Global car manufacturers eyeing the explosive growth of the Indian market unveiled new compact models at the Delhi auto show on Tuesday as they seek to break the dominance of entrenched local producers.
Japanese groups Toyota and Honda, Germany's Volkswagen and US giant General Motors (GM) put new vehicles on show designed for the growing car-buying middle classes with modest budgets and for the country's notoriously bad roads.
All models face a challenge in a market growing at more than 10 per cent a year due to the dominance of local Indo-Japanese producer Maruti Suzuki, which has a 55-per cent market share, and Indian groups Tata Motors and Mahindra.
"In terms of total volume of sales we are not a big player, but this will change it," Volkswagen India marketing manager Lutz Kothe told AFP after presenting the group's new India-made Polo.
The compact hatchback from VW, which wants a 8-10 per cent market share by 2016, will hit the roads in March at an as yet undisclosed price.
This year's Delhi auto show is the 10th, but it first caught the world's attention in 2008 when Indian manufacturer Tata Motors unveiled its Nano, the world's cheapest car.
The 115,000-rupee (2,500-dollar) Nano added impetus to the race to produce cheap, small vehicles, which account for 80 percent of all car sales in India.
Recent months have seen foreign giants Ford, Hyundai and Renault join a stampede to India, where each has promised a small, cheap model designed for what Ford boss Alan Mulally termed the "sweet spot" of the market.
Rising incomes mean Indians are following the familiar pattern of upgrading their transport from push bikes, to motorbikes, then to cars, but the vast majority of vehicle sales are still two-wheelers
This is set to change, says GM India chief Karl Slym, who cites figures showing 8.5 cars per 1,000 people in India, 20 per 1,000 in China and more than 500 per 1,000 in developed countries such as Germany or the US.
Car ownership is rising fast and Maruti will see its market share cut back in the face of pressure from foreign and domestic competition, Slym says.
"I think everybody used to wake up and say 'I'm going to buy a Maruti', but times are changing," the GM India boss told AFP. "People are now looking for the best value proposition on the market."
India's market has gone from a largely closed one two decades ago when consumers had only a couple of locally-made alternatives to one offering a plethora of choices amid fierce competition.
Total car sales are forecast to reach two million this year and triple in the next decade, according to industry estimates.
AutoExpo 2010, which runs in New Delhi until January 11, features 10 global releases of vehicles designed for India's new consumer generation.
Japan's Toyota took the wraps off its first compact model designed for India, which has adapted suspension for the rough roads, plenty of storage space for large families and an engine made with city driving in mind.
The Etios will probably be launched later this year, the company said, at a price -- so far undisclosed -- that will attract young professionals and families.
Toyota's plan is to export it from India, which, though lacking in important infrastructure such as cutting-edge ports, is fast developing as a small-car production hub.
"It's not a copy of a Japanese or European model," said Kazuo Okamoto, vice chairman of Toyota, at the presentation. "Etios is newly developed for customers in India."
Honda unveiled its first small car concept model that it aims to start selling next year, while GM put on show its new 7,000-dollar Beat model and a new mini electric vehicle called the e-Spark.
Maruti Suzuki -- majority owned by Japan's Suzuki in which Volkswagen intends to buy a nearly 20 percent stake -- said it was aware of the pressure on its market share.
"We are trying to expand our portfolio and refresh our products to offer customers new cars," said I.V. Rao, senior director at the group, when asked about the competition.