A car is born

By Pune: | 26 Jan 2003

Pune: It isn’t easy to follow up an ace with a winner. It’s impossible in tennis (because you don’t have to), but it’s imperative if you harbour ambitions of being among the world’s elite carmakers. That’s the goal Tata Engineering has been speeding towards for a while now, and the Indigo, the sequel to the trailblazing Indica, is a big step forward in the company’s quest for motoring glory.

The Indigo is bigger, stronger, sturdier and more sophisticated than its predecessor. But there are two factors common to this sedan edition and its hatchback sibling: Tata Engineering’s vision for progress, and the spirit of a workforce that believes it has hit a purple patch.

“There’s a tremendous breadth of talent in Tata Engineering,” says V Sumantran, the whiz who heads the passenger car division at the company. “We also have an extremely good depth of talent in most areas, but more than anything else, there’s this can-do spirit here. This is the sprit that at the end of the day contributes more to success than anything else.”

Standing apart
The Indigo has imbibed plenty of this vital force while drawing on Tata Engineering’s traditional strengths. This has resulted in a superior product that has the potential to cruise ahead of the competition in its segment. The essential characteristics that make the Indigo stand apart are many: enhanced comfort, increased space, improved engine performance and smother handling.

“Sedan buyers have discriminating taste,” says Dr Sumantran. “They expect a more refined car and, whether it’s petrol or diesel, they want more peppiness from the vehicle. A lot of them have drivers, so they spend more time in the rear seat. We lengthened the Indigo’s wheelbase [the distance from the centre of a car’s front wheel to the rear axle] so that the rear seat gets more space.” New seat contours, fabrics and materials ensure that the Indigo is as comfortable as they come.

The car’s suspension and its engine deliver further advantages. “We spent a lot of time developing and tuning the Indigo’s three-link independent suspension, in India and in Europe, for high-speed handling and better low-speed drive. We upped the engine horsepower to 85bhp and we added a turbo charger to the diesel version.”

Cash coup
The coup that Tata Engineering pulled off was in managing to craft all this quality into the Indigo while bringing it to life at a price that many independent observers consider a steal. With a starting price tag of Rs 4.35 lakh and the highest-end diesel model priced at Rs 5.20 lakh, this is the most cost-competitive vehicle in the sedan segment.

Dr Sumantran insists that’s incidental. “We haven’t gone into the market with the price difference... It just so happened that we have done this at a very attractive price, but this is a product that doesn’t need price alone to make a mark in the market.”

Stamping its seal on the market is what has Tata Engineering and its people all charged up. The sedan space occupies about 15 per cent of India’s car market. The Indigo’s arrival means that the company now has a presence in roughly 70 per cent of the country’s automobile market. But there’s more to this equation than numbers and size.

“The Indigo has taken us into an area we haven’t played in before,” explains Dr Sumantran. “The sedan segment in India is a very pop market segment. Beyond the volume itself, there’s the visibility. This is a car for a lot of corporate people, and it is a car for families looking for more premium transportation. For all of these reasons it is an important segment for us to be present in.”

Positive beginning
The initial reactions to the Indigo from industry watchers, the media, dealers and ordinary motoring enthusiasts are packing in the positives. “Everybody has been favourably impressed: with the space we’ve provided, the ride and handling, the suspension, the engine, in fact all the parameters we were targeting. And our dealers are thrilled by the price.”

A significant reason for this glad state of affairs is the effort Tata Engineering has put in to guard against the kind of problems that affected the earliest avatar of the Indica. “All of our development activities [with the Indigo] were far more structured. We ran this project through what we call the ‘new product introduction’ process, which has a vastly better development methodology.”

This entailed a programmed regimen involving the testing of different prototypes over about 2.3 million km and through all of the car’s phases. Tata Engineering placed a whole team of its people at the Motor Industry Research Association’s specialised test facility in Britain. “We rented this place and had our team stationed there for seven months. We were running our cars 24 hours a day, seven days a week in extremely abusive test conditions, with test driving both in India and Britain.”

The Indica cue
Does this mean the Indigo is ready to head down the highway taken by the Indica, for which Tata Engineering has recently signed a landmark deal with Rover for sale in Britain and continental Europe? “This is perhaps the first time that an Indian-engineered automobile is going back overseas, and will actually be used by an upscale European manufacturer using its badge.

“When one thinks about how India, post independence, developed its own cars by borrowing from foreign designs, we really have turned things on its head. This is an enormous vote of confidence in the capabilities and the systems of Tata Engineering. As far as the Indigo is concerned, it is built on the same platform and has the same plant source as the Indica, so we have the option, whenever we choose, to do something similar with this car.”

Riding piggyback on established global brands to accelerate the penetration of Western markets is a strategy quite a few companies, Japanese in particular, have adopted in the past. Mitsubishi, as a fledgling carmaker, did it with Chrysler and Suzuki with General Motors. For Tata Engineering, that heaven is still some distance in the future. “With all modesty, we must say that there is a lot of work ahead of us before we can aspire to those kinds of volumes and that kind of success. There’s plenty to do, but I think we are headed down the right road.”

As Dr Sumantran is quick to emphasise, the Indica and the Indigo, impressive achievements as they are, comprise the building blocks in the edifice that will help Tata Engineering realise its car-making dreams. “We want to be a world-class auto company with a tremendous breadth of products. This is a nice start, but there’s much to do.” Happy driving.
Courtesy: www.tata.com


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