India’s flagship auto show opened its doors in New Delhi on Wednesday with a new batch of diesel-guzzling SUVs on proud display, despite industry uncertainty about a pollution crackdown targeting motorists in the capital.
More than 80 vehicle launches were expected at the Auto Expo 2016, the biggest edition in the show’s 30-year history, with the Fiat Chrysler-owned Jeep making its India debut and hoping to capitalise on the popularity of sports utility vehicles (SUV).
SUVs pouring onto the roads have been partly blamed for the capital’s toxic air which the World Health Organization has ranked the worst on the planet.
The Delhi government and the courts have announced a string of measures to tackle the crisis, including a ban until March 31 on registration of new diesel cars with an engine capacity of two litres or more -- typical of large SUVs or luxury cars.
Although the moves have rattled the industry, carmakers on Wednesday showed off their new SUVs -- including many smaller, cheaper versions of the cars that can more easily navigate chaotic city streets, aimed at young urban buyers.
Among those unveiling these “compact SUVs” was Maruti Suzuki, the Indian subsidiary of the Japanese carmaker better known for its dominance in the small car market, which was holding the global premiere of its Vitara Brezza.
Jeep acknowledged it faced the task of reclaiming its 75-year-old brand name in the Indian market, where SUVs are often called simply “jeeps”. There are plans to target affluent consumers with its luxury 4x4s.
“The SUV segment is poised to take a quantum leap in the coming years in light of the emerging market trends,” said Kevin Flynn, president and managing director of Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles India.
“Jeep is our name and we intend to capture it for ourselves.”
Jeep’s Wrangler Unlimited and Grand Cherokee models will be on sale from mid-2016, while it plans to invest $280 million in its plant in Ranjangaon that will produce an “all-new Jeep”, the carmaker said.
The country’s biggest carmaker Tata Motors showed off a range of new models as it tries to broaden its flagging market share, including two forthcoming SUVs and the Zica hatchback -- which it plans to rename following the spread of the Zika virus.
“We recognise the need to improve air quality, but when we look at the targets being set, they should be set based on emissions -- limits on emissions” rather than restrictions on engine size, Timothy Leverton, Tata’s head of research and development, told AFP.
Hybrid cars on show
Industry insiders say there are fears that the ban on large diesel cars could be extended to other cities also trying to combat air pollution, or extended for a longer term.
Carmakers are rushing to offer petrol-powered versions of their vehicles as well as diesel, for fear motorists may shun the dirtier fuel.
“Right now the impact is not too much, but more and more in India, customers are becoming aware of it,” said Abdul Majeed, a partner at consultancy firm Price Waterhouse and auto industry expert.
With polluting cars in the frame, electric and hybrid vehicles -- still a niche market in India -- also made a strong showing at the Expo, including the BMW i8, a rare example of a hybrid sports car.
Toyota, whose Prius and Camry hybrids are among those most sought-after by environmentally conscious consumers, said inquiries about the Camry doubled in January.
India, the world’s fifth biggest auto market, has an extremely low number of cars for its 1.2 billion people, with industry figures suggesting there are as few as 16 per 1,000 people.
But despite its huge potential, the domestic passenger car market has performed poorly in recent years with sales growth flat or in single digits, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers says.
The show will open to the public on Friday and run until next Tuesday.