Since its launch in 2009, the Tata Nano’s lack of a power steering has been its biggest weakness. Over the last five years, Tata Motors has continuously updated the car, fine tuning and improving almost every component. Now, the company has given the Nano its first major mechanical upgrade in the form of a power steering system and its befittingly called the Nano Twist.
A single glance is enough to tell you that the Nano doesn’t obey conventional design. It’s unusually tall, has the engine in the rear and is rear-wheel drive. This unique design is a result of the company’s prime focus on minimising manufacturing costs, while liberating maximum cabin space. So, even though it’s not orthodox, it is an utterly practical formula, especially now, with a power steering added to the equation.
At Rs 2.37 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), the Twist is probably the ideal city car. But, the real test is how well it does against Maruti’s value champion, the Alto 800, which costs just Rs 3.08 lakh. This Maruti is essentially a product that has evolved and been refined over 30 years and several generations. Three decades of fine-tuning the small hatchback design has resulted in a car that’s fit for a purpose, and is like no other. We spent a few days snaking through Mumbai’s traffic to see how these cars stack up.
What are they like inside?
Both these cars offer cabins that are poles apart. Inside the Nano, you’ll find a very unconventional looking layout with a centrally-mounted console and small gloveboxes on either side. The refreshed centre console now features a brand new speedometer, LED readouts for fuel and temperature, and a full trip computer with fuel consumption and a distance-to-empty reading. The colours and trims are also much improved and this has helped lift the ambience of the cabin. Apart from a few rough edges, overall cabin quality is quite decent and is on par with the Alto’s build quality in some areas.
What’s most impressive though is the phenomenal amount of space the Nano has. Legroom, both in the front and the back, can easily rival larger saloons and despite its petite exterior dimensions, it manages to be one of the most spacious hatchbacks across segments. However, while they’ve improved, the seats still lack sufficient back and underthigh support, and feel too flat. The rear seatbelts are a bit unusual and hold you around the waist – just like on an airplane.
The Alto 800’s cabin is very Spartan and apart from the essentials, there is nothing extra here. You sit really low in the Alto and due to the low stance of the car, getting in and out is a bit of a chore. The front seat is alright for short journeys but they lack back and underthigh support. Seat bolstering could have been a bit better too, as you tend to slide around in the corners. In the rear, Maruti has tried to carve out more kneeroom for passengers with slim front seats but it’s still very cramped for anyone above average height. For back-seat comfort, the Nano is way ahead and having a chauffeur-driven Nano isn’t as odd an idea as you might think.
As for the boot, both these cars don’t have much to offer but the Alto’s openable rear hatch makes the boot a lot easier to access and its larger dimensions makes it more useable too. The Tata’s tiny boot can be accessed only by flipping down the rear seats, only good enough for a large backpack or two.
What are they like to drive?
The addition of a power steering has truly unlocked the full potential of the Nano, especially in the city. It is no longer a chore to drive — you really had to wrench the earlier car’s steering wheel. True to its name, the Twist is incredibly easy to manoeuvre in the city and is easily the best car in the country to squeeze through jams, micro lanes and impossibly thin gaps. Its two-wheeler-like turning radius lets you spin the car around in narrow lanes with unbelievable ease. In fact, we managed a U-turn on a road not much wider than four large strides. Then there’s the light steering itself that needs virtually no effort and feels like it’s operated by thought alone. This combination makes it terrific for parking in ridiculously tight spots. In its ability of snaking through the city, the Nano Twist is in a league of its own.
The new suspension bits are much improved as well but it’s still not as good as the Maruti. The Nano tends to bob and pitch quite a bit, which isn’t good news as perfectly paved roads are quite hard to come by in India. The small wheels are partly to blame for this. Overall, there’s always this jittery edge to the ride and it never really flattens out. Larger potholes, however, don’t crash through as hard as you’d imagine them to. But, sharper turns, especially at speed, result in a slightly unnerving angle of body roll and this takes getting used to.
