If we're perfectly honest, we were never expecting to drive Tata's Nano. After all, we were never asked - you have to figure it's not the kind of car that Tata wants tested. And we can't blame the Indian manufacturer -- chances are pretty good that if you're reading this, you aren't in the market for a $2,500 car that tops out at 65 miles per hour, steers like your kids' Radio Flyer and crumples like a giant soda can on impact. Yet despite the car's seeming irrelevance in our market, the quirky Nano generates a heck of a lot more conversation than most of the cars we'd actually consider buying. And that's exactly why we jumped at the chance when Continental's Automotive Division told us we could drive one. On a track and in the rain.
Here are five things that took us by surprise.
1. Staggered tire sizes: As seen in the Lamborghini Reventon and Ferrari's 458 Italia, key similarities include composition (rubber) and inflation method (air). The size is dissimilar, though. Each 12-inch steel wheel supports either a 135/70R12 or a 155/65R12 tire (the big ones go on the back). Pitch the little Tata into a corner hard enough and the sensation is neither oversteer nor understeer - instead an electrifying feeling of fear washes over as the car rolls into the high profile rubber and effortlessly pretzels the narrow chassis. Sometimes the front wheels wash out, sometimes the rear end does. And sometimes you're so scared of flipping over that you stop trying.
2. It's rear-wheel drive, and the engine is mounted in the back, just like the Porsche 911 GT2 RS. You get a little bit less engine, though, at two (2) cylinders. But before you knock the 624 cc mill, you should know that it pounds out 35 horsepower and a stout 65 lb-ft of torque. Once you get used to rowing the four-speed manual transmission from the wrong side of the car (the British were in India, remember), the Nano actually does get up and go. And by that we mean that the car literally, physically moves. But then again, for $2,500 that's a feat in itself.
3. Four-wheel independent suspension with lots of travel, like you'd find on Petter Solberg's rally-hardened Subaru WRX STI. Just when you're sure that there can't possibly be any more body roll, the car comes through with another 10 degrees or so, for a total of what you'll swear is 45 degrees. You feel like you're going to fall out the side window on hard left turns, and there's the distinct sensation that the steering rack itself is flexing, allowing each front wheel to choose its own adventure. Truly an independent suspension.
4. Four-wheel brakes, like those found in the Bentley Continental Supersports -- except these four drums are more akin to the parking brakes of the big bad Bentley. It's shocking to type, but the pedal feel really isn't bad, even hauling down from top speed. The stability is another matter -- harrowing, really. Pound the brakes and you'll swear there's a tail rudder that came loose on the 1,300 lb Nano, throwing the weight in directions that you didn't know existed.
5. Safety features: Like Volvo's XC60, the Nano has considerations for occupant safety, coming standard with an intrusion beam, "body reinforcements," and front and rear seatbelts (no, there are not nine seatbelts in the Indian-market car). We weren't able to test any of these state-of-the-industry safety features, but you can be sure that they work better than those of the current competition (50 cc motorbike with seven riders and three chickens in cages).