Tata — the Indian car manufacturer — announced this week its plans to bring the diminutive Nano subcompact to American shores.

If you've not already heard about the Tata Nano, you will. At just $2,500 in its Indian trim, the Nano is arguably the world's most frugal car. Actually, "frugal" really doesn't do the Nano justice — spartan might be a better term. Or utilitarian. By anyone's estimation, the Nano is perhaps the most bare-bones car to roll off a factory floor since the Model T.

While the Nano's price may sound irresistible, it comes at a cost. Skilled, inexpensive Indian labor provides Tata with a huge production advantage over American, European and Asian car companies, but some of the Nano's cost-cutting isn't likely to satisfy Western consumers or regulatory agencies.

Cutting corners

Air bags? Of course not. There's no external access to the trunk — you'll have to fold the seats down to cram anything into the Nano's duffel-bag-sized rear storage area. Parts of the body are glued, rather than welded. Sun visors are optional. There's only one windshield wiper, no power steering, and the stock two-cylinder engine won't smoke any tires in your local Dairy Queen parking lot.

The payoff — other than sticker price — is incredible fuel economy. While it hasn't been tested in the United States, it's said that the Nano gets at least 54 miles per gallon. Some estimates are even higher.

While a recent USA Today article speculated wistfully that Tata might be able to hold the Nano to $3,000 once it goes on sale in the U.S., that figure doesn't seem very likely. Tata's upcoming European export model, the Nano Europa, probably hints at the shape of a U.S. Nano. Priced at around $6,000, the Europa features a bigger engine, improved construction and a larger wheelbase. Add transatlantic shipping and more safety equipment, and that's the American Nano.

The Nano's real promise

There's a ton of fresh thinking in the Nano, and more on the way. Tata has already indicated its interest in the development of an all-electric version, and is experimenting with a powerplant which literally runs on emissions-free compressed air. That's radical green technology in a car priced for the masses.

But don't expect a $2,500 Tata Nano once it's rolled into U.S. showrooms. At that price, you wouldn't want it, anyway.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2009

Tata's Nano: The frugal eco-car you don't want (yet)
Though it may get 54 MPG, this $2,500 subcompact is not yet up to U.S. safety standards.