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Tata ignores flaming Nanos at its peril

Published April 3, 2010


Two years ago at the Detroit auto show, the most talked about car wasn’t even there. The Tata Nano sent shockwaves through the auto world, kind of like a bedbug would in a Trump Hotel.

The pocket-sized car from India raised eyebrows as well as concerns. A tiny, bare-bones vehicle, it promised to revolutionize emerging nations just discovering the car as a vehicle for the masses, rather than just for the wealthy. Its modest equipment — a two-cylinder engine, one windshield wiper, no sun visors, no air conditioning, no passenger-side rear-view mirror, no radio and no air bags — was matched by its modest price: around $2,500 (U.S.). North American critics instantly declared it would never meet safety standards and comfort requirements for the biggest road hogs in the world. They were missing the point; it was never intended to.

Finally released for sale to an eager Indian public, the Nano is now battling headlines of another sort. Since July 2009, four Nanos have burst into flames. The most recent incident in Mumbai involved an insurance broker who was being driven home from the dealership in his new car. Not even licensed to drive yet, this is how eager people are to get their hands on the Nano. A passing motorcyclist alerted them to the fact they were on fire. With a rear-mounted engine, occupants are apparently unaware they are in danger until someone tells them.

While thus far nobody has been hurt, photos of the engulfed car bring to mind Ford Pinto and exploding gas tanks in the 1970s. In that case, collisions triggered a flaw in the design, and resulted in a widely disputed number of deaths (depending on several sources, numbers go from 27 to 900). More troubling with the Nano is that the car appears to spontaneously combust.

Tata has said there will be no recall. They say the first three fires were caused by a faulty switch, which has been fixed.

At a time when companies like Toyota have been brought to their knees over recalls, and the lousy handling of those recalls, companies like Tata should be taking notes. You can’t roll about in the positive press generated the world over when you introduce a ground-breaking product and then fail to respond when questions — about both damage and danger — surface. To not instantly understand the power of the Internet to broadcast images of your brand engulfed in flames like some kind of rolling BBQ is naïve, and perhaps deadly. It’s not a stretch to imagine someone being hurt; many Tata owners are inexperienced drivers in a country where cars are just now making inroads with the general population.

Nearly every car manufacturer has had to do battle with public perception for a multitude of reasons. From the flaming Pintos in the ’70s to allegedly accelerating Audis in the ’80s, from exploding Ford Explorer Firestone tires in the ’90s to falling apart Ladas, well, all the time. I remember when Fords rusted and when Chryslers wouldn’t start in the rain. While some perceptions are eventually proven false and some lead to life-saving changes, the fact remains that they must be addressed.

I don’t care how cheap the Nano is. Tata also owns marquee brands Land Rover and Jaguar; I have a hard time believing those consumers would be similarly dismissed.

The optics of this car’s introduction was stunning. A family car made precisely for congested roads, small fuel-efficient engines, at a price built for including a massive consumer base. Tata will continue to ignore the present optics of this car in flames to its own detriment.

Lorraine Sommerfeld appears Saturdays in Wheels and Mondays in Living. Reach her via her website