India's booming economy has created a middle class of people eager to take to the road in a car of their own. Hundreds of millions currently have to make do with walking, cycling or using three-wheeled taxis or overcrowded buses. As VOA's Steve Herman reports from the Indian Auto Expo in New Delhi, aspiring motorists are finding that auto ownership has just come a lot closer.
Hundreds of vehicles are vying for attention at the Indian Auto Expo here, from exotic imports to feature-laden domestic models. But it is a barebones, all-sheet-metal-bodied vehicle from Tata Motors that is stealing the show.
Tata's Nano, dubbed the "people's car," was introduced amid much fanfare.
Tata intends to sell the four-door, pod-shaped car for the equivalent of $2,500, the lowest price in the world for any conventional four-wheeled automobile. In Indian terms the price is one lakh, or 100,000 rupees.
For that price, the buyer will get a car three-meters long, with a two-cylinder, 624-cubic centimeter engine mounted in the rear, an analog speedometer, and trunk able to hold nothing much larger than a briefcase. Forget about air conditioning or power steering in the standard model.
But the car is being heralded as an engineering triumph, with 34 patents applied for. Tata says the vehicle will be very fuel-efficient, traveling 20 kilometers on a single liter of gasoline.
Company chairman Ratan Tata promises that the Nano will put millions of Indians in the driver's seat for the first time, in the spirit of Ford's Model T and Volkswagen's Beetle of generations past. He acknowledges the modest vehicle will not be to everyone's taste, however.
"I am sure in the next few months there will be many analyses of the performance of the car, which will decide whom it will cater to best," he said.
Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, and some of Tata's competitors are trying to steal a bit of limelight here this week with similar announcements.
Bajaj, best known for building India's ubiquitous three-wheeled taxi scooter known as the "auto," is displaying its own prototype. But it is not expected to be on sale for another two years. Ford and Renault are also making noises about a similar cheap vehicle for the Indian market.
The general manager for India of the Indo-Japanese automaker Maruti Suzuki, K.D. Singh, congratulates Tata for its coup, but he says Maruti Suzuki will continue to target Indian's growing middle class.
"We have sold cars to about 6.5 million Indian people who bought cars [at] two lakh [200,000 rupees] and above," he said. "The incomes of those people are growing, their lifestyles are improving. They need bigger and better cars with more features, and we are ready to provide those to them."
Not everyone here is enthusiastic about the prospect of many millions of new cars hitting the road, whatever the price. City planners and environmentalists say an explosion of ultra-cheap vehicles will further crowd India's already congested urban streets, and substantially increase air pollution.