horsepower of 109.
According to industry experts, the car runs on a continuous variable transmission, a lighter alternative to manual or automatic transmissions.
Might this be India’s contribution to the problem of global warming. The new car is not only cheap but it’s green–in some cases; i.e., it doesn’t start or you coast it down hills.
Of course, as stated above, the car might not suit Western tastes.
But there will be plenty around the world interested in the “Car for the Masses”.
Fred Flintstone was unavailable for comment.
Source: Four Wheels For the Masses: The $2500 Car