Tata Nano Strikes Out as a U.S. Import As Is

By Michelle Krebs July 10, 2008

By Nick Kurczewski

Tata Nano - company shot - 252.JPG PARIS - It isn't even on sale yet, but the Tata Nano appears to be a runaway hit, at least in terms of generating buzz amongst AutoObserver's readership.

For a jellybean-shaped car with no frills and a tiny two-cylinder engine, the Indian-built hatchback is generating the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for the world's supercar elite.

Until now, scissor-doors, bulging fenders and horsepower figures that look like the GDP of a Third World nation have been the quickest way to grab car buyers attention. But given the current gloomy global economy, green is now in, excess is out, and bigger is no longer synonymous with better - just ask any Hummer H2 owner who now fills up with $4-per gallon gas. 

AutoObserver readers from around the world have been leaving article comments, praising Tata Motors for developing a car with a starting price of only $2,500, and asking how they might buy a Nano in their own country. 

Alas, despite the hype and expectation being heaped upon the Nano from all corners of the globe, the car will be an India-only proposition when it goes on sale in October. Tata Motors has stated that there are plans to eventually sell the Nano in other developing markets, like Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. For now, these plans are at least two or three years into the future.

The Rules Have Changed (Sort Of)

Earth-friendly cars are in vogue, and generating plenty of greenbacks for car companies with lots of hybrids, small cars or fuel-sipping diesels in their lineup.  In America, Toyota has had phenomenal sales success with the Prius hybrid. n Europe, and especially France, where car sales have been stagnant for years, PSA Peugeot-Citroën has seen an unlikely sales spike. This is due to the company's wide range of economical small cars, coupled with a new French law that offers tax incentives to buyers of cleaner running vehicles. 

Unfortunately, all this current interest in 'green cars' still isn't going to make it any easier to import a Nano into the U.S. or Europe. Consumer sentiment has shifted, but the laws governing what vehicles can (and cannot) be imported into certain countries most definitely have not. 

Since the majority of Nano-related comments listed in AutoObserver asked about importation rules in the States, that's where we focused our research.  Would it actually prove feasible for an American car buyer to put a $2,500 Tata Nano in his/her driveway?   

The Bad News

The short answer is no.  But before you start writing hate mail to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or Department of Transportation that government such things (or to AutoObserver), let us explain the reasons behind this harsh reality.

Of course, listing every law and legal loophole would take hours - and bore you to tears.  Thankfully, Eric Bolton, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), helped explain the process in as simple a format as possible in an email response to our enquiry regarding Tata Nano importation.

Bolton suggested we start by paying a visit to the official NHTSA website, which lists the necessary information pertaining to importing non-U.S. spec cars in the States. Here you will find the various rules and regulations, customs requirements, registered car importers, and even a list of vehicles that can be imported

Using this as a template, Bolton broke down each step of the importation process into manageable bites - but ones that will still leave American fans of the Nano choking back tears.  According to Bolton, and official NHTSA regulations, "to be imported free of restriction, a motor vehicle (defined in the pertinent statute as a vehicle that is driven or drawn by mechanical power and manufactured primarily for use on public streets, roads, and highways) must be originally manufactured to comply with all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS)."

Consider this strike one against the Nano. It has no airbags and was not developed to specifically meet America's stringent crash-test standards. 

This doesn't imply that the Nano is a rolling death-trap, or subject to any half-baked engineering. During the launch of the Nano earlier this year at New Delhi Auto Expo, Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group and Tata Motors, explained that the Nano has passed Indian full-frontal crash tests and has been designed to meet international offset and side-impact crash tests. So the potential to meet U.S. safety standards is there (at least in theory). But in its current form, the Nano is a safety no-go. 

