My family lived in India for two years in the 1960s, and that meant we had a chauffeur-driven Hindustan Ambassador. Build quality was dubious — I remember the column shifter coming off in the driver’s hand in Mumbai traffic.
It was also somewhat tight quarters, because the driver was a big guy and the two-tone Ambassador (a copy of a 1954 British Morris Oxford) wasn’t much bigger than a Volkswagen Bug. The heavily polluting Ambassador was a spiritual cousin to the unloved East German Trabant, but it routinely sold out because the protectionist Indian car market slapped huge duties on anything imported.
They’re still making hopelessly outdated Ambassadors, though they now have Isuzu engines and face a dwindling market share. I bring all this up because India is getting into the international car wars in earnest and is, with China, the biggest emerging car market.
China has only 3 percent car ownership, but more cars are now sold there annually than in the U.S. India built 2.6 million cars last year, still a sixth of China’s output. But with an open market, at current growth rates there could be more than 600 million cars on Indian roads by 2050.
That’s a lot of tailpipes, and it’s why global warming scientists worry about India and China. Both countries have emerging middle classes, and the increasing availability of cheap and cheerful cars.
You’ve probably heard of the Tata Nano, going on sale on the Indian market about now for $2,200, and due to be exported to Europe next year (and eventually to the U.S., though there are big crash testing hurdles). Well, now there’s another really cheap Indian city car coming to the market in 2012. A collaboration between Bajaj Auto and the Nissan/Renault combine, it’s scheduled to sell for as low as $2,500.
Bajaj is a big Tata rival, and the company sniped at the Nano when it was released. Now Rajiv Bajaj, the managing director, says his competing car, as yet unnamed, will get 70 mpg (the Nano does 50) and better carbon dioxide emissions. Here's a look at what to expect:
How good will the Bajaj be? The company showed off a kind of cute “ultra low cost” prototype (see photo below) at the 2008 New Delhi Auto Show, but the actual car could be much different. It will reportedly be a four-door hatchback with seating for four. Bajaj has previously made auto rickshaws and motorcycles; this will be its first four-wheeled passenger car, and it should put a lot of Indian motorists on the road.
We in the West have something of a double standard about cars in India and China. Obviously, they have the same right to own cars that we do, but we want them back on their bicycles because billions (yes, with a “b”) of new tailpipes will hasten the global warming that’s already at dangerous levels. And yet it was the industrialized countries that produced most of the CO2 that’s messing things up now. Ask Bill McKibben, climate activist and author of the new book "Eaarth"; he changed the planet’s name because he says it’s irreversibly changed with what we’ve already done.
These micro cars are just right for the Indian market, and they could have export sales, too — India already has one of the larger market shares in greater Asia. Does all of this make us nervous over here? You bet it does.