For 30 long years, the Maruti 800 was the undisputed sign of the arrival of the Indian middle-class. For most, it was their first car, as they took their first tentative ride around the neighbourhood. It was efficient and it was affordable. It was no wonder that it was called India’s first people's car. But today, it seems all set to ride into the sunset.
The 800 sold just 6,214 units in June, down 20.3 per cent from sales the same month last year. It is now selling less than 80,000 a year, down from more than 1,20,000 two years back.
For those who had a Maruti 800 for a first car, it is still their first love. "It is the kind of car that looks after you if you look after it," says Sudha E, dancer and proud owner of a 2003 Maruti 800. The car gives her a mileage of 16 to 17 km per litre on the highway and close to 12 in the city. "I am happy with the car. It is easy to park, easy to drive and easy to service," she says fondly.
Ironically, it is Maruti’s proposed Rs 1 lakh car that threatens to push the 800 off India’s roads. One way out would be for Maruti to bring the 800 into the sub-1-lakh segment, but according to sources, the company is loath to do this. "The 800 is a Rs 2 lakh car, and the potential customer is not somebody who wants to buy a car for Rs 1 lakh," sources said. Official Maruti sources declined to comment on the future plans for the car.
The 800’s decline is stark when compared to Maruti’s other segments. In June, the Alto, Wagon R, Zen and Swift grew 38.3 per cent. Even the SX4 and Esteem, two cars in the top end of Maruti’s stable, saw a 46.4 per cent growth that month.
The 800 sold tens of lakhs in the last 30 years since it was launched in December 1984 and is the smallest car to have spawned a racing event in India, the Formula Maruti. But times have changed. "We are currently producing no more than 6,000 to 7,000 Maruti 800s a month," said a source at Maruti Udyog Ltd. "It has brought in much more than what it cost."
The 800 sold 79,245 units in April 2006-March 2007, a drop of 11.2 per cent. Its sales dropped 23.3 per cent in the previous year, down to 89,223 from 1,16,262 the year before.
Maruti’s current strategy is to club the 800 with the Alto and see them as the same segment. Since the Alto’s price is close to the 800’s price at around Rs 2 lakh, the Alto is taking up the lion’s share of the segment. "Today everyone wants to get a big car, not value for money," says Sudha.
Maruti is not writing off the 800 just yet. It is just saying it does not produce them more than the demand.