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What a $3,000 car looks, feels and drives like

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Nissan says it’s going to revive that affordable but innovative brand from the 50’s, the Datsun. But this time they’re going to make it really, really affordable. They’re talking as low as $3,000 for the car.

A vehicle that cheap may sound ridiculous but auto analyst Michelle Krebs at says, to companies like Nissan, it’s serious business. “This kind of vehicle is not a joke among the automakers because they know that the emerging markets are where their future audience is,” Krebs says.

But to get a car’s price tag down to $3,000 or even $5,000, auto designers have to toss out features most American drivers take for granted. Bernard Swiecki, senior project manager for Sustainability and Economic Development Strategies at the Center for Automotive Research, says start with airbags, then move on to anti-lock brakes, electronics, stability control and strong emissions control and other environmentally-friendly features.

Two-cylinder engines, manual transmission, cheap interior fabrics and trim are also ways to get a car’s sticker price below $10,000.

Gary Vasilash, editor-in-chief of Automotive Design and Production, says automakers are testing smaller, no-frills cars for the American market (like the Toyota Scion IQ) but it’s a luxury vehicle compared to something like the no-frills Tata Nano in India.

Still, he says the Scion IQ feels tiny, especially the backseat. “I guess if you were driving with the Keebler elves you could put three of them in the back,”  he jokes.

Automakers designing for emerging markets don’t have to design to the same regulatory specifications as in the U.S. When Tata Motors came out with the Nano in 2008, some people called the $2,500 car the “People’s Car.”  When Nissan comes out with that ultra-cheap Datsun for countries like India and China, they will market it to consumers there who have never owned a car. Many are now driving three-wheeled vehicles, motorcycles and even scooters.

In their case, four wheels and a motor might not sound so bad.

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