January 30, 2008
A mere three weeks ago, the introduction of the Nano, the $2,500 car produced by Tata Motors, made the headlines worldwide. It also was the topic of the Jan. 15 "Fabricating Update" e-newsletter lead-in, which asked subscribers what they thought of the new car and whether it would have any impact on the U.S. automotive industry.
The question received many responses, including more than I expected from readers who applauded the concept of the car and said they believed U.S. automakers should follow suit and build comparable vehicles, provided they are safe and reliable. Frankly, I expected more like the one from a sheet metal fabricator who wrote, "Let me first qualify my position on this little car by saying I would walk or not go before my ass hits the seat of a foreign car." Not so.
One of the first to respond wrote, "Frankly, I wouldn't mind buying a small, economic, but rugged car without all the whozits and whatzits modern car manufacturers insist upon. I was one of the last people I know to purchase a vehicle with power doors/windows/mirrors. How hard is it to crank the window up and down anyway? I never bother playing anything more than the radio in my car, because I find toting around CDs/mp3s such a hassle. I don't need an in-dash navigation system or satellite radio. Living in Pennsylvania, where the temperature can go from 40 to 85 degrees F and back again in a 24-hr. period, I do however prefer air conditioning in my vehicle. Otherwise, go ahead and give me a cheaper bare-bones model.
"With that being said, I'd be scared witless driving the puny Nano in between two large American SUVs with drivers who are talking on the cell phone while eating their cheeseburgers while playing with their various in-dash gizmos and running red lights and swerving all over the road."
(I drive a mid-size SUV, and this scenario scares the daylights out of me also.)
A subscriber from Italy wrote, "I have 15 years of experience in the automotive [industry] and, in my opinion, cars like Tata's Nano and [Mahindra] Renault's Logan are going in the right direction. I do believe that in recent years (since 1990) the automotive industry has used all the new gadgets (electronic, mechatronic, safety, and environmental) in order to increase the cost of the cars and to finance in this way their own inefficiency and bad management.
"Maybe time has come to remember the customer and to start again to work for him, giving him what he wants and really needs! I brought a Logan ($6,500 in 2005) as second car, and I'm happy with it. It has everything I need to go to the supermarket, for shopping, or for small trips around home."
A subscriber from Texas wrote, "I am 67 years old. My first car was a 1947 Ford Club Coupe with the basic features—heater and radio. The Big Three need to produce a basic no frills auto, not small, but of adequate size, right here in the U.S. Good basic transportation."
So, what do we really want? Some of my neighbors and I were talking this past weekend, and one topic of discussion was neighbor Marty's new car. Marty replaced his large American-made SUV with a Subaru Forester. What I remember about the conversation was that Marty "got a great deal," and the vehicle has Sirius® satellite radio. There was no mention of fuel economy, where the vehicle was made, safety, or any of the other important facets of what represents a significant purchase in the average U.S. household. Marty's a very intelligent man, and my guess is that he researched vehicles extensively before deciding to buy the Subaru. The satellite radio probably was not the determining factor, but Marty's thrilled to have it.
Many of us in the U.S. have grown accustomed to all the frills, and while we may be looking for better fuel economy, are we really ready to go back to the basics? Possibly. I remember when attendants pumped gas. Now I'm pumping my own. Surely I can go back to cranking down a window. Not sure I can give up the heated seats, and the cup holders are a must.