January 10, 2008 / 11:35 AM / 10 years ago

The world's cheapest car gets a pop star welcome

<p>Tata Group's newly launched "Nano" car is seen at the 9th Auto Expo in New Delhi, January 10, 2008. The car is priced at about $2,500, half that of the current cheapest car in the market, and is a sharp contrast to the luxury Jaguar and Land Rover brands that Tata is negotiating to buy from Ford.Adnan Abidi</p>

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - For the world's cheapest car, it was one luxury arrival.

More than 1,000 people -- journalists, VIPS and industrialists -- packed an auditorium on Thursday as Tata Motors Ltd unveiled its long-awaited "People's Car" in a media circus more worthy of a pop concert or an Oscar ceremony.

For those wanting to feel India's economic self-confidence as it takes on the world, all they had to do was to experience the blaring music from "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the flashes of scores of cameras as the Tata Nano was driven out.

It condensed years of anticipation into one moment of mayhem.

"I haven't seen this many cameras in my six years in South Asia," said one veteran journalist. "You couldn't even buy advertising like this."

Ahead of the launch, major news channels devoted several minutes of airtime to live footage of a dark and empty stage where the car, a hatchback that is priced at about half the cost of the current cheapest car, would be unveiled.

"A promise is a promise," Chairman Ratan Tata said, as he announced a dealer price of 100,000 rupees ($2,500) as pledged five years ago, even though commodity prices have gone up and despite rivals' claims such a knock-down price was impossible.

For its supporters, it will revolutionize ownership in India, by allowing millions of the aspiring middle classes to own a car, and send a shock through the auto world with its cheaper engineering that will be copied across the globe.

For its detractors, it will provoke a nightmare on India's already clogged roads and worsen choking pollution levels.

"CUTE" FIRST IMPRESSION

As Tata reeled off the car's specifications and compared it to innovations such as the first man on the moon, people in the crowd, including many Indian journalists, clapped and cheered.

A hologram appeared of a husband, his wife and kid balanced unsafely on a scooter -- a common sight in India. It faded to make way for an image of the Nano hovering above the stage.

Then came the rush as hundreds of journalists pressed around the car. A ring of Tata guards surrounded the Nano, begging cameramen not to scratch its new paint.

Then came the public.

"It looks kind of cute," said Urvashi Sitani, a businesswoman who took pictures with her mobile phone. "I'd guess it proves popular with the younger crowd. But it's a girlish car. I can't imagine a man would be seen in a car like this."

Thousands of people pressed around the car.

"It seems like a real car. The windows actually wind down," said a smiling Gilles Levassor, who works for French carmaker Renault.

A few meters away, women protesting that farmers had been made landless because of Tata's car factory plans, stood by.

"It's subsidized by farmers' blood," said Anuradha Talwar.

Outside the auditorium, a contingent of Greenpeace activists stood with banners bearing slogans such as: "CUT CO2 emissions."

But they were largely ignored by the swelling crowds.

On this day, the side of India that sees itself an upcoming economic superpower was apparently looking the other way.

For additional stories, pictures and video from the Auto Expo go to here

Additional reporting Rina Chandran; Editing by Y.P. Rajesh and Alex Richardson

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