Is Tata's Nano the New Yugo?

| About: Tata Motors (TTM)

Don’t know how many of you caught the recent news, but a new Nano (Tata’s ultra-cheap car) spontaneously burst into flames last week soon after its owner drove it off the lot (see Car Fire Raises Safety Concerns for details and a FIERY photo).

When it was launched less than a year ago, the $2,500 Tata Nano was promoted as a safe, ultra-cheap car for poor Indians, an alternative to the motorbikes that zoom precariously around the country.

New questions about the safety of the pint-sized auto are being raised, however, after one of them burst into flames Sunday as it was being driven home from the showroom.

I have no doubt that Tata (NYSE:TTM) is trying its level best to develop a car that’s at once affordable and reliable. However, in light of this incident, I can’t help but be reminded of the folly that was the Yugo. The Yugo debuted in the U.S. in the 1980’s with great fanfare, only to disappoint in just about every imaginable way. In fact, a recent book details its ignominious history and goes so far as to label it the worst car in history (see Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History).

If Tata plans to sell the Nano in developed markets (it has stated that it will), it best make sure that it overcome the quality issues that currently dog it – not only the perceptions, but now, the reality. In fact, after digging a bit deeper into the Nano, I discovered that this was not the first problem of its kind. There have been four similar occurrences. That may not sound like many, but when you’ve only sold 30,000 units, it is more than a minor issue.

Let’s not also forget that Tata is the owner of Jaguar and Rover (see Buyer’s Remorse). Although I am not privy to financial performance data for Jaguar or Rover, my understanding is that the two brands have been underperforming (see Jaguar/Rover Revisited or Indian Firms’ Foreign Purchases). Of additional concern for Tata is that the fallout from Nano spillover to consumer perceptions of Jaguar and Rover.

Add that to Tata’s growing list of headaches…

Disclosure: No Positions