Tata Nano: The Car That Was Just Too Cheap

The Guardian
Click here to read original article

Faced with a poor safety rating and dismal sales among the targeted rural population, India’s Tata is changing the image of the Nano and nudging up its price.

Poor Tata Nano: dealt zero safety stars last week by the global Ncap for performing miserably in German crash tests, the world’s cheapest car also recorded a shockingly low sales figure of 554 units in December.

It had started so well. India’s answer to Ford’s Model T was set to be a revolutionary, affordable vehicle for the masses as well as a paragon of frugal engineering. At its launch in 2009, Indians were so eager to get their hands on one that 200,000 orders were put through before the first Nano had even rolled off the production line.

I was so inspired by the pioneering spirit of the car, I invested in my own LX model and took it on a 10,000km drive around India in 2010. Contrary to the expectations of most people I met along the way, I lived to tell the tale.

People were dubious. Was the car even meant for driving on highways? How would it handle on rural roads? And, in the wake of a spate of spontaneous combustions around the time of my trip, wasn’t I concerned about the prospect of a Nano fireball?

Vehicle safety in India has to be a huge issue. In a country where you often have to vie with livestock for road space, improvise lane directions, or suddenly swerve to avoid being swallowed alive by a gaping pothole, you need to know that your chariot will keep you intact.

So it was with concern that I watched the Ncap’s morose multi-angle footage of crash test dummies lethally head-butting the dashboard while the Nano crumpled pathetically around their legs.

Tata and other Indian car manufacturers such as Suzuki-Maruti, Ford and Hyundai, whose low-end vehicles performed badly in last week’s tests, have to rethink safety in the light of their new dismal ratings. For the Nano, this should coincide with a whole set of other changes Tata is making to save the brand.

For one, the company is no longer referring to the Nano as the world’s cheapest car. That moniker has not served it well, making the car sound flimsy and unreliable instead of no-frills and accessible. Thinking cheap is out and celebrating awesomeness – the Nano’s new catchphrase – is in. The new awesomeness image is meant to appeal to middle-class urban youth, who have always made up the Nano’s main fan base, a fact that Tata ignored following the car’s launch. Instead, it chose to focus on delivering its product to first-time buyers in rural areas, perhaps because Tata thought the potential market there had more scope. That decision doomed the Nano to fail.

Why? Because it turns out that people in a lower income bracket have the same sense of self-preservation as their counterparts further up the economic ladder, as well as similar image issues. And, due to lack of funds, they’re cautious, sensible buyers who’d rather not be fobbed off with a poor man’s car, or trade their family’s safety for a low pricetag.

India’s “people’s car” needs to get closer to its people if it’s to live up to the legend of the Model T or the Beetle, which sold 15m and 21.5m units respectively during the years of their manufacture.

In the meantime, Tata is chiseling the Nano’s image and nudging the price up with every change. January saw the launch of the revamped, slightly dearer Nano Twist. New features like power-steering and a digital music system should thrill the kids, but I imagine they’d be more pleased with the intervention of an airbag in the event of a high-speed collision. Just an idea.

Spin City

The Guardian
Click here to read original article

They’ve been outlawed for almost a century, but you can still find whirling Dervishes spinning themselves into a meditative trance in a serene little enclave of Istanbul. The unassuming Galata dervish lodge is located off a side street in the very centre of the city, its most bewitching feature a graveyard of tombstones capped with the regional serpus hats, under which are buried generations of Sufi masters.

Cross-legged among the graves, playing his ney, one of the oldest musical instruments in the world, is DJ Arkin Allen, more commonly known as contemporary Sufi musician, Mercan Dede. “This is a magical place, where I come for total peace,” he says. “Time and sound stop here.”

Despite this year’s secular demonstrations, 2007 is a spiritual year for Turkey. Unesco backed a special project of cultural events to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, poet and founder of the Mevlana school of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.Advertisement

An adherent of Sufi practice and its music, Mercan Dede’s style of performance includes mixing traditional Sufi sounds with digital and electronic beats, as well as working with everyone from Istanbul’s Roma musicians to the city’s biggest rap stars, directing the stage shows from behind the turntables, from where he occasionally lifts his hands from the decks to play a stint on his ney. Not surprisingly, his favourite concert venue is the majestic 1,700-year-old Byzantine cathedral and little sister to the Hagia Sophia, Hagia Irene, although you are just as likely to find him at Babylon, one of the city’s most pumping nightclubs.

I arrived at Arkin’s Istanbul home in the neighbourhood of Cihangir, and he whisked me past Mira, a Dervish dancer, who was ironing her trademark neon-blue whirling skirt for their performance that evening, up to his balcony, overlooking a patchwork of terracotta rooftops and the glittering Bosphorus.

It’s hard to imagine that this picture-perfect scene is so frenetic at ground level. Arkin tells me he survives the chaos of the city of over 10 million people by keeping little refuges. One such is the canteen-style Haci Abdullah restaurant in the city centre, another the dessert emporium Inci, brimming with sweet treats concocted from honey and pistachios; both are old-school Turkish in their cuisine and character. Beyond the city, Arkin escapes to the Bosphorus villages, the latter-day fishing stations lining the strait all the way up to the Black Sea, which have managed to maintain much of their rural character, despite Istanbul’s exponential expansion in the last century.

One of the more popular villages is Bebek, a leafy suburb on the European shore. “I like to walk around there and sit down on a bench and get some tea or coffee from one of the portable three-tiered coffee carts,” says Arkin. It’s not a place that many visitors to the city get to, and the experience is a world away from the teeming tourist magnets in Sultanahmet: women walk their children, kids take turns throwing themselves into the water, and dogs bask in the sun, occasionally lifting their eyelids at the sound of a fishing boat parking up for the day.

The best way to negotiate the Bosphorus villages is by boat, and an unhurried service runs every hour or so between the quaint wooden docks on both sides of the strait. Arkin’s favourite neighbourhood in the city is Kandilli, just across the water from Bebek. An outdoor coffee house by the pier sits at the bottom of a hill of steep and narrow residential streets, some housing beautifully restored yalis, wooden homes from the late Ottoman period, often gaily painted, and smacking of the colonial style of much of 19th-century America. Climb up the weed-strewn stone steps to the top of the hill for a sweeping vista of the second Bosphorus suspension bridge and all of the European shore.

The “Dede” part of Arkin’s stage name is a title used by Sufis to denote an elder in the tradition, and is a mark of an allegiance that began two decades ago when he started to play the ney. He makes no secret of his affiliation with Sufism, even though the Mevlana school has in effect been outlawed since the time of the birth of the Republic in 1925, when all 250 or so dervish lodges in the city were closed down, thus demoting what was for centuries the profound spiritual practice of whirling to a tourist curiosity, on a par with bellydancing.

Although Arkin moved to Montreal in the 80s, he often returns to Istanbul: “Montreal is about peace and being myself and digesting the ideas and inspirations I get in Istanbul,” he said.

And how about Istanbul? “It’s where the angel and the devil walk hand in hand.”