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World's cheapest car gets a diesel option

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Ajit Solanki/AP/File

(Read caption) An employee of a showroom performs rituals before a Tata Nano car in 2009. Tata's announcement of a diesel option comes amid disappointing sales for the Nano in India.

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Diesel may be taking a while to catch on in the U.S, but in India the diesel market has exploded in recent years.

It's no surprise that automakers have been making the most of this, and the latest to do so is Tata, whose Nano--the world's cheapest new car--is soon to get its own diesel option.

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According to CarDekho (via Autoblog), the car will make its official debut at the 2014 Indian Auto Expo and could hit Indian roads as soon as February.

For Tata, it can't be too soon.

Sales of the Nano, despite its incredibly low pricing,have been disappointing. It's thought that the bargain-basement nature of the car--necessitated by pricing that begins at just $2,400 for the cheapest model--is actually off-putting to aspirational Indian buyers, who prefer to spend a little more and not drive around in a car seen merely as a stepping-stone from a scooter.

While pricing of the diesel has not yet been announced, the real benefit for Indian buyers will be in fuel costs.

At current exchange rates, one gallon of gasoline costs as much as $4.72 in India. But diesel costs just $3.62 per gallon, making diesel cars significantly cheaper to fuel.

Throw in expected economy of up to 94 mpg on local test cycles--a standard gasoline Nano gets 59 mpg--and the difference becomes even greater.

However, the Nano's diesel won't be quite as sophisticated as the units we're getting used to in the U.S.

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For one, it has half the cylinders we've come to expect of typical diesels. Actually, that's not strictly true--Volkswagen's XL1 also features a twin-cylinder diesel, and the Nano shares its capacity too at 800cc. The Nano even has a tiny turbocharger to help it to a predicted 45 horsepower, seven more than the gasoline variant.

Performance will be leisurely, though the importance of high speeds on India's roads--crowded, dangerous and frequently populated by everything from pedestrians to sacred animals--is questionable.

And we're not so sure about its emissions, either. While the Nano will certainly do well with regards to reducing fuel use, we suspect there's a limit to just how clean its little engine can be when powering such basic, inexpensive transport. High-tech emissions-reducing equipment costs a whole lot of money.

It's instrumental of the push towards more fuel-efficient engines though, and illustrative of what can be achieved when really paring back weight and downsizing power units.

Not that downsizing is the only plan--Tata is also said to be planning Nano hatchback and sedan variants, powered by Fiat-sourced units with up to 100 horsepower.

Those may finally be the cars to appeal to more image-led Indian buyers--though the Nano diesel will undoubtedly remain the economy champion in the range.