While the Alto isn’t very pliant either, the suspension does a much better job. Over bad roads, the Alto does feel out of its comfort zone too and the ride isn’t as flat, it bobs around a fair bit and deep potholes crash through rather hard. But, in most scenarios, the suspension is reasonably silent. On the highway, the Alto feels quite stable and a lot more grown up than the Nano, maintaining its composure rather well even at triple-digit speeds. Another area where the Alto trounces the Nano is in the brakes department. The Nano’s drums and narrow 135-section front tyres just can’t hold a candle to the Alto 800’s disc/drum setup. And brake-pedal feel on the Nano is poor too.
Around the bends, the Alto too exhibits a fair bit of body roll but the car feels far safer compared to the Nano. At speed, the steering feels a bit too light but this car is surprisingly fun to pedal hard.
Since a good number of folk buying either of these cars are first-time car buyers and city users, it’s vital that they are easy to drive. Powering the Nano Twist is a two-cylinder, 660cc 37.5bhp engine that’s located at the back and transmits power via a four-speed gearbox. On the other hand, the Alto 800 is driven via a three-cylinder, 796cc engine that produces 47bhp, mated to a five-speed gearbox; a significant advantage of near 10bhp and an added gear over the Nano. As the specifications suggest, they are very different in the way they drive.
The first thing you notice in the Nano is the awkwardly high seating position with the steering being a bit too close to your thighs that, even after a while, doesn’t quite feel natural. Start the motor and the Nano idles with a tinge of vibration coming in through the steering wheel, however, get going and the vibrations iron out substantially. The Nano’s tiny motor feels quite adequate while ambling around in the city. It’ll easily keep up with traffic and the response from the engine is quite good too. It’s only when you find yourself on open roads, that the Nano’s limitations start to show. After 80kph, the tiny Tata starts to rapidly lose steam and you’ll have to be ambitious to attempt an overtaking move at these speeds. You also have to make liberal use of the gearbox to extract the most from the engine at speeds and the light clutch helps. The Alto 800 is poles apart, and the Maruti hits 100kph over nine seconds quicker than the Nano. Here, you sit a lot lower and shorter drivers may find the steering wheel to be a bit too high. Like the Nano, you can’t adjust the seat or the steering height. However, the Alto’s driving position feels more car-like and is easier to live with. From the word go, the Alto 800’s power advantage is immediately apparent. The engine, though a bit noisy when revved, feels eager. In fact, the little Maruti is good fun to drive quickly and can definitely keep you entertained in the city. On the highway too, the Alto doesn’t feel out of place and thanks to the extra gear, can maintain a cruising speed of 110kph — but there’s not too much after that. Also, the three-cylinder motor isn’t particularly smooth, making the Alto a bit jerky to drive in stop-go traffic.
Equipment & safety
The Nano is handsomely kitted for a car its price. On the XT trim, you get a CD player that supports USB and AUX inputs and plays your tunes through four speakers. There’s also Bluetooth telephony though pairing your phone isn’t straightforward and Bluetooth music isn’t supported — it’s strictly calls. You also get air-conditioning, front power windows and of course, power steering as standard. There’s also a trip computer that displays average fuel consumption and distance to empty. Outside, you get front and rear fog lamps and alloy wheels.
In contrast, the more expensive Alto 800 LXi isn’t well-equipped at all. Apart from a manual air conditioner and front power windows, there’s nothing else to show for here. There isn’t even an audio system.
In terms of safety, both these cars score poorly as neither of them get ABS or airbags.
The Nano Twist is leaps and bounds ahead of the original 2009 car. The power steering and light clutch makes this car incredibly easy to drive and park in the city. It’s spacious, well-equipped and fuel efficient too. However, the unusual driving position and jittery ride rob it of a proper car-like feel and the small, two-cylinder motor can’t cope on open roads.
The Alto 800 wins because it feels more complete as a car. Yes, it may not turn on a dime like the Nano and, in the LXi trim, is quite poorly equipped but, its more powerful motor makes it quite entertaining to drive and it doesn’t fall back on open stretches. For a no-frills budget hatchback, the Alto 800 still remains the one to beat, even for Rs 60,000 more.