The common man’s bread has changed in the last two decades. Back in the 1990s most of us were content having the ubiquitous Britannia slices every morning. We didn’t experiment with anything else because, frankly, there wasn’t anything else.
Today even the neighbourhood store has considerable variety. You have wholewheat bread, real brown bread, faux brown bread, multi-grain bread and special sandwich bread lining up the shelves. The same seems to be the case with mobile phones and everything else in our lives. We are inundated with choices. And yet, strangely, the car industry has chosen to stay neanderthal.
Twenty years ago, we were offered hatchbacks, sedans and crude contraptions also called SUVs. Arguably, things have evolved since. Sure there are 10 hatches to choose from, when two decades back there were only two, but everyone is still uncomfortably close with product attributes that mimic each other.
What’s missing, often, is character. In every segment, manufacturers appear keen to please all. The middle-of-the-path has become the thumb rule. That is the sorry story of the Indian car market.
A look at the B-segment petrol hatchbacks reveals that there are 15 models to choose from, with only subtle differences among them. All have five doors; all are front-wheel drive and have engine outputs between 65bhp to 88bhp. All of these have pretty basic, functional interiors and mostly similar features.
Carmakers believe that the target customer is a 20-to-35-year-old go-getter, star performer and key decision maker. The problem is that this goatee-sporting dude often looks at 15 models and (finding nothing to differentiate one from another), decides to buy what everyone else is buying: the Swift.
As many car manufacturers will argue, a market is what customers would like it to be. Often the choices in the market diversify as it starts maturing and it looks like India is a far more mature market for bread and mobile phones than for cars.
But in recent years, manufacturers have often gone back to the drawing board with the intention of offering something unique. Here’s a look at segments that manufacturers have ventured into in recent times.
With the kind of roads that we have and the fact that Indians are suckers for Americanisms, it is surprising not many manufacturers have been able to successfully exploit the SUV segment.
Till recently, the most popular “Sport” Utility Vehicles in India had questionable sportiness, selling mostly for their sheer size and imposing stance. The body-roll of a fishing trawler and the passenger comfort to match didn’t help matters either. Their price – most practical variants cost more than R10 lakh – also meant that they were not on the wishlist of anyone with the budget for a Honda City.
So sparse were the SUV choices that there was hardly anything to choose between the Rs 10 lakh Scorpio and Rs 20+ lakh Fortuner or CR-V. Enter the XUV 500: comfortable, loaded and well-priced. Its comfort is helped by its car-like construction which means passengers are saved the ordeal of having their internal organs resettled. And while the styling is a blend of 18 themes, it is certainly cutting-edge next to the Scorpio and Safari.
The result is a migration of Scorpio and Safari buyers to the XUV family even though there is a massive waiting list. However, at above Rs 12-lakh for most variants, the XUV makes sense only for those who are in the market for premium sedans. The common man is still left high and dry.
Things change again with the Renault Duster, launched a few weeks back. A not-so-premium SUV, the Duster ticks the right boxes for build, comfort, fuel efficiency and features. Also, it does not need a gym membership – it is agile and will not embarrass you in a narrow alley.
In a few months, the Duster’s party will be gate-crashed by the Ford EcoSport. This one is a beauty and will take SUV sophistication to an altogether different level.
Sleek Personal Carriers
An important segment in the market with high volumes, the Innovas, Xylos, Taveras and Grandes are the antithesis of where carmakers like to slot their precious hatchbacks. Personal carriers are impersonal, utilitarian, un-sporty and cold. And at nearly Rs 10 lakh, they appeal to only fleet operators and large families.
Until recently, that is. With the launch of the Ertiga, things have brightened up a bit in the premium hatchback space. At about Rs 7 lakh, the Ertiga promises fuel efficiency, feature-rich interiors and affordability. Needless to say, potential rivals are on the drawing boards at Nissan, Ford, Hyundai, Honda and Mahindra. And now, with the launch of the Nissan Evalia, customers at the top of the market have a decent alternative to the Innova.
