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Game Changers of the Indian automotive market

27th Dec 2014 7:00 am

Here's a look at the top 15 game-changers of the Indian automotive market.


Maruti 800  (1983) -The car that put India on wheels

No single car has made as much of an impact as the Maruti 800. Launched in 1983, the humble 800 changed the face of Indian motoring forever. Compared to the obsolete Premier Padmini and Hindustan Ambassador, it was a technological marvel with a list of ‘firsts’ like a front-wheel-drive layout, a monocoque chassis and disc brakes as well as basics like bucket seats, an electrical cooling fan and electric windscreen washers! The 800 was so cheap to buy and own that it democratised car ownership and literally put India on wheels. It spawned an entirely new generation of drivers, especially women who loved its user-friendly nature. Over 29 lakh 800s, including those for exports, were produced in its 30-year history.

Maruti (Suzuki) Swift (2005) - redefined the concept of a hatchback

Until the Swift came along in 2005, hatchbacks were expected to be basic modes of transportation with few frills and little emotion. The premium hatchback segment did not exist. Ford tried to create one with the Fusion as did Hyundai with the Getz, but customers didn’t warm up to the idea of paying big money for a hatchback. It was the Swift that completely redefined not just the face of Maruti but what a premium hatchback should be. It pioneered a segment, which today forms the largest chunk of the Indian car market. The Swift’s sporty styling, zippy performance and affordability struck a chord with customers and connected with its owners at an emotional level to give it a cult following. That it’s been the best-selling premium hatch for nine years on the trot is proof enough of its fan following.

Tata Indica   (1998) - the first true ‘Made-in-India’ car

If there was no Tata Indica, there would be no Tata Nano and Tata Motors would not have bought Jaguar-Land Rover. In fact, Tata may not have been in the car business had the Indica flopped. But what a success it’s been. Ratan Tata’s formula of offering a car with the dimensions of a Maruti Zen, the cabin size of an Ambassador, and the fuel efficiency of a Maruti 800 made it a hit. When bookings opened, over 1,00,000 people paid an advance for the Indica which, despite serious teething problems and poor quality, went on to become a best-seller. The Indica showed the world what Indians really want — a car tailor-made for them and not a global model adapted for India. It was a lesson for all global automakers.

Mahindra Scorpio  (2002) - India’s first urban SUV

If there’s one model that transformed the perception of Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M), it’s the Scorpio. Until then, M&M was perceived as a maker of crude and utilitarian UVs serving rural markets. With the Scorpio, M&M leapt into the 21st century and into the minds of urban car buyers. In fact, the Scorpio can lay claim to being the first urban SUV in India — its relatively compact dimensions more suited to the cut and thrust of urban driving than the larger and more cumbersome Tata Safari. Owners loved the styling too, and the Scorpio’s road presence was an intrinsic part of its appeal. Twelve years on, demand for the Scorpio continues to be strong.

Tata Nano   (2009) - the car that should have been

The world’s cheapest car captivated the world when it was first unveiled in 2008 but, unfortunately, that tag didn’t go down well with potential buyers. The Nano had the potential to make it to the top of this list but it’s turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments in automotive history. However, the lack of success can’t take away the significance of the Nano which best symbolises Indian ingenuity and frugal engineering. High on space and low on costs, the Nano was conceived to be the ideal first choice for a family making the jump from bikes to cars. It’s this purity of purpose that makes the Nano special, but it also proves that it’s not quite the car an aspirational middle class buyer wants to have.

Hyundai Santro   (1998) - Ambassador of hatchbacks

Shahrukh Khan would like to think that his endorsement of the Santro launched Hyundai in India. The fact is that the Santro became a star in its own right thanks to its unique ‘Tall Boy’ design. The Santro was also a triumph of function over form — buyers digested its gawky styling and proportions for the high seating position, especially at the rear. The Santro’s torquey and smooth 1.0-litre Epsilon engine, great outside visibility and light controls made it an easy car to drive too. A facelift in 2003 made it look more palatable and a bigger engine made it drive better, but it was the generous headroom and lofty backseat — unique for a small hatch — that gave it its long lease of life. It’s also the reason why the Santro continues as a taxi — it’s the Ambassador of hatchbacks.


Honda City (1998) - the car that built Honda

Honda’s first car in the Indian market was the City and this model has been the backbone of the company ever since. The first-generation City, launched in 1998, wowed customers with its thrilling performance and utter reliability. Indians had fallen in love with the City and were blind to its faults like the low-rent interiors and lack of crash safety. Honda took advantage of the City’s popularity and got away with charging a premium for it. India was the only market where the City was costlier than the more upmarket Mitsubishi Lancer, an indication of how strong the City brand had already become. The second-generation City was a radical departure from the first model with a focus on practicality and ease of ownership. However, it was this model which cemented the City’s reputation for being a trouble-free, easy-to-drive car, which subsequent generations cashed in on.


Maruti Zen   (1993) - India’s first hot hatch

To call a car with a naturally aspirated 1.0-litre engine, producing a mere 50bhp, a hot hatch may seem ridiculous today but not 20 years ago. When the Zen was launched, it came as a godsend for enthusiasts who, until then, had only their 800s to play with. The Zen was a true driver’s car with its low-slung driving position, nimble handling, slick gearbox and a buzzy, all-aluminium motor that loved to rev. The rounded ‘jelly-bean’ styling added to its appeal and, very quickly, the Zen had a cult following. Many owners would tweak their cars with all sorts of modifications and, in fact, the Zen can take credit for giving birth to India’s fledgling tuning industry. Maruti facelifted the Zen in 2007 and finally replaced it with the functional and unexciting Zen Estilo which effectively killed the brand.

