India could emerge as compact SUV hub: Ford CEO

Alan Mulally, president and CEO of the Ford Motor Co, sees India becoming a compact SUV hub - an indication that despite the slowdown in the Indian economy, the company remains bullish on the country and has big plans in the pipeline.

Mulally met media persons in Chennai yesterday as the company rolled out its long-awaited compact SUV model EcoSport from its factory in Maraimalai Nagar, to dealers.

"Who would have ever thought that the small SUV would be the fastest growing segment in India? India is a great market and is the lead edge indicator as to what people want in the world," said Mulally, whose name was not officially disclosed in Ford's invite to the event due to the security protocol.

In the budget SUV category, Renault Duster had forged ahead in the budget SUV category in recent months overtaking formidable players such as Mahindra and Maruti behind.

The latest launch comes as Ford's biggest bet in India following the launch of their small car Figo, launched in early 2010. The first time the EcoSport was showcased was one-and-a-half years back at the Delhi Auto Expo and, according to observers it had taken a long time coming.

The Dearborn, Michigan, auto maker now exports its Figo subcompact hatchback to 38 countries from a factory in Chennai. The plant has a production  capacity of 200,000 vehicles and 340,000 engines a year.

"We are going to be continuing to export more and more vehicles from India because India is so competitive and the vehicles here are so representative of the vehicles that people want around the world," Mulally said.

The announcement comes as Ford gears up for the introduction of its EcoSport compact sport-utility vehicle in India this month. India is one of the three countries, the others being China and Brazil - where the Ecosport was being manufactured with gasoline and diesel engines. The vehicle will also be produced in Thailand and Russia.

Mulally is not the lone auto industry chief who is gung ho about  India's potential as an auto hub -  other global auto makers are also now looking at India as a market to sell cars and a production centre.

According to France's Renault SA, it would produce a small car in India starting in 2015 to use the low-cost manufacturing capabilities. Nissan Motor Co was bringing its Datsun brand to India, adding to Indonesia and Russia - the other two production centers.

Hyundai Motor Co and Suzuki Motor Corp export the largest number of cars from India.