The great rivalries of the Indian Autobahn: Part I
A two part series that looks on and back at the intense rivalries that have structured the course of the Indian automotive landscape
Be it sports or business, nothing beats the adrenalin rush that an intense no holds barred and preferable prolonged rivalry can create. And when it comes to cars, the game of one upmanship often gives character and hope for the players and added reason and spice to consumers.
Unlike in other markets, the Indian automotive industry does not boast of many legendary rivalries. Part of it is because of the vice like grip that Maruti Suzuki has exerted in India that has enabled it to swat away any thought of a rivalry. Infact for the better part of 80s and 90s, the only quasi rivalry that the industry could flaunt was of two Maruti’s fighting it out, be it a Maruti 800 versus Zen or a Gypsy versus Omni.
With the onset of competition though, in the form of Hyundai, Maruti received its first taste of what it feels like when one meets a match. And over the last decade and a half, the two companies have fought hard and their exertions have lead to some enthralling fights. Some of them are still on but it’s better to begin from the start.
Hyundai Santro versus Maruti Wagon R
When the Santro was launched as the face of Hyundai back in 1998, Maruti initially, did not even pay much heed to it. The car looked unconventional with some even calling it ugly and Hyundai was a non entity. Maruti was more interested in what Tata would do with the Indica.
Santro though, fuelled by the superstardom of Shahrukh Khan, powered ahead and its unconventional tall boy design actually became its biggest USP. That it was the first time Maruti had missed a beat in India as Suzuki already had similar tall boy designed cars in Japan. It never quite struck the Japanese that a car like that would find takers in India.
As Santro steamed in and it was evident that the Zen was not quite potent enough to compete with it, Maruti brought in the Wagon R from Japan looking to capture those who had already fallen in love with tall cars.
For the better part of its life though, the Wagon R has played second fiddle. It started out with sales of just 6000 units in its first year, at a time when Santro was selling 10 times that. Maruti’s persistence, wider market penetration and lower cost of service though ensured that the wagon would keep finding newer buyers.
All this while though, Santro also kept getting stronger and Suzuki over a period of time began to realise, Hyundai was no pushover.
Wagon R versus Hyundai i10
In the summer of 2006, Hyundai in Korea decided to do something that would still be thought improbable in India. With an eye on the changing times, the Korean carmaker decided to halt further development of the Santro (called Atoz eleswhere) and build a newer, more advanced car in its place.
While that may have been a requirement in other markets, Santro had just rounded off its best ever sales in India and after almost 6 years of trying Maruti had begun to think Wagon R was fighting a lost battle. The decision to phase out the Santro globally and the subsequent time lag between the introduction of the new small car (codenamed PA then) gave Wagon R the chance it badly needed.
As the news leaked out to the market and confusion reigned in Hyundai showrooms, a privatised Maruti started punching and Wagon R received minor changes and new variants. The increased marketing activities did the trick and for the first time, the Wagon nudged ahead. But not too far ahead.
As the new car appeared on the horizon. Hyundai knew it had a winner on its hands. The PA got India its first global launch and the beginning of the hugely successful i series had been made. The i10 was more powerful, had better features was built stronger and still had all the niceties that the Santro possessed.
But howsoever good it might be, it is never easy to trump an established leader who has developed a fetish for being on top. The last 3 years have seen the most intense rivalry this industry has ever seen and the winner of the battle between i10 and Wagon R is often decided on a month to month basis. This battle rages on leaving the ageing Santro way behind counting its last days.
Hyundai Getz versus Maruti Swift
This one had all the ingredients of a thriller but it turned out to be a massive anti climax. Even then, few people recall (including most in Maruti) that it was actually the Getz that pioneered the concept of a super hatch, a segment that is bursting at the seams today with everybody wanting to have a piece of it in India.
The idea to launch a car like Getz, one that would be priced higher, had more features and was more fun to drive, was a logical one. By that time, the Santro and Zen were already more than 5 years old and the buyers of these cars would surely be looking to upgrade. With the Getz, Hyundai thought it had the right product as it sought to do an encore with it.
Sadly, the execution was not upto the mark. Getz was perceived as a car ahead of its times, and its rather bland looks ensured that the market was not excited. Nobody thought it was prudent to shell more money for a car which was not a head turner. To make matters worse, Maruti started a discreet whisper campaign comparing the car to its dated Zen (which was also considered expensive in the mid 90s) that gave the impression that the car had nothing new to offer.
The killer stroke however, was the launch of the Swift, a global trendsetter for Suzuki, and one that a Maruti official himself claimed happens only once in a lifetime. With its distinct retro looks and peppy drive, it threw caution out of the wind and was then a car that could have come from anywhere but Maruti.
A runaway success from the first day, Swift started with 6,000 pre launch bookings and the waiting period never ended even after 6 years of its launch today and on the eve of its first facelift. Swift also highlighted where Getz had gone wrong and taught an invaluable lesson on how to succeed in India. You have to hold the attention long enough at first glance or it is never going to come back.
The Swift versus Getz rivalry never really took off and beyond the first year, Hyundai knew it had lost the game. A cheaper more fuel efficient Getz Prime followed as did a diesel variant but the enthusiasm and exuberism was gone and Getz was doomed to a tragic end. Which eventually arrived last year.
It would however remain a classic case of a failed product laying the foundation for another to jumpstart on it.
Next week: Honda City versus Mitsubishi Lancer, City versus SX4, Civic versus Corolla