The tale of 3 comeback kids
India is widely acknowledged as one of the most competitive and price sensitive car markets in the world. But perhaps what is an even more pronounced and dangerous facet to this, is that it is now known to give cars a second shot.
A whole gamut of cars that were bestsellers worldwide, have in the past struggled here and died an untimely death. The list spans from the best known Japanese brands to the insignificant French (Peugeot 307).
Even the market leader has burnt its fingers with the Maruti 1000 back in the 90s and more recently with Baleno (attrociously priced) and Versa (confused positioning). Hyundai too had its share of bad luck with the Getz, which had a relatively short shelf life despite two valiant attempts, SUVs Tucson and Terracan and executive sedan Elantra. It is still struggling with the Sonata.
Over the last year though, the Fabia, Nano and Estilo have challenged this tradition and on the face of it, fared better that those in the past.
The Fabia was launched in early 2008 with much fanfare and the promise of changing the fortunes of Skoda in India. However, its high price tag and Skoda’s shoddy after sales record acted against it and it succumbed to the pressures of competing with the Japanese and Koreans. Within a year of its entry, it was reduced to an also ran with sales dwindling below 200 units a month. The obituaries were ready by the time parent company Volkswagen launched the Polo early last year promising to end the Fabia story altogether.
Skoda had other ideas. A new factory, an overall revamp and a substantial cut in price last year has given the car a new lease of life. From the depths of 2009 and the plateaus of 2010, the Fabia now sells around 1,500 units a month. Infact, it clocked over a 1000 units a month for the first time ever since its launch in December 2010 and has kept at it ever since. This is still way less than what the competition sells with the Polo selling almost double of that and i20 way ahead at over 7,000 a month. But the revival, which is still being scripted has atleast extended the model’s run in India. See chart
Nano’s is an even more dramatic case. It started off with a hype never associated with a car before but very soon the story started resembling a nightmare. Tata’s poor track record on quality and safety ensured initial bookings were not upto the mark but when some of the cars caught fire on the roads corroborating those fears, the bubble had well and truly burst.
The crisis roused Tata out of its slumber and forced it to start marketing the car, something it had not envisaged at the time of Nano’s launch courtesy the free publicity it received. Safety features were enhanced, parts replaced and extended warranty offered to restore consumer confidence while attractive finance schemes were worked out to make it accessible to those who really needed it.
As a result, Nano sales have slowly started climbing out of the rut when it had nosedived to three digits in November last year. (see chart) If at all though, only half the damage has been undone but with a diesel variant in the pipeline, there is light at the end of the tunnel. See chart
It is always difficult to replace a successful model with another. And that holds true even when the company grappling with it is the dominant player in the market.
With newer models entering into the market and Zen losing out its sheen, its successor was expected to ease into its footsteps and take over the mantle. What actually happened was radically different.
With the intention of regaining lost glory, Estilo got a lukewarm response that only turned frigid with the passage of time. Sales rose initially from Zen’s 4,700 unit per month (at the time of its phaseout in 2006) to around 5,500 units per month in 2007. But it fell drastically to under 2,800 per month the following year and it was difficult to say if this was the same car that used to be Maruti’s second largest selling car in 2000 with average monthly sales of 6,700 units.
By 2009, Maruti knew it had to do something.
Out came the 1 litre K series engine and the snub nosed car was given a cosmetic surgery to give it a sharper look. That was coupled with an extensive marketing push that included dollops of discounts and freebies to avoid cannibalisation with its own siblings.
As a result, sales picked up last year to a more palatable 4,350 per month, still quite some distance away from the peaks of last century but well above the nadir of 2008.
And the others…….
The list of cars that have not quite recognised their true potential in India is a long one. From the whole line up of Fiats to Fords, Chevys and Honda Jazz, cars have flattered only to deceive. But the growth in the market is such that none of these are going to ride into the sunset just yet. From the Hyundai Verna, Ford Fiesta to the Jazz, a number of these cars would be reloaded with the hope of emerging second time lucky.