Updated : Monday March 23 , 2009 12:11:54 PM
NEW DELHI: India's Tata Motors was set Monday to launch the world's cheapest car amid predictions the vehicle could transform how millions travel and fears it would bring more traffic jams on Indian roads.
Tycoon Ratan Tata was due to unveil the four-door jelly-bean-shaped car with tear-drop lights at a "revolutionary high-tech" audio-visual show in India's financial hub Mumbai, a spokesman said.
The car is slated to cost just 100,000 rupees (2,000 dollars) for the no-frills version that has a two-cylinder 623 cc, rear-mounted engine with a top speed of 105 kilometres (65 miles) per hour.
Ratan Tata, an architect by training and head of the sprawling tea-to-steel Tata Group, dreamed up the car to get poor Indians off unsafe motorcycles and into safer cars.
"There's no safety in two-wheelers especially with the whole family," said New Delhi resident Ganesh Khand, 38, who now has a motorbike but wants a Nano to be able to transport his wife and two daughters safely.
But the affluent are eyeing the car too.
"This is a value-for-money car," said Hasmukh Kakadia, 39, a Mumbai investment analyst.
The basic model has a four-speed manual transmission, no air conditioning, electric windows or power steering, but deluxe versions will be available.
The launch comes at a tough time for India's top vehicle maker, hit by a slowing domestic economy, a credit crunch and a deepening world financial crisis that has hurt sales of British luxury marques Jaguar and Land Rover which it bought last year for 2.3 billion dollars.
But demand is expected to be hot for the Nano with just 30,000 to 50,000 of cars likely to be sold in the first year because of limited production capacity -- a fraction of the original target of 250,000, auto analysts said.
Dealers say they've been flooded with queries about the car whose debut was delayed by several months when violent protests over the acquisition of farmland for the project forced the Tatas to shift the Nano plant from West Bengal state to Gujarat, known as more business-friendly.
But the Gujarat plant won't be ready until late 2010, meaning production must come from existing factories, reducing output.
Earlier this month, Ratan Tata unveiled a European Nano sporting airbags and leather trim. That car will hit the market by 2011 but be costlier than in India due to extra features.
Tata has been likened by India's media to US automobile pioneer Henry Ford for conceiving the car.
"I observed families riding on two-wheelers, the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him holding a little baby," Tata said when showing the prototype in 2008.
"It led me to wonder whether one could conceive of a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for such a family."
But environmentalists fear the Nano will clog India's already crowded roads and add to choking pollution.
"Every car that goes on the road is going to use road space. We're only adding to congestion" and increasing pollution, said Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN's climate panel which won the 2007 Nobel Prize.
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