Around India in the World's Cheapest Car

Taking the Tata Nano on a journey through highways, dirt-tracks and goat-blocks.

July 15, 2010, 9:43 AM

July 23, 2010 -- When Tata Motors announced the release of the Nano back in January 2008, there was a rush across India as people clamored to fill out order forms for the pint-sized car that, at a shelf price of $2,500, was contracted to be the cheapest in the world.

With a button-sized steering wheel to go with its button-sized tires and a maximum speed of about 55 mph, it's hardly every boy's dream racer. But its price, cutesy foreshortened look, promise of higher fuel efficiency and effective marketing campaign have combined to push the little car toward cult status in India and abroad.

And so it struck this particular travel writer that there was nothing better to do with a glorified rickshaw on four wheels than to take it the length and breadth of its motherland on a road trip to push the city car to its limits and explore the viability of India as a driving destination.

I hadn't been long on the road before I realized that this was a whole different species of road trip. The proof appeared when I found myself trying to extricate an elephant's trunk that had found its way into my car via the open passenger window.

And this happened just hours after I nearly drove off the end of a half-built motorway bridge and had been forced to a complete standstill by an enormous herd of goats upon my retreat.

Indeed, during the course of the three months that the Nano and I circumvented India in a journey that began and ended in Mumbai and passed through the jungles of the south, the central plains and the northern mountains, I was to discover that driving in the world's second-most populated country was a mixed bag of smooth modern highway cruising and high-octane, rural off-roading.

Coming atop the list of India's best roads were the arteries of the famed Golden Quadrilateral, a newly finished $12 billion highway network that connects the country's major cities. Bottom of the pile were other not-so-completed thoroughfares that, although marked on the maps as highways, nonetheless often -- and without warning -- disintegrated into rocky dirt tracks.

Nano, Don't Leave Home Without It

And as the landscapes whizzed by and the landmarks piled up, so did the Nano's fanbase. Everywhere I went, the car was received with a hero's welcome. Even in the most remote villages, children would run in our wake screaming out the two syllables NA-NO over and over again with near-hysterical glee.

Hotels gave us prided parking spots; employees at motorway toll booths stared lovingly; traffic cops waved us on, transfixed; a gasoline station attendant even asked for my autograph one day. And just about everywhere we went, people asked me with barely contained excitement whether I was going to sell the car when I left India, and did I already have a buyer lined up?

Despite much protest and doom-mongering from concerned friends and family regarding the Nano's (and my own personal) capacity to finish such a trip, three months later, the Nano and I rattled back into Mumbai, shaken, stirred and in dire need of a bath.

The jaunt managed to raise almost $5,000 for Women's World Banking and the only war wound we had to show was a small scratch on the Nano's front bumper that had been bestowed by an errant rickshaw in a scrum at a train crossing somewhere in Uttar Pradesh.

Not bad going for a car the price of a laptop.

Click here to see chronicles from the journey.