The elusive one-lakh rupee car

21 Oct 2005


It''s not just Tata Motors; three two-wheeler makers are racing to bring out a one-lakh rupee four-wheeler, says Mohini Bhatnagar. But, regulatory and safety issues are delaying the ''quadricycle'', which could become the common man''s car.

Recent announcements indicate that Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata''s dream one-lakh car may be on the road in 2008. Tata repeatedly emphasises that his company''s one-lakh car would be a proper car with world-class safety standards, not a scooter or three-wheeler with extra wheels and body added.

The last remark seems to point at the four-wheeler, four-seater ''quadricycle'' that Bajaj Auto, Piaggio and TVS Motors, are each developing. Had it not been for the confusion prevailing in the Indian automobile industry regarding the vehicle, at least one of the Rs1-lakh quadricycles under development could have been running on the road by now.

Piaggio India planned to introduce its quadricycle in 2004, as its parent company had developed a new line for the product and wanted to source around 50 per cent of its components from India. Initially, the vehicles were to be pick-up vans, while the passenger variants were to have come by 2005.

The company''s managing director Ravi Chopra told domain-b about "some confusion in the industry over the classification of a quadricycle" which, he hoped, would get sorted out soon. Piaggio now plans to launch a 1.5-tonne goods carrying version, and says it will consider introducing a passenger version later. In 2004, the Chennai-based TVS Motor had announced that it was developing a quadricycle that would be on the roads by end-2006, and would be priced at Rs1.2 lakh. Bajaj Auto, the largest three-wheeler maker in the country, is now under the helm of Rajiv Bajaj. This dynamic young man, who scripted the ''Pulsar'' success story, is planning to transform the two- and three-wheeler leviathan and make it a manufacturer of four-wheelers too. Bajaj has already announced that it is working on a four-wheeler priced at Rs1 lakh.

Bajaj believes that a two- and three-wheeler maker would be better positioned to manufacture a low-cost car than a conventional carmaker. According to him, "There is little difference between a one-litre motorcycle engine and the Maruti''s 800cc-engine." He believes that while it may not be too difficult to make a one-lakh car, making it popular would be the real challenge.

Bajaj''s four-wheeler is at a concept stage, and though he says his company is nowhere as close as Tata Motors to bringing out a vehicle, "We definitely want to develop a light, four-wheel vehicle to move people and goods". The Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) is divided on the safety norms that will have to be incorporated, in case the quadricycle is used for moving people. Some in the industry want the gross vehicle weight to be higher than 600kg, while others feel that 600kg — the internationally prescribed lower limit — is adequate.

The quadricycle is a four-wheeler that is not a car, bus, truck or any other clearly defined vehicle. It is in fact the predecessor of the car, and was first developed during the early 20th century. The European Commission defines a quadricycle as "a four-wheeled vehicle weighing no more than 400kg (550kg for a goods vehicle), excluding traction batteries in the case of electric vehicles, with a net power of no more than 15kw (20bhp)".

Quadricycles are very popular in Europe, Japan and other South Asian countries. Four-wheeled bicycle variants include the Mitsouka MC-1 and the Q-Car. In the US, 37 states have passed legislation allowing quadricycles on their roads. Canada is also planning to pass legislation to allow quadricycles.

With the price of fuel skyrocketing at regular intervals, fuel saving has become a watchword globally. The biggest advantage a quadricycle offers over a car is low fuel consumption; it gives a mileage of more than 35km to a litre. The greatest advantage it has over two- and three-wheelers is that it is stable at higher speeds and, as it is built on a modified three-wheeler chassis, it costs not much more than the humble autorickshaw.

And, if one ignores prestige and status, autorickshaws are best suited to the narrow congested streets and chaotic traffic conditions of India''s towns, which don''t allow drivers to drive faster than 40km per hour at most times.

Consider the facts.

  • In 2004-05, around one million passenger cars were sold in India. In the same year, three million two wheelers were sold.
  • Unlike in western countries, where people buy two-wheelers mainly for thrills and fun, in India, people buy two-wheelers mainly because they can''t afford to buy cars.
  • According to 2004 statistics released by the Loss Prevention Association of India (LPA), over 85,000 road fatalities are reported in India every year, making it the most dangerous nation to drive in. Further, says the LPA, a two-wheeler rider is five times as prone to accidents as someone in a four-wheeler. Most fatalities in two-wheeler accidents resulted from grievous head injuries to pillion riders thrown from the vehicle.
  • The autorickshaws that crowd the roads of Indian cities and towns weigh no more than 300kg to 400kg, but often carry more passengers than taxis do. Autorickshaws are inherently unstable and have a bad accident record. When driven faster than 40km per hour, they time and again topple over on turns, resulting in death and grievous injury to occupants. But they continue to ply regardless.
  • Does it not seem strange that SIAM is not really concerned about the weight and safety aspects of three-wheelers, while the future of quadricycles remains in limbo?
  • In 2004, nearly 34 million two-wheelers had been registered in India, accounting for nearly 70 per cent of all motor vehicles in the country. It should be obvious to the most casual of observers that those who say what the country needs are small, fuel-efficient four wheelers, deserve a sympathetic hearing.

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