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What makes some cars winners?

June 02, 2007 12:58 IST

Cars come, cars go. But some of them remain the benchmarks in their respective categories, the ones that others aspire to beat. We've identified six such leaders of their respective segments and find out what makes them tick.

A-segment: Maruti Suzuki Alto

In 2001, Maruti had just managed to put the sordid Maruti-Suzuki fiasco behind. Maruti was in a hurry to make up for lost time. Enter the Alto. While we had two generations of the Alto -- the 800 and the Zen as we know it -- Maruti saw a gap between the two models to slot another one.

The new generation Alto which had just been launched in Japan was the ideal candidate. Based on the same platform as the Wagon R, the Alto had a lot going for it.

It was better put together, featured modern architecture and rode well too. Two engine options -- the 800cc 3-cylinder and the 1061cc, 4-cylinder mill from the Wagon R -- allowed customers to choose the 800cc Alto instead of the Maruti 800 and the cheaper 1.1-litre Alto VX instead of the Zen.

While the market cried cannibalism, Maruti was okay with it since the customer continued to buy in the Maruti fold, irrespective of the model.

After a year of hanging around in the market, the Alto's sales took off. In 2003, the Alto did the unthinkable when it overtook the Maruti 800 for the first time on the sales charts in 22 years, and just went on to register strong numbers.

While the 1.1-litre engine was dropped, Maruti continued to tinker with the Alto's pricing and offered more variants on the 800cc engine platform. Despite competition closing in, the Alto has held fort and sold its 6,00,000th car earlier this year.

Maruti has played two trump cards very well in putting Alto on the top step of the small car pedestal. Continuous price revisions have put the Alto within striking distance of the 800 at all times, while Maruti's legendary service network and cost of maintenance that brought millions of Indians into the Maruti family with the 800, brought even more of them into the Alto fold.

Winning attributes: Great first car, frugal, service network
B-segment: Hyundai Santro

In 1998, a rather unknown automobile manufacturer showed its wares at the Auto Expo in Delhi. The difficult part for showgoers was to pronounce the name 'Hyundai', and even nine years later customers can't get it right.

What it did manage to, is offer an alternative to the Zen, priced it competitively and backed it up with a wide and good quality service network. Doing a one-up on Maruti was unheard of in the late nineties and that Hyundai and not Daewoo who entered India in 1994, got it right made the entire market sit up and take notice.

From Shah Rukh Khan selling the 'sunshine car' to the upper-middle class in Gurgaon and New Delhi buying Santros for their just-turned-18 daughters, India just can't get over the Santro fixation.

In the intervening period, its Korean rival shut down Maruti stopped manufacturing the Zen, Tata's Indica went through painful upgrades and GM got Daewoo's Matiz back into India with new clothes, an engine and a bowtie badge on the boot. None of these have changed Santro's meteoric rise on the sales charts.

Unfortunately, for Hyundai, its other models haven't managed to repeat the same kind of success. While Hyundai prepares an intermediate model to slot between the Santro and Getz, designated PA for a launch later this year, the Santro hasn't stopped its forward march.

Price revisions, constant engineering of the product and Hyundai's good service backup have seen showrooms continuing to be flocked by customers. Even if they can't pronounce the name right when they direct the cab driver to a nearest showroom.

Winning attributes: Shah Rukh Khan, constant upgrades, quality service
B+: Maruti Suzuki Swift

Maruti Suzuki clearly acknowledges the Swift as the one product that has changed the complete mindset of the organisation. Today, Maruti Udyog is a rejuvenated carmaker and it is the vivacious Swift that has injected new energy into the company. And the excitement it created was contagious.

Showrooms were abuzz as consumers wanted to touch and feel the new car, so much so that Maruti showrooms started staying open even on Sundays. People were willing to pay premiums on the new large hatch and wanted to be the first in their locality with the Swift. Several C-segment sedans saw a southward drop in sales in the first few months of the Swift's entry. So what did Maruti do right?

Take the LXi model for instance. Priced at Rs 399,000 at launch, this version undercut several B-segment hatches. Even the Swift VXi at about Rs 440,000 was priced in the same region as several premium variants of B-segment hatches with the same features.

The ZXi, on the other hand, had goodies like alloy wheels, auto climate control, ABS and airbags at just about Rs 550,000.

