Dial FM to know if you have a SUV

Every year, the union budget that decides in some ways how richer or poorer we will get during the course of the year throws up a fair share of mindboggling policies. Rules that have no precedence, come out as a bolt out of the blue and prima facie, lack any sense of logic. Worse, sometimes they dont even have a sense of humour and only stress how far removed some of our bureaucrats are from reality. Or from technical knowhow.

A few years back, 2006 to be precise, the budget gave us a new definition of what is a small car. It had to be shorter than 4 metres in length and can have engines not bigger than 1.2 litre for petrol and 1.5 litre in diesel. It reeked of prejudice from some quarters and malice from others but by and large and with the advantage of hind-sight, the government got it right.

Yes, it did force manufacturers to prune some of their vehicles and cut the engine sizes. The erstwhile Chevrolet U-VA for example was ready with a 1.4 litre engine. But General Motors had to go back to the drawing board and concoct a smaller engine. Ditto for the Honda Jazz, which is powered by a bigger engine the world over. In these cases, it made these cars less potent as compared to what they should have been but that is a compromise that one has to factor in. The idea to discourage bigger cars as they take more space and are less fuel efficient was, by and large, a correct one.

This year, the government gave us another new definition. That of a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV). Here is what the government thinks it is:

* Anything that is more than 4 metres in length.
* That has a ground clearance of more than or equal to 170mm
* Engine size of more than 1.5 litre petrol or diesel
* Should not be a 9 seater or more. So the sundry small buses are ruled out.

To qualify, a vehicle has to meet all the four criteria. The reward for such qualification is 3% more excise duties or an effective rate of 30%. This will make the vehicle fall into the highest excise bracket. Only imported luxury cars attract a higher rate of taxation.

The need to define a SUV has been felt for long and for reasons best known to them, the industry has shied away from it. I had written about it just a couple of months back on how it suits them to not do it. Read here

That the government would turn its attention to this was a sitter. Utility vehicles was the only segment to report a robust set of numbers throughout the last year, up over 50%, when every other segment like most of the economy was tanking (down 5%). A cash starved government thirsty for any extra dough and the vagueness of what is an SUV, exposed the industry to the risk of the policy makers indulging in some hara kiri.

And what a brilliant example of ignorance it has been. For once, nowhere in the world is an SUV defined as such. Yes, length can be a criteria. But 4 metres is a little too short. So can ground clearance. Again 170 mm is hardly anything. Read on and you will know why. Engine size? What has that got to do with a vehicle being an SUV or not. The most important aspect of an SUV–its off roading capabilties has been ignored in totality. Hence, no mention of a four wheel drive option.

So what it has done instead is that there are enough loop holes for some unsuspecting sedans to fall under this category. At the same time, some vehicles largely perceived to be SUVs have escaped.

The SX4 for example, is now an SUV according to the babus. Quite a few of them are driven around in them, maybe thats why. It has a ground clearance in excess of 170mm and an engine that is bigger than 1.5 litre too (for the petrol variant). So too are the Civic and Corolla. In reality, these are anything but SUVs.

The Duster, Quanto and Ertiga however, escape the cane. I do not consider the Ertiga as an SUV either so though unintended, no qualms there. But the Duster is built and marketed as an SUV not only in India but globally. So too the Quanto, which again I think does not make the cut. But Mahindra remains insistent that it is every bit an SUV as a Land Rover. The Duster escapes as its engine size is smaller than 1.5 litre for the diesel variant. The Quanto, because it is shorter than 4 metres.

Having said that, while the industry’s discomfort with this definition that is forced upon them is justified to some extent, I for one, am not complaining. It is a foolish definition but one that this industry deserved. Well done North Block.

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