Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Nano leads India's small car challenge at Geneva Motor Show

It's entirely understandable that Tata Motors decided to globally unveil the Nano at the Geneva Motor Show this year. Although the Tata presence in Geneva is a decade old and the Nano isn't the first model to debut here (the Indica too had its Euro outing at this venue as did a number of concepts from the Tata stable), its outing this year is in keeping with the general mood of the moment. Which is totally and completely small. Or green. Or both.

Across the sprawling pavillians, some of the most talked about models this year were compact cars. And of course Nano ruled the roster. Just after the Honda presser, a European journalist asked Takeo Fukui, global CEO, Honda Motor Co, about the Nano and India's small car challenge. "We need smaller and cheaper vehicles," he replied. "But the Nano I don't understand. For sure ecology is important and safety is important too."

Right across him, at the Nano pavillion, despite the satin-draped cars before the formal launch a couple of hours later that afternoon, journalists, officials from rival MNC companies and press and publicity workers kept dropping by for a dekko. Like Detroit, the talk of the show was the Rs 1 lakh car from Tata Motors. And the questions -- about safety, environment and a possible Euro foray -- kept coming. All through the day.

If the Nano made waves at Geneva and with the world media-- its interest in Tata Motors piqued by not just the biggest innovation in the auto industry since the combustion engine as a visibly awed Indian visitor put it, but also the Jaguar-Land Rover deal which is close to completion -- it wasn't the only small option on display.

Some of the biggest names in the business from Daihatsu and Toyota to Nissan, Renault and Suzuki displayed compact cars. Part of the reason for the compact rush is of course local -- Europe is a big hatchback market and compact cars have always enjoyed a significant share of this market.

Terios, a Materia in 1.5 and 1.3 variants, a very very retro looking Trevis and a vra vra vroom gorgeous Copen two-seater roadster coupe which takes the small is beautiful dictum to an entirely different level altogether.

Close by mother company Toyota too displayed some pretty cool models. Rubbing shoulders with the Auris, long rumoured to be the final replacement for the Corolla though so far the two models have been happily co-existing, the Avensis and the Hilus and RAV4 which created a flutter at the auto show circuit all through last year is the Urban Cruiser and Aygo. The Urban Cruiser is interesting because it's a takeoff on the hatchback platform but with a totally different positioning twist.

The Aygo is even more interesting from the India point of view because there have long been rumours that Toyota might use it's platform for its Indian small car. Either way the Daihatsu and Toyota compacts offer interesting design and positioning insight into the not-too-distant future small car in India. Even if Toyota builds a global small car from scratch only for emerging markets (a la Innova project), these models will offer platform and design cues that may be incorporated in that.

Auto Expo regulars were of course happy to see Suzuki displaying the same models in Geneva that had their global preview in Delhi in January. Among them the Splash and the A-Star, not to mention the Concept Kizashi2. Quite apart from that and the fact that all three are due for an Indian roll out in the next 12-18 months, Suzuki's Geneva showing had a strong Indian theme.

In his opening address Toshihiro Suzuki, board member and senior managing executive officer-global marketing of Suzuki said: "Our new model (A-Star) is due to be produced by Maruti Suzuki India from the end of this year. At Suzuki we recognised India's potential and began investing there about 25 years ago. We now have a more than 55% share of the Indian market for passenger cars despite increasingly intense competition. Also 25 years of technological advances and personnel training have enabled Maruti Suzuki India to build vehicles of European standard quality.

And the company has an R&D division that has gained immense experience since starting its original task of adapting Japanese models for the Indian market. Suzuki sees India as a strategically vital base for production and R&D so we're going to continue investing over the long term.

For the concept A-Star designers from Maruti Suzuki India joined our design work from the very beginning of the project. By bringing together Japanese and Indian aesthetics in pursuit of a design with a mainly European character, they created a unique cross cultural synergy." High praise indeed for Indian innovation and ingenuity.The Nano effect continues.

Of course close by the Euro-Japanese Nissan-Renault's commitment to India also came through albeit a little tangentially. Renault's Megane Coupe Concept (among the hottest of the show along with the Mazda Taiki concept), Koleos crossover (featured in ET AutoMania's global launch section a couple of weeks ago), Laguna GT and Twingo Renault Sport are not intended to come to India anytime soon.

Neither are the Nissan GT-R supercar and the Pivo2 concept (which created a major flutter when it first debuted and has continued to grab eyeballs in auto shows across the globe). But Nissan chief Carlos Taveras did say that the Infinity range is a definite possibility.

"We do not have any definite plan but the opportunity is there and we are looking at the prospects of growth and progress in India," he said. "We will address that opportunity definitely in the near future."
For Nissan that would be one part of a larger jigsaw where India will be the centre of its global small car strategy. That strategy will spawn a family of models. But till it does, to build brand presence and visibility in India, the next model to roll out after the X-Trail and Teana will be the Murano also on display at its pavillion in Geneva.

Beyond the small car, a number of other models too are exciting from the India perspective.

The new Ford Fiesta for one. The whole range of green vehicles for another. Ford has its entire green range on display. Mazda has a hybrid dual fuel Mazda 5, Toyota has a plug-in Prius and Tata Motors announced that it intends to go full steam ahead into alternative technologies.

"We are very keen to have a presence in that segment in the course of time. The Tata group will be involved with bio-fuel but we will also look at electric vehicles, hybrids, flexi fuels and other options," said Tata Motors chairman Ratan Tata. That would mean buying technology and components systems and investing in R&D.

Does that mean a hybrid Nano will debut in Geneva sometime in the not too distant future? Tata Motors isn't saying anything just yet (it isn't even offering a time frame for the conventional Nano's Euro debut) but don't rule it out.


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