The World’s Cheapest Wheels

Tata Motors is best known as a maker of industrial trucks from India's rust belt that launched the country's first completely indigenous passenger car, the Indica, 10 years ago. Next week the company will unveil another revolutionary new vehicle that will throw down the gauntlet in the highly competitive race to capture the first-time-buyer segment of the world's automobile market. Tata's not-so-secret weapon: the car is cheap. Unbelievably cheap.

Back in 2003, when chairman Ratan Tata revealed his plans to build a car that would cost less than 100,000 rupees (about $2,500 in today's dollars), rival carmakers said it couldn't be done. As time passed, and Tata kept at it, they hedged. Maybe it will be more like an enclosed motorcycle, they said. As tantalizing details about the car's design leaked, they started to get worried. Finally, in April, Renault-Nissan's Carlos Ghosn announced his own plans to build a $3,000 car in partnership with Indian motorcycle maker Bajaj Auto.

The move signaled that the race to create the world's best-selling starter car was on. The stakes are incredibly high, which is why the international auto industry is descending in unprecedented numbers on the New Delhi Auto Expo, where Tata will reveal the design for its People's Car for the first time on Jan. 10. The vehicle could have almost as large an impact in India as the original Volkswagen had in Germany back in 1938—perhaps doubling the size of India's passenger-car market overnight, and delivering a much-needed boost to the manufacturing sector in a country that has long suffered from so-called jobless growth. By encouraging parts suppliers to develop innovative ways to slash costs, it could also help build a highly efficient supply chain for the Indian automotive industry.

But the tremors won't be felt only in India. Small cars like VW's Gol, Nissan's Tsuru and Renault's Clio are already the top sellers in Latin America and Europe, and PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that about half the growth in automobile sales between 2006 and 2011 will come from Brazil, Russia, India and China, countries that are expected to buy mainly small, cheap vehicles. Even in gas-guzzling America, where the cheapest car is today the $10,000 Chevy Aveo, buyers are warming up to subcompacts. As a result, virtually all of the world's major automakers are striving to develop cheap, fuel-efficient small cars that can first be sold in emerging markets, then exported to the West.

Until the past year, these cars were meant to be sub-$10,000 vehicles like the Renault Logan. Now, with Tata setting the limbo stick much lower, the price target has been slashed to below $5,000. Add to that Tata's pole position in the bidding to buy the premium Jaguar and Rover brands from Ford Motor Co., and it truly looks like the Indian carmaker has arrived.

If successful, the People's Car could help shift the growth dynamic of the entire Indian economy, which has until recently been based more on service than manufacturing expertise. When Suzuki first brought the Maruti 800 (currently the world's cheapest car at about $5,000) to India in 1983, it completely transformed the domestic component business, laying the foundation for India's current emergence as an auto-parts hub. Suzuki's Indian factories have always built for the domestic market, but recently it announced it will sell an Indian-made hatchback in Europe next year. Others have also set up production in India, attracted by its large domestic market and growing components expertise. Hyundai has been the most aggressive in its efforts to make India a manufacturing hub. It exported more than 100,000 cars built here to Europe, South Africa and Latin America last year, and it chose India as the site for the global launch of its new compact model, the i10. But even Ford and General Motors, slower to see India's potential, have ramped up their efforts.

Analysts are even more bullish on Tata's plans. "There's no doubt this car is going to create a new [automotive] segment altogether," says Abdul Majeed, a partner in the automotive practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers. "If you look at the Indian automotive market, the bulk of it—over 70 percent—is two-wheelers. But the price gap between two-wheelers and four-wheelers has been very significant." The price tag for the People's Car is a bit more than double the cost of a midrange motorcycle, like Hero Honda's 100cc Splendor. Majeed forecasts that Tata's new car could encourage 10 to 20 percent of India's scooter and motorcycle buyers to purchase a car instead. If that happens, it would mean an additional 1.8 million vehicles sold per year—almost equal to the current size of the entire Indian passenger-car market.

Most analysts are waiting for a view of the car before pegging sales estimates—a task made difficult because Ratan Tata has played his cards very close to the vest in the three-year lead-up to the launch of the People's Car, revealing almost nothing about the design and features of the vehicle, or how the company managed to slash costs—both of which will define how the car affects the global industry. Prototypes have been as jealously guarded. Virtually all that is known for sure about the car so far—courtesy of a scripted "leak" by one of the company directors after Nobel Prize-winning climatologist R. K. Pachauri suggested the People's Car could be an environmentalist's nightmare if it vastly increases numbers on the road—is that it gets 25 kilometers per liter (59 miles per gallon) of gasoline, meets European emissions standards and matches the Maruti 800 in acceleration. It was also revealed that the car uses more plastic and fewer bolts than conventional designs, lending credence to rumors that Tata engineers visited Lotus in Malaysia to study adhesive bonding as an alternative to welding.

But its other cost-saving measures could have the biggest impact. Promising huge sales volumes, Tata has worked closely with components suppliers to bring the price of each part into a predetermined target range. The efforts are reminiscent of the techniques Tata used a few years back to bring down the price of the Ace, India's first mini-pickup truck, to about $6,000—close to the cost of the three-wheeled vehicles generally used for small jobs. In a considerable feat of engineering, the company came up with a design that allowed it to cut two engines for the Ace from the same block it used for the Indica. Not only did that allow the company to avoid building a new assembly facility, it also allowed it to capitalize on further economies of scale. If the People's Car shows more of the same, Tata—and India—may well win the race to miniaturize the automobile.

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