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Indians and their SUV fetish: big is beautiful

Long considered toys for big rich boys, SUVs have suddenly become the rage, and everybody wants one. In an automobile market that has grown in single digits this year, the sales of utility vehicles has surged by over 57%, thanks largely to manufacturers lowering the barrier and bringing in vehicles under Rs. 10 lakh. Sumant Banerji reports.

autos Updated: Sep 15, 2012 01:56 IST
Sumant Banerji

Long considered toys for big rich boys, sports utility vehicles (SUVs) have suddenly become the rage, and everybody wants one. In an automobile market that has grown in single digits this year, the sales of utility vehicles has surged by over 57%, thanks largely to manufacturers lowering the barrier and bringing in vehicles under Rs. 10 lakh.

This has enabled people like 34-year-old Prasanjit Kumar realise their dream of owning a big burly vehicle without burning a hole in their pockets. Kumar traded his four-year-old Swift for the Renault Duster.

“I feel like a king of the road now,” he says. “It has just been 8 days since I got the car but it feels like my life has changed. People turn to look at the car and smaller cars give way — just like I used to in my Swift. It is a genuine step up for me.”

Traditionally, utility vehicles have lagged the growth trajectory of small cars and sedans. This year there has been a complete role-reversal and part of it is due to the cost differential between petrol and diesel: almost all MUVs/SUVs in India offer a diesel option. A bigger reason for this sudden popularity, though, is the entry of affordable SUVs like the Duster and Maruti’s Ertiga.

“In the last year many new players have come into this segment and are offering products that are viable alternatives to premium compact cars and and sedans. Such products did not exist earlier,” said Pawan Goenka, president, automotive sector, Mahindra and Mahindra, the country’s largest utility vehicle maker.

Many of these vehicles, however, would not even qualify as an SUV in mature markets. The understanding of what is an SUV has been hazy in India. Typically only those vehicles that have four-wheel drive (4X4) technology and have significant ground clearance to do well in the wild are classified as SUVs. In India, however, vehicles like the Mahindra Xylo, Toyota Innova, Chevrolet Tavera, Tata Sumo and the popular Mahindra Bolero are seen as SUVs, though they don’t offer all-wheel drives. In a four-wheel drive, power is distributed each wheel, unlike in a two-wheel drive where it goes to only two wheels — front or rear. This enables a vehicle to handle any kind of terrain.

“In India, any vehicle that has a raised stance and a high ground clearance is seen as an SUV,” said Prasan Firodia, managing director, Force Motors. “Very rarely do people actually take their vehicles out for serious offroading.”

In the voluminous entry level segments, products have limited off roading capabilitiy. The cheapest 4*4 vehicle is the Mahindra Thar but there are only few other options for a six digit amount.

“Our sales of all-wheel drive variants is less than 5%,” Goenka concurred. “I think it has more to do with space and ruggedness. Off road capabilities are just an added attraction — just in case.”

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