Mahindra Bolero  (2000) - a market phenomenon

The ageing Bolero continues to reign supreme as the best-selling SUV in the country, dumbfounding not just its rivals but M&M as well. The Bolero was launched in 2000 but its roots go back to M&M’s Jeep days. It’s the hardy underpinnings that have earned it a reputation for being tough and capable of surviving harsh rural conditions. The Bolero is the SUV of choice in smaller towns, thanks to certain strengths none of its rivals have. It’s pretty reliable, cheap and easy to service, has good fuel economy and above all, is quite affordable to buy. Since the Bolero’s launch 14 years ago, the Indian SUV landscape has changed with a rash of new and contemporary models. But none of them have truly impressed rural buyers who continue to lap up the tried-and-tested Bolero.

Toyota Qualis   (2000) - Lesson on what makes a Toyota a Toyota

That Toyota could get away by launching the boxy and outdated Qualis, which had long been discontinued in international markets, spoke not just of Toyota’s confidence but how far behind the competition was at the time. Though the Qualis had the aesthetic appeal of a brick, it simply bowled customers over with its practicality and utter reliability. It took the commercial market by storm and taxi operators could charge customers a higher fare to travel in a Qualis over a Sumo or any Mahindra. The Qualis was virtually unbreakable, racking up hundreds of thousands of kilometres without much trouble and thereby establishing Toyota’s reputation for quality. The Qualis’ discontinuation from the market in 2005 was as significant as its launch. It left a huge vacuum for the Tavera and Bolero to survive and thrive. 



Toyota Innova - (2005) the unchallenged MPV king

No car has ruled its segment with as much impunity as the Toyota Innova. Since its launch in 2005, it has remained unchallenged, and firmly established itself as the de facto MPV for families and commercial vehicle operators alike. Rivals have come and failed miserably, unable to make any dent on the Innova’s popularity. This, despite the car remaining largely unchanged since launch except for a handful of cosmetic upgrades to keep it fresh. What’s amazing is that Toyota has been able to hike the Innova’s price by more than 70 percent over the years and it still sells more than all its rivals combined. Clearly, the Innova is seen to be as much of an investment as it is a car. Its bullet-proof reliability and fantastic resale value make it something you just can’t go wrong with.

Hindustan Ambassador  (1957) the car that refused to die

You would expect India’s most enduring car to be higher up this list. No doubt, the Amby was an icon that became an intrinsic part of the Indian landscape and, from its comfy back seat, it was the best way to travel around the country.

Made at the same factory for over 50 years, no other car in the world had a longer production run and it was a car that refused to die until Hindustan Motors finally pulled the plug. So then why is it so low down on our list? The Ambassador symbolised all that was wrong with our past — it thrived in the days of a regulated economy and an even more regulated auto industry. Unlike the 800, which was a terrific product, the Amby had appalling quality, was terrible to drive and broke down constantly. But given its history, it could soon become a classic.

Tata Indigo  (2002) -pioneer of compact sedans

In 2006, when finance minister P Chidambaram announced big excise duty savings for cars with a length shorter than four metres, it was meant for hatchbacks. But that didn’t stop Tata Motors from giving its Indigo sedan the same benefit. The boot was snipped, bringing the length to a smidgen under four metres and voila, the compact sedan category was born. The shorter Indigo was suffixed CS (for compact sedan) and was mechanically similar to the full-sized Indigo. The boot was reduced from 450 to 380 litres, but customers didn’t mind because the excise benefit translated into aRs 90,000 saving at the time. The Indigo CS went on to become a huge success and at one point, was Tata Motors’ single best-selling model. It gave the idea to other manufacturers who developed their own compact sedans to enter this new segment the Indigo pioneered.

Ford EcoSport   (2013) - changing the rules

The EcoSport isn’t India’s first compact SUV; that honour goes to the now-forgotten Premier Rio. However, it was the EcoSport that established the compact SUV segment in India and changed the rules of the game. It wasn’t just the disruptive price of Rs 5.59 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi) at its launch which caused a market upheaval and waiting lists that stretched to over 18 months at one point. The EcoSport is simply a brilliant product. The ride and handling is superb, it’s packed with impressive tech and the 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine is easily the best petrol in the country. The in-your-face styling is a bit extrovert for some but it’s been the draw for many buyers. A twin-clutch automatic and a competent diesel round off the EcoSport range. Now, all Ford has to do is make more of them.

Skoda Octavia   (2001) - The first luxury car you could afford

Coming to India as a completely unknown brand, Czech carmaker Skoda wanted to make an immediate impression with its first model, the Octavia. And the way it got people to sit up and take notice was by pricing it at a bargain. The Octavia’s ex-showroom price of Rs 10.6 lakh pegged it alongside the top-end version of the Opel Astra, which looked like poor value in comparison. But it wasn’t just the price. Owners were gobsmacked with the Octavia’s build quality, which was the best then, this side of a Merc. The 1.9-litre TDI diesel motor, though noisy, was robust and very frugal. As a result, diesel Octavias had very good resale value, which is another reason why they were so popular. This car also positioned Skoda as a luxury car brand in India, something that’s never really happened in other markets.

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