Carmakers are going back to their ABCs and creating mid-segment offerings, says Mohini Bhatnagar, in an industry-wide look at the new car launches scheduled for 2005.
The Indian car market, which grew at a frenetic 20 per cent last year, is likely to see even more excitement this year, judging by the new launches announced by nearly all automobile companies. Toyota Kirloskar, Honda, Maruti and Skoda are all set to launch production models, while French car maker Renault is making an unobtrusive entry.
The major difference about vehicles introduced into the Indian market in 2004 against previous years was that carmakers ventured into a new segment with the launch of Ford Fusion and Hyundai Getz, both innovative products positioned between the compact 'B' and mid-range 'C' segments. Before this, new car launches usually tended to stay within the safe confines of 'B' segment compact cars, 'C 'segment three-box passenger sedans or MUVs. All SUVs were brought in through the easy CBU import route.
2005 launches Maruti Udyog
The biggest launch this year is likely to be Maruti Udyog's premium hatchback, Suzuki Swift, strategically positioned between the 'B' and 'C' segments. Designed by a 'European design house and ordinary motoring enthusiasts', the Swift according to Autocar magazine, is the biggest launch from the Maruti stable in the last 20 years (effectively, after the Maruti 800). The car promises to create a separate segment altogether in the Indian auto industry in terms of space and comfort. First showcased at the Paris Auto Show and based on the Concept 'S' car, the Swift is likely to be priced at Rs5.5 lakh with a 1.3-litre petrol engine. A direct-injection diesel version will be introduced in 2006, after Maruti's new diesel engine manufacturing facility goes on stream.
Hatchback Skoda Fabia and Sedan Octavia II are expected to hit the Indian roads in the second half of 2005. Currently Skoda's largest selling model in the world, Fabia is available in four variants: the Fabia Combi - a four-metre long and very spacious hatchback meant for big families, with a large luggage compartment (426 litres, expandable to 1,225 litres with the back seats folded down); the Fabia Sedan, a three-box sedan and the Fabia RS, a sporty car fitted with a turbo-charged 1.9 TDI PD/96 kW diesel engine.
The Fabia comes equipped with an inline four 1.9 SDI unit, a 1,896 cc direct injection diesel, offering 64 bhp at 4,000 rpm and a torque of 12.8kgm. But, with a price tag of a steep Rs8.5 lakh, that too for a hatchback, Fabia's pricing may set it back against comparable models like the Honda City.
The Fabia has won 'car of the year' awards in six European countries - no mean feat considering that its competitors included the VW Polo, Ford Fiesta and the Honda Jazz, among others.
Toyota Kirloskar is planning to launch its small car, Daihatsu Xenia, in 2005 or early 2006. The new offering is expected to be priced at between Rs4 lakh and Rs5 lakh, and has been built on a new platform jointly developed by Toyota and a sister company.
Also called the Avanza in some markets, the Xenia may be offered in two engine options - 1 litre and 1.3 litre petrol - both highly fuel-efficient. The project, called U-IMV, will pack in Toyota's design skills and its fuel efficient engine, combined with Daihatsu's small car expertise. The Xenia/Avanza has spacious interiors and may be sourced from Indonesia, where it was launched at a price below Rp100 million (under $12,000) last year.
Toyota, which is known for its marketing strength, has a 51 per cent holding in Daihatsu, known for its small car technology and production know-how. Globally, Toyota owns four important brands - Toyota, Lexus, Daihatsu and Hino - allowing the company to uniquely position vehicles under different brands.
Another car that is much in the news for its recent launch is the Toyota Innova, the company's replacement for the MUV Qualis. The Innova, branded as Kijang Innova in Indonesia and elsewhere, is a new multipurpose vehicle that the company has built as part of its 'innovative international multi-purpose vehicle' (IMV) project. Weighing over two tonnes, the Innova comes with a turbo-charged 2.5-litre common-rail direct injection diesel engine. It is sleek and stylish, unlike the ungainly Qualis, and will be priced in the same range.
The New Honda City, with its winning combination of low fuel consumption, average price and average performance, has been a bigger success than the preceding 'City' model. Now Honda is said to be planning the launch of its mid-size Civic this year and its small car Jazz (called 'Fit' in Europe), in 2006. The Jazz has been rated as one of the most practical and spacious premium hatchbacks available in the UK and Thailand. Honda developed the Jazz and City for nascent markets like India. The Jazz is currently available with 1.2- and 1.4-litre i-DSI engines. In the global market, it is offered with a 1.5-litre VTEC engine and with the seven-speed CVT (continuously variable transmission) that comes with the new Honda City in India. The Jazz has the height advantage of small cars like the Santro and the WagonR, and is also wide enough to offer adequate seating space. Its innovative storage solution and attractive design make it universally likeable. The Jazz is likely to become a benchmark in the rapidly growing premium hatchback category. The Jazz is expected to be priced upward of Rs5.5 lakh, while the Civic could cost Rs8 lakh plus. Both cars are expected by the end of 2005 or early 2006.
Apart from variants of its popular Ikon, Ford is said to be planning the launch of the new Ford Focus to expand its range. It may be launched as a full sedan priced in the Rs6 lakh to Rs8.5 lakh range. In the UK, the Focus comes with five engine options - 1.4-, 1.6- and 2-litre petrols, as well as 1.6- and 2-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel engines. Ford's Mondeo, in its present form, has not exactly set the market alight and may be given a makeover to revive sales.
General Motors India has had two successes in the Indian market - both under the Chevrolet brand - in the Optra and Tavera. The company is now planning to enter the small car segment with the Aveo and Spark. Spark (Daewoo's Matiz renamed) was to be launched last year, but the project got stuck owing to GM's inability to strike a deal with the defunct Daewoo Motor Company's creditors.
Now, the company is said to be planning the launch of the Chevrolet Aveo first. Launched in the US early last year, Aveo comes with a 1.6 litre petrol engine in the global markets and likely to be priced against the Fiat Palio and Corsa Sail. Among the cheapest cars in the US, the Aveo is targeted at teenagers and elderly people as the car is easy to drive and highly fuel-efficient. GM is also planning the launch of the station wagon variant of the Chevrolet Optra.
Other hatchbacks likely to hit the market include the premium hatchback Fiat Panda and a new Fiat Palio.
Small cars ('A' and 'B' segments) comprise 65 per cent of the of the entire car market in India. Last year, the 'B' segment grew at a slower rate than the mid-size 'C' segment in percentage terms. The price difference between small cars and mid-size cars has considerably narrowed in the past year and cars like the Maruti Esteem, Ford Ikon Flair and GM Corsa have practically come within the B segment price range. These factors could create problems for the new mid-segment cars; unless they go in for innovative pricing, it could be a case of 'too late' for these carmakers. One has to wait and watch.