Then there was the 1300cc motor derived from the Esteem that produced 87 bhp and was quicker than all B-segment hatches and equally quick as quite a few C-segment sedans too.

Of course, the styling was what caught everyone's fancy, the revolutionary design that raised Maruti's style quotient by a few notches. The handling was in a different league, most consumers getting a taste of a big-car like sorted chassis for a fraction of the amount.

Sales have stayed steady and somewhat slid from their monthly highs of 6,000 units to 4,000-4,500 units by the end of last year. The launch of the Swift diesel has increased the Swift petrol's demand as its long waiting periods have turned people back towards the petrol once again.

A facelifted new Swift has just been launched in Japan and we suspect it could find its way here as well, later this year. Until then, Maruti can continue to rule the roost in the premium B-segment as competitors sulk.

Winning attributes: Style, value, revolutionary
Entry C: Tata Indigo

Platform commonalisation has been the norm in the international auto industry since the 1990s and Tatas have reaped the benefit of this lesson for its cars in India. The Indica, Indigo and Indigo Marina are based on one platform, the Indica.

When it was launched in 2002, the Indigo had only the Maruti Esteem and Ford Ikon 1.3 to compete with. Unlike the two, the Indigo petrol and diesel offered more space, rode better and had a maintenance cost that rivalled the Marutis.

The initial response was astounding. From zero to 3,000 units a month, the Indigo didn't take very long to usurp the number one position in its segment. The Indigo diesel caught the fancy of the Indian middle class, as well as fleet service providers.

Tata then launched the Marina stationwagon in 2004 that broke all previously held myths that stationwagons are bound to fail in India. Sales continued to soar and in 2005, Tata offered the facelifted Indigo and sold the first gen Indigo alongside. Though now, sales have started to drop and the Mahindra-Renault Logan has ruffled some feathers.

There will be a new Indigo once Tata launches the new Indica next year, but until then, the current Indigo will prolong Tata's good fortunes in the entry C-segment.

Winning attributes: Value, space, cost of ownership
Premium C: Honda City

Do a quick survey of Honda's offerings in the Indian market. All four of them, the City, Civic, Accord and CR-V are leaders in their respective segments. Surprised? Don't be. Honda stole the imagination of Indians when they launched the City in 1998.

Since then, the Accord, CR-V and the recent Civic have ensured that all City owners upgrade within the family.

And they have! The Honda City too has gone through two model lines and two upgrades in the meanwhile and despite entry of other competitors in this segment, the Honda City has managed to stave off everyone, bare the Fiesta TDCi (which is a diesel).

So how have they managed to do that? Honda first got their act together by offering a product that is contemporary and consumer friendly. The City in its current format is spacious, has good build quality, is well finished, has a reasonably torquey engine and to top it all, is frugal.

When put together, the Indian consumers have fallen hook, line and sinker for the charms of the City and bought them in such numbers that Honda has barely ever offered a discount on the car in all these years.

Then there is Honda's legendary reliability that has added value to the car. Honda even added the brilliant CVT transmission, while power hungry drivers could opt for the VTEC. Only problem? The clouds of Maruti's new SX4 looming large.

Winning attributes: Frugal, strong mother brand, thoughtfully engineered
Entry D: Honda Civic

Honda sold a staggering 2,400 Civics in its first month. It's not much when you consider it is a fifth of the average sales of the best B-segment car. But place the second highest selling entry D-segment car, the Corolla into perspective, the difference is nearly five times. Stunning performance on the sales chart might be one part, the other is the revolutionary product that the Civic has come to be in a market where me-toos flock showroom porches.

The space-age styling, digital displays, paddle shift automatic and great on-road performance apart, the Civic made every other rival appear a generation old in a flash. They've even managed to outsell the Skoda Octavia TDi, a car that should have done well in the present day scenario where petrol is priced a good 25 per cent above diesel.

None of these have dented customers' confidence in the product, which sells more than 1,600 units a month on an average.

Honda has just upped the ante. As the week turns to next, Honda will have launched a third variant, the V. We'll have to wait and see till next year if the Civic can hold on to its exalted position when the new Corolla comes knocking on our doors.

Winning attributes: Revolutionary, styling, strong brand
Rohini Nagrani