The launch of the new Lancer Invex (intelligent and innovative electronic control system) model could well be a case of 'too late' but it's a gamble that Hindustan Motors (HM) is being forced to take to revive the car.
'Too late' because the Lancer, with its 1498 cc engine that develops 87 bhp, emerges quite a bit under-powered against competitors like the Chevrolet Optra, Toyota Corolla and Skoda Octavia. On top of this, priced, as it is in the Rs 7-lakh to Rs 9-lakh category, not surprisingly it has lost out in the race.
HM recently scaled down the sales forecast of the Lancer and expects to sell 3, 000 units by 31 March, 2004 - including1,500 of the Invex -a decline of 33 per cent from the 4,500 Lancers sold last year. Lancer's sales had slowed throughout last year and in October the price of Lancer GL was slashed by Rs 70,000 to boost sales. The cut price variant was offered with manual roll-down windows at Rs 6.5 lakh.
It may be recalled, the Lancer GL had been launched at Rs 7.2 lakh, positioned as HM's price warrior. Poor response forced the company to trim the tag. The company had explained the price cut saying that the Lancer GL's price was lowered because of the large-scale localisation of the model.
The lancer is the second model from the Lancer stable to have undergone price rationalisation. A few months ago the company had cut the price of its higher-end Lancer GLX by Rs 40,000 to push sales.
G Shyam Sunder, vice-president, HM, admitted that competition had hurt the Lancer, but hoped that the newly-launched Invex would improve Lancer's prospects the following year.
The Lancer's biggest disadvantage has been its engine size and power. For instance, the Skoda Ambient comes with a 1948 cc engine that develops 111 bhp and a torque of 168.80 nm @ 3000 rpm; the Toyota Corolla with a 1794 cc DOHC VVT-I engine develops 125 bhp and has a torque of 158 nm @ 4200 rpm; and the Optra comes with a 1799 cc engine that develops 115 bhp and has a torque of 156 nm @4000rpm.
The Octavia, Optra and Corolla fall in the Rs 7- lakh to Rs 11-lakh range for the base model to the top end.
The Lancer, with its classic contours, faultless build and top of the line engine performance has a loyal following in India. Till a couple of years ago it was the choice of vehicle for those who wished to make a style statement. Notably it has achieved high rankings in the JD Power customer satisfaction surveys more than once.
Analysts say that when the C segment began getting crowded, HM should have launched an upgraded model to retain its loyal clientele. When HM continued to flog the old Lancer, Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Optra managed to gain a strong foothold. The Corolla was recently judged the top-selling car in the upper C segment while the Optra built, on the Daewoo platform has also worked well in India. Such was the initial hype surrounding Optra that it sold 1500 units within two weeks of its launch.
No doubt, the Lancer Invex has a lot of things going for it. Powered by a 16-valve, 1834 cc SOHC gasoline engine (MPFi), that delivers peak power of 120 bhp at 5500 rpm and maximum torque of 16 kg-m at 4500 rpm the new model is sure to offer a powerful zippy drive. The car also comes with the Invecs II-4 speeds automatic transmission with a manual override option (the choice of both manual and automatic transmission). This enables the driver to select between a sports mode and an autopilot mode for a more relaxed drive.
The Lancer 1.8 is also a success in global markets but then so is the Corolla and Skoda. At its launch the company announced targets sales of 1500 units in the first year of launch.
The 1.8 Invex GLXi's pricing isn't exactly tempting and at Rs. 8.95 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi - approx.) which brings it to about Rs 10.5 lakh on the road it is definitely steep. Especially if compared to the Corolla and Optra since both are roomier and bigger dimensionally also which is important in the Indian context.
The Lancer Invex may just fulfill HM's hopes as with its tech specs it can compete on an equal footing with most upper C segment cars in the market including the Toyota Corolla, Skoda Octavia and Chevrolet Optra and its man-o-matic transmission could bring it a few notches above the former. But whether the transmission actually turns out to be a big plus is a moot point since automatic cars have so far not really worked in India.
The new Lancer is being manufactured at Hindustan Motors' Chennai plant at Thiruvallur that analysts say is one of the best knockdown plants outside Japan.
The company will continue to sell the 1.5 version of the Lancer, which competes with Hyundai Accent, Honda City, Maruti Esteem, Ford Ikon and Tata Indigo. The new Lancer's fight is against Skoda Octavia, Chevrolet Optra and Toyota Corolla.
Lets hope the 'too late' will change to 'better late than never' for the company.