THE BLOG
04/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Where's the Nano Americano?

I freely admit that I'm obsessed with India's Tata Motors and in particular with their ultra-low-cost Nano "People's Car," which was slated to go on sale in the subcontinent earlier this year, but has run into some controversies and delays. Still, that hasn't stopped the company from thinking ahead. At the Geneva Auto Show, Tata unveiled the Nano Europa, the version of the $2,500 subcompact that it plans to (someday) sell in the Old Country. Obviously, it'll cost more than two-point-five grand in Europe--adding a cylinder to the engine and required safety upgrades will ensure that, as Jalopnik"s Matt Hardigree implies. But so what? Now I want to see a Nano for our Yankee Doodle market: The Nano Americano.

In the gas-burning Indian version, the Nano is a model of transport simplified. Small engine driving the rear wheels (a la the VW Beetle, the original People's Car), lightweight, snug but functional interior. For millions of consumers in the developing world, it will be the next step up from a bicycle, scooter, or motorcycle. Yes, enclosed mobility, with four doors and seating for four comfortably and five in a pinch.

Some observers and commentators have raised a red flag over the Nano, arguing that it will cause untold congestion problems in the already congested cities of the developing world, and that it will add to carbon emissions and worsen global warming. Well, maybe, but car-i-fication is coming to India and other rising countries, and better the new drivers be behind the wheel of fuel-sipping, low-emission Nanos than many other potential options.

Personally, the Nano fits my automotive and sustainable-mobility aesthetic to a "T." Cars have gotten too complicated, and most people are driving around with far too much horsepower under the hood. I like a ride that's not too big and therefore easy to park and maneuver around town; that has a simple five-speed manual transmission; and that doesn't bristle with interior doo-dads. I like hand-cranked windows because they're less likely to conk out than power. And it's not as if the Nano is completely rudimentary: it does have power steering, which is an improvement over the 1992 Mazda 323 I owned for a while.

Being Americans, we long for high-tech silver bullet solutions to our sustainability problems. Intricately engineered electric cars and hybrids that attempt to do away with gas-consumption altogether, or point the way toward greatly reduced oil consumption. We don't tend to look backwards for inspiration in our Green vehicle design, to valid precedents like the Fiat 500, the original Mini Cooper, and of course the VW Bug. These were all stylish, uncomplicated A-to-B machines that served the needs of countless drivers. (And they've all been redesigned and updated to be far more complex than absolutely ncessary.)

Actually, the Nano also evokes many of the early Japanese imports, which were also small, basic vehicles, reliable, but with limited frills. In a sense, the Nano combines the mindshare commanded by the great basic cars that saw Europe through the post-war years and the moxie represented by Honda and Toyota in the 1970s, when they were beginning their conquest of the North American market.

Currently, there aren't any plans that I know of to bring the Nano to the U.S. But make no mistake, this thing is no Indian Yugo. For many buyers, it could be a far cheaper urban alternative to a Smart. I can envision some scenarios for getting it here. Fiat could negotiate with Tata to rebadge it and sell it in Chrysler dealerships (Fiat recently took a stake in Chrysler). But I'd rather see the Nano sold as a Tata. It would go a long way toward modifying our transportation matrix to be more environmentally benign without forcing consumers to subsidize the cost.

And hey, what about this? If GM enters bankruptcy, maybe Tata can buy a plant or two and start rolling Nano Americanos off the assembly lines. I'm sure the taxpayer would be grateful.

UPDATE: The Nano Americano cometh! Thanks to the Financial Times, via Jalopnik.