The same is true of the car's engine. The Nano's rear-mounted, 34-horsepower, 623cc aluminum twin-cylinder gasoline engine is capable of more than 50-mpg and meets Euro III emissions standards. This is about three to four years behind current European V regulations, and roughly the same amount of time behind American standards. Whether or not this engine could ever be tuned to meet American and European regulations is not clear.  During the launch in New Delhi, Ratan Tata promised only that the Nano's emissions "will be up to Euro IV standards in a few years." 

As it stands now, strike two against the Nano comes via its non-compliant engine. 

The Good News

Strike three depends mostly on how long you're willing to wait for a Nano - and how much money you want to spend.

We reported earlier this year that Tata Motors let slip that the second-generation Nano will be headed to Europe. According to Reuters, Girish Wagh, head of compact car projects at Tata Motors, confirmed to German magazine Focus that the Nano would arrive in Europe within four years.

"We will develop a successor model in four years' time which will meet the Euro V emission regulations and the crash standards in Europe," Wagh was quoted as saying. Tata Motors already imports several of its larger cars and SUVs into the Europe in limited numbers.   
There were also rumors during this year's Geneva auto show that the Nano could come to the States powered by an electric motor. Replacing the Nano's gas-powered engine with an electric one could qualify it as a low-speed vehicle (LSV) in the States (or what is sometimes referred to as the "quadricycle" class of city-car in Europe). These city-cars have limited power, top-speeds of only 25 to 30 mph, and can't be driven on highways. These vehicles are also exempt from having to meet stricter safety standards that apply to normal road cars.

"We have never been petitioned to decide, nor have we ever decided on our own initiative that a Tata motor vehicle of any model or model year is eligible for importation," said NHTSA's Bolton, regarding whether any private individual or company has officially sought to import a Tata vehicle into the States. 

A spokesperson for Tata Motors we spoke to was careful to stick to the company line. "The Tata Nano will be initially marketed in India. Tata Motors also has plans for exports," the spokesperson explained.  "[Tata Motors] has not yet finalized specific export markets and timelines. The Nano will meet the prevalent norms of any country it is marketed in." 

If you simply can't wait for Tata Motors to finalize its plans to export the Nano, you could throw heaps of money at one of the official registered importers listed on the NHTSA Web site and hope to find some way to wiggle a Nano into the U.S. But this would cost a fortune, and seems counter to the spirit of a barebones car priced at only $2,500. Other countries around the world - specifically in Africa or Southeast Asia - with less stringent safety and emissions standards could offer easier pathways for a first wave of non-official Nano imports.

As for our American and European readers who asked how to get behind the wheel of a Nano, the best solution for now looks to be an extended vacation to India this autumn. 

Photo by Tata Motors

Tata Nano goes on sale later this year, initially in India only. 

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stovt001 says: 10:29 PM, 07.10.08

Who in their right mind would ever want to import this car? Sure wanting a low cost efficient car is perfectly understandable, but given all the effort required to import a car here, the cost would soar far past $2,500, and that's not counting your hours of blood sweat and tears. Why not just by a used economy car and call it a day? Just a cheap if not cheaper, depending on model nearly as efficient, and featuring respectable emissions, safety, and convenience features. Like the [not so] Smart car, only a fool would think owning one of these is better than owning a decent used car.

zanardi10 says: 8:26 PM, 07.13.08

While the Nano is an amazing achievement any way one looks at it, I think one selling for $2,500 retail is about as likely as a Logan selling for 5,000 Euros (none did). First, the $2,500 is the wholesale price. Add $500 for dealer margin (not unreasonable since the dealers do some final assembly!) and we are at $3,000. Further, Tata reserves the right to up the price if steel prices climb, and we know they have been. Then, a few weeks back Tata announced only 1/3 of output next year will be the base model: the bulk will be the two higher trim levels, which are over $1,000 more. By my calculations, expect a delivered retail price closer to $4,000... and I think even this ignores India's not-inconsequential taxes and fees. Is the Nano amazing? Yes. Will anyone ever buy one for $2,500? I don't see how.


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