'People's car' falls victim to its own hype

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 December, 2010, 12:00am

It was meant to be the 'People's Car' that would herald a huge lifestyle change, by allowing the Indian middle class to trade in their scooters for their first car, the world's cheapest at US$2,000.

The Tata Nano burst onto the world stage like a new pop star. Apart from a few naysaying environmentalists who, after the launch in March last year, worried about the impact on air quality and road traffic, everyone else was excited about the Nano.

For millions of Indians who had endured the discomfort and perils of riding on scooters in a country where the only rule on the roads was the Darwinian one that only the biggest vehicles survived, the Nano represented a leap towards comfort and safety.

Somehow, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Only 509 Nanos were sold in November, a big fall from the peak figure of 9,000 in June. As Tata Motors struggles to find out the reasons, it's clear that the final price has been a shock. Once buyers have paid for extras and air conditioning, the bill comes to around US$3,700, immediately prompting them to wonder if, at that price, perhaps they should take out a bigger loan and go for a larger, used car instead.

Price apart, fears about the car's safety were fuelled by a spate of incidents in which the car suddenly caught fire, scenes which, replayed endlessly on news channels, made some prospective buyers think again. As one mother of two young children remarked to me, the last thing she wanted was to feel nervous every time they went out in the car.

Tata Motors has insisted that the car is perfectly safe and has launched a new advertising campaign to tackle the slump in sales. The only difficulty is that Indian consumers are very unforgiving. Once the slightest shadow appears over a product, it takes a lot to convince them otherwise.

As car expert Murad Ali Baig puts it: 'Indian consumers are notorious for wanting maximum value for money. Their feeling is not just that they are going to buy a good car, it's got to be the best car.'

Some other prospective Nano buyers have also been put off by the doubt that it may not be able to handle the highways.

Oddly enough, the car that was meant to make the great Indian middle class mobile for the first time has been snapped up by large numbers of people who already have a car, but bought it either because they wanted a second car for running around locally or because all the hype made it seem 'cool'.

Given the car's amazing price, its technology, its cute good looks and the formidable reputation of Tata Motors, the Nano is likely to recover from the current dip in sales. It made Indians proud and they are not likely to forget that in a hurry.

Perhaps it's the excessive hype that is responsible for the Nano's current woes. In the new advertisement, a little girl becomes anxious that all the admiring glances her father's new Nano is getting could attract the 'evil eye'.

She dabs it with a touch of her kohl, a traditional gesture intended to ward off the evil eye. Now, if only they had thought of that earlier.

Amrit Dhillon is a New Delhi-based writer