We Indians take pride in our jugaad way of engineering and the small sedan is testimony to the good that can sometimes come out of these experiments. Though the concept of a shorter-than-four-metre sedan was first put into production by Tata Motors with the Indigo CS, Maruti (them again!) made it a big success with the D’Zire compact. At shorter than four metres, these compact sedans escape with lower excise duty, thereby reducing the price of the car significantly.
The beauty of the small sedan is that it’s a win-win for everyone. The customer is willing to pay more for the car as he is getting a bigger package. The manufacturer can charge buyers much more than what they would for the donor hatchback while not spending that much extra to make the small sedan.
No surprise then that Mahindra is busy erasing a couple of inches off the boot of the Verito, while Honda is working on adding a boot to the Brio. A couple of years down the line, Hyundai will also have something ready to join the party.
The paradox with India is that rich boy toys – smartphones, Swiss watches and videogame consoles – keep getting more affordable, while necessities like rice and vegetables get more expensive every year.
Now we can add luxury cars, especially German makes, to the list above. Now, with the upcoming Audi A3, Mercedes CLA and the BMW 1-Series, even the actual prices will be enough to get prospective customers salivating. All of the above are the size of a VW Jetta and are likely to enter the party at about R20 lakh. The market is huge – any Jetta/Accord/ Superb driver with a penchant for personality and style and probably constrained garage space would go for them.
But these three were not the ones to start the party. That credit goes to the BMW X1 which proved that an SUV without even an iota of testosterone and interior space the size of a large Samsonite could still set the sales charts on fire as long as you can price it right.
Entering the market at less than R25 lakh, the X1 is the equivalent of the nearly achievable mezzanine-floor-level dream for all Honda, Toyota, Skoda or Volkswagen drivers.
And now the Q3 has come to spoil the X1’s party. Early response seems favourable and BMW will counter the offensive with an updated X1. Mercedes, the player still on the sidelines will only join the party in 2014 with a competitor.
But that does not mean that the three-pointed star is not planning to fight back. On the near horizon, in-line with the affordability theme, are the B-Class and A-Class.
While the A-Class is a proper premium hatchback, the B-Class is a rather strange animal. Described by Mercedes as a Compact Sports Tourer, the B-Class is more of a spiritual sibling to the R-Class Grand Sports Tourer. Mercedes is likely to price it very competitively but with its unique shape, it will take a combination of oversized grapefruits and sheer marketing brilliance for the B-Class to rival the X1 and Q3 numbers.
The really sporty SUVs
The affordable, smaller-than-your-apartment SUV is no longer in the realm of fantasy. It ticks the right boxes for build, comfort, fuel
efficiency and features. Also, the Renault Duster doesn’t need a gym membership – it is agile and will not embarrass you in a narrow alley
Likely to be launched in the Indian market in the next few months, the Ford EcoSport will take SUV sophistication to a new level. The urban SUV boasts 200mm of ground clearance
The Mahindra XUV is the rare SUV that is comfortable. Its comfort is helped by its car-like construction which means passengers are saved the ordeal of having their internal organs resettled
Personal carriers are no longer un-sporty or cold
With the Maruti Ertiga’s launch, things have brightened up in the premium hatchback space. At about R7 lakh, it promises fuel efficiency, feature-rich interiors and decent pricing
The innovative Nissan Evalia can shake Toyota’s hold on the people carrier segment
Luxe wheels, on a deal
At about Rs 20 lakh, these luxury cars are within reach
If priced right, the BMW X1 proves that an SUV without an iota of testosterone could still set the sales charts on fire
Call it individualistic or confusing: any which way, the Merc B-Class is still the cheapest three-pointed star in the country
Sedans, which are smaller
Buyers don’t mind spending a little extra on these beauties
At shorter than 4 metre, compact sedans like the Maruti DZire escape with lesser excise duty – slashing the price significantly. The customer is willing to pay more for the car as he is getting a bigger package.
Mahindra is working hard at shaving off the inches of the Verito
The author, a former auto journalist, now crunches numbers for IHS Automotive, the world’s leading automotive forecasting organisation. The views expressed are his own.
From HT Brunch, September 30
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