Maruti 800 and Tata Nano are affordable, comfortable and just right for the chock-a-block Indian roads, writes Joy Chaudhuri.

As small as they both may be in size, the Maruti 800 and the Tata Nano are the two of the largest in-demand cars in India. The Maruti 800 was perhaps the most important car to hit Indian roads shortly after Independence. It was India’s first whiff of modern car technology. Boasting a 796cc in-line three-cylinder engine that was both peppy and frugal, the M800 had a monocoque chassis, overhead cams and disc brakes. It was affordable, it was reliable, it was nimble and it was fun to drive. The car even led to an increasing number of women taking to the wheel.

The little car was originally designed for the European and Japanese markets, but here it was happily doing Indian-assigned duties. Little wonder then that for years the Maruti 800 remained the largest-selling car in India. Today, the numbers may have dropped, yet it continues to sell. But its days might well be over.The Nano is the new status symbol. Stop anywhere and hordes of people want to touch it, see it, sit in it and some even ask to drive it. What’s more is that men in their Audis will stop to check out a car that costs a little more than two Audi side mirrors. Why does the Nano catch more eyeballs per km than even the Ferraris did on their Magic Tour of India? The reason is not too hard to see. The Nano is a car that the common man can aspire to own. The 800 too had received a similar welcome in the 1980s. In 1983, there were queues outside Indian Oil petrol pumps where the 800s were first displayed, for the very same reason.

Twenty-six years separate the two cars. The M800’s 796cc engine develops 39bhp. The Nano is not far off — the 624cc engine developing 35bhp. The 800 has a three-cylinder motor, the Nano uses two. Both use two valves a cylinder, driven by a single overhead cam. Though both cars generate about the same power, the 800 is quicker and peppier. The Nano takes 9.1 seconds to get to 60kph. The 800 reaches there a second faster. The gap widens at 80kph and 100kph. After introducing the accelerator to the floor, you have to wait nearly half-a-minute to see 100kph on the speedo. The 800 is nearly four seconds faster. The Nano is designed for the narrow, crowded streets of India, for broken village roads and rush-hour traffic. Despite the lack of grunt, it does its job brilliantly. The Nano runs like a breeze with the engine warmed up. Adequate power, extremely nimble, just what you need. The peppier 800 has no advantage here. So this one is a tie.

The Nano can seat five people comfortably, and you can sit higher. The 800 just about squeezes in four and its small dimensions make you feel vulnerable on the road. Back in 1983, the 800’s cabin felt upmarket and of high quality compared to the Ambys and Padminis that ruled the streets. The Nano’s cabin does not give you the same feeling. It feels crude. You could argue that one can’t quibble about it because of the Nano’s price, and you will be right. It’s also right that the plastic parts and other bits such as switches, knobs and beadings in the Nano are decent. But the point here is that in 1983, when you bought an 800, you felt you were getting a top-quality product. Today, even owners of motorcycles that cost Rs. 40,000 are used to a certain level of fit and finish. In 2009, when you buy a Nano, you are ready to accept this compromise. When the 800 was launched, it was predicted that if the 800 didn’t kill its passengers on hitting a dog they would eat their words. This was before the Indian consumer knew about crumple zones (which the 800 had) and seatbelts (which it didn’t). The critics had to eat their words. Safety concerns were also raised about the Nano. It comes with seatbelts. And, more importantly, it has passed the European crash test at MIRA. The Nano’s independent suspension provides a better ride. This, along with the car’s massive 180mm ground clearance, means that the Nano handles rough roads, potholes and ditches with poise.

Well, the first time you drive the Nano, you will bounce off the redline in the first two gears, but you quickly learn to stay in the engine’s mid-range. Since it’s a rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive car, the engineers have given it narrow tyres in the front, and wider ones at the rear to dial in understeer. So if you want the tail to step out, you will be disappointed. Corner hard, and there will be a lot of body roll, but you never fear that you are going to keel over. On the other hand when the 800 was launched in 1983, it caught the imagination of enthusiastic drivers who till then had to make good by modifying their Padminis.

The M800 cost Rs. 48,000 when it was launched. And, the price of petrol was about Rs. 6.20 a litre. So, the cost of a Maruti 800 equalled 7,741 litres of petrol. Today, the price of petrol hovers around the Rs. 48 mark. If the cost of a Tata Nano too equalled 7,741 litres of petrol, the price would be Rs. 3.7 lakh. But the top-line Nano costs just over two lakh. So, the Tata Nano offers you value for money and good mileage.

The M800’s 796cc engine develops 39bhp. The Nano is not far off — the 624cc engine developing 35bhp. The 800 has a three-cylinder motor, the Nano uses two


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