India has a new ultra-cheap, small car.
Well, sort of.
The company that introduced it on Tuesday, Bajaj Auto, best known for making motorcycles and three-wheeled rickshaws, doesn’t even call its newest product, the RE60, a car, preferring the generic term “four wheeler.” Executives say they don’t plan to market it to average consumers.
Instead, they are aiming for drivers of rickshaws, which operate as short-distance taxis in India, by pitching them impressive new features like seat belts, doors and a hard top.
The RE60 was supposed to be more.
It was anticipated as Bajaj’s answer to the Tata Nano, which its maker Tata Motors introduced in 2009 and billed as a modern-day people’s car that would bring mobility to India’s masses at a price tag of $2,500. But one analyst described it as an “upgraded rickshaw” and said it would pose no challenge to the Nano, which itself has attracted only a fraction of the buyers once anticipated because of production delays and safety concerns.
“After seeing the RE60, you realize what a phenomenal achievement the Nano is,” said the analyst, Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of AutoCar India, a trade publication. “It is nowhere near a full-sized car which the Nano is. Clearly it’s just not got the sophistication of the Nano.”
But executives from Bajaj suggest that was essentially the point – to make the best vehicle possible and not stretch to produce an engineering marvel that might not work in real-life conditions.
“At Bajaj Auto, we believe the people of this planet deserve much better, much faster,” Rajiv Bajaj, the managing director of the company said in a statement, in what appeared to be a not-so-subtle dig at the Nano. “We, therefore, decided to focus our efforts on developing vehicles powered by engines using available natural resources and infrastructure.”
Fitted with a one-cylinder, 200cc engine, Bajaj said the RE60 would deliver 35 kilometers per liter, or 82 miles per gallon, and have a top speed of 70 kilometers per hour, or 43 miles per hour. Instead of rolling down, its windows will fold out. The company did not say how much the RE60 would sell for when it hits showrooms later this year. A rickshaw today costs about 120,000 rupees, or $2,200, Mr. Sorabjee said.
At a press conference in New Delhi ahead of the Delhi Auto Expo, the country’s biggest car show, Mr. Bajaj told reporters he was happy to sell the RE60 to consumers but his main target market was the rickshaw drivers, who earn about $100 a month driving people short distances.
The RE60 is the result of several years of work by the company, which had an agreement to make a small car for the French car company Renault and the Japanese automobile maker Nissan. Mr. Bajaj told reporters that those companies would get to see the car later this week at the Auto Expo and had the right to “walk away” if they did not like it.
In New Delhi, several rickshaw drivers expressed ambivalence about the RE60 on Tuesday afternoon, saying they did not see much benefit in upgrading to four wheels. Suran Singh, who has been driving a rickshaw for 26 of his 40 years, said doors and a hard top would help keep out the cold during the winter but would make him too hot in the scorching Delhi summers.
“This is better to drive in hot weather because it’s cloth,’’ he said, pointing to the top of his green and yellow rickshaw. “In Delhi, it gets hot in the summer and we’ll be sweating it out in a car.’’