For those who follow the automotive industry, you may have heard about Tata Motors — India’s biggest automaker. Corresponding with the political and economic rise of India in general in the past decade or so, Tata Motors is also emerging as a major international automaker. As one example, in 2008, it purchased the Jaguar and Land Rover luxury car businesses from Ford Motor Company.

Another reason Tata Motors has been making the news is that last year, it created a sensation when it announced that it would mass-produce a car for emerging countries called the Nano that would sell for about US$2,000, making it the cheapest new car available in the world. Speculation was rampant that it was technically and financially impossible, or that the final product would be nothing more than a rickshaw with bumpers.

Well, Tata’s Nano is finally here and as Edmunds Motor News reports, it is a real, legitimate car that in many ways, is a technical marvel:

The 2009 Tata Nano has the hopes and dreams of all India riding upon its tiny fenders. With a starting price of only $2,000, the Nano has been built to provide affordable all-weather transportation to those who might have never before been able to afford a car. . . .

When you see the 2009 Tata Nano in person, the first shock — other than its incredibly low price — is that the car looks, well, exactly like a car! . . . Media reports have run rampant with rumors that the Nano’s body is plastic, the chassis is glued together, or that the motor is powered by a hamster in a wheel. None of these are true. In fact, the Nano is remarkably simple in terms of how it’s built.

The body and chassis are constructed of steel; only the bumpers are plastic. Traditional spot-welding is used to fabricate the car. Computer-aided design has helped the engineers trim weight from the body and chassis. . . . The Nano has obviously been built to a price. But . . . Tata Motors didn’t skimp when it came to adding a little style. . . .

During a mix of city and highway driving, the Nano will average around 47 mpg. . . . Surprisingly, the engine emits only 101 g/km of CO2 emissions on the European driving cycle, which puts the Nano among the cleanest cars on sale anywhere. . . . The Nano’s cabin is remarkably quiet considering the car’s cost constraints. At top speed, the hum from the engine is never excessive or annoying. . . .

So the Nano is pretty clever in the way it saves costs. You expect this. But you might not expect how fun the Nano is to drive.

From an environmental point of view, many have questioned the wisdom of adding millions of Nanos onto India’s already-crowded streets and the pollution it’s bound to cause. As someone who is trying to consciously reduce my carbon impact on my environment, I would say that’s a fair question to ask. At this point, I only point out that in terms of pollution levels and resource consumption in proportion to its population, India is still significantly behind the U.S. and other industrialized nations, who pollute and consume many times more than India per capita.

Other people would probably also point out that at this point and in its current form, the Nano is not suitable for the American market. True, but we need to remember that it was never intended for the U.S. Instead, it was designed to provide reliable, inexpensive, all-weather transportation for average families in developing nations. And that’s where I detect the first hints of ethnocentrism regarding the criticisms about the Nano.

That is, much of this initial skepticism and criticism reminded me of when Tata Motors was in the process of purchasing the Jaguar and Land Rover brands from Ford. Back then, and similar to what people said regarding the Nano, many people in the automotive establishment and elsewhere questioned the ability and even appropriateness of Tata to buy and properly maintain such prestigious brands.

As I wrote back then, it seemed to me that much of controversy revolved around the fact that Tata Motors was owned by Indians, not Americans, Europeans, or Whites. As such, I hypothesized that many did not think it was “right” for prestigious British car brands like Jaguar and Land Rover and their overwhelming White workers to be owned and controlled by non-Whites from a developing country. As it turns out, Jaguar and Land Rover are doing just fine these days (or at least as well as most brands in this recession).

Similarly, much of the skepticism and criticism about the Nano also strikes me as a little ethnocentric, premised on the idea and stereotype of India and Indian companies as backward, undeveloped, and inferior. Certainly, not everything is perfect in India and it still faces many political and economic difficulties as it continues to modernize, just like China does and “developed” countries like the U.S. did when they were at this stage in their history.

But make no mistake about it, India’s emergence as a major global economic power is real as is the emergence of the Indian American community in the U.S. In fact, already-developed countries such as Japan are looking to India as a model to help them improve their educational institutions.

The point is, India’s technological and industrial potential is for real and it would be a mistake to underestimate what India and Indian companies are capable of doing.