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Alto beaters coming soon

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Maruti Suzuki's best-selling car, the Alto registered sales of over 25,000 units in May, making it one of the best months in the history of the little car. Maruti's number one seller averages anywhere between 16,000-20,000 units a month and despite having been around now for nearly ten years it doesn't look like it is going to lose steam anytime soon.

 But it's facing some tough times ahead in the years to come. Four more manufacturers are looking to enter the 800-1000cc fray with their own Alto rivals, pegged at Rs 2 to 3.5 lakh. Each of these manufacturers have wealth of expertise in the small car field and have been successful in their own way. Can they take the fight straight into Maruti's lair?

We look at all three options and even look at what the future of the Alto is by itself. We also look at a fifth option, an unlikely car that could become a likely competitor and may even lead Maruti Suzuki to its development plans. What are these cars? Flip the page and start reading...

Hyundai H800

This is the name doing the rounds of Hyundai's new small car, codenamed the H800. Developed in India by a team of 400 engineers, the car is being tested at this moment across India and Hyundai has even setup a CAD/CAE facility for it at its Research and Engineering facility in Hyderabad.

Work on the car began in late-2007, early-2008 and has been progressing steadily. Originally, the plan was to make it a Tata Nano competitor, but it changed once Hyundai realised that the pricing would be unrealistic for it. It then decided to peg the car above Rs 2 lakh, with a clear mandate to target the Alto. The H800 could feature an 800cc or 900cc three-cylinder engine which is expected to be a derivative of the 1.2-litre Kappa unit found on the i10 and i20. This engine could produce about 55-58 bhp and should help propel the car to a top speed of about 130 kph. An LPG/CNG option will also be made available from the day of launch, making it a viable option for many who want to look at a cheap gas option.

What is interesting to note is that the car will use a tall-boy architecture, very similar to the Santro. It will use simpler body stampings with lesser creases to keep costs in check, though that shouldn't in anyway reduce the rigidity of the vehicle. Interior space will be critical here as the Tata Nano has proven. The market seems to suggest two possible launch periods for the H800 - Q1 2011 and the Delhi Auto Expo 2012. We would like to believe that it is the latter period when it might hit showrooms, but with Hyundai you just never know!   Tata's A-segment wonder car

 

Tata Motors has been looking at the Alto segment with keen interest. While it does have cars in the range of Rs 1-2 lakh (Nano) and Rs 3.5-5.5 lakh (Indica/Vista), it still has the elusive Rs 2-3 lakh bracket to fill. And, if we are to believe our sources, then both Tata Motors and Fiat are jointly developing a platform for their applications.

Let's look at the Tata offering first. Unlike the rear-engined Nano, this car (codenamed Project Dolphin) will be a front-engined, front-wheel drive car, since costs here aren't as much an issue as the Nano. Moreover, the product might use an architecture very similar to the Indica to liberate as much space as possible within its limited footprint. Like the Nano and Indica, expect the car to have a pair of engine options - petrol and diesel. These engines would be in the 800cc - 1000cc range and could produce anywhere between 40 and 60 bhp, depending on fuel and application. Like General Motors India, Tata Motors with partner Fiat could consider a three-cylinder 950cc odd variant of the four-cylinder Multijet diesel engine for its small car, while an all-new petrol motor could be in the offing.

What could be different about the Tata product would be its pricing and packaging. The Tata car could be more functional while the Fiat product could be priced a bit higher (see next page). Expect both products to be assembled at their joint facility in Ranjangaon and even on the same assembly line. But how soon could Tata Motors come out with this product remains to be seen. Estimates suggest that the product could take at least another two years before it hits Indian roads. It could very well be the product that will help Tata Motors make a bid for the title of the largest car manufacturer in India.   Fiat India's A-segment offering

 

As mentioned earlier, the Fiat product would be based on the same platform as the Tata car.  Fiat could offer two versions on the same platform, one specifically for India and other emerging markets while another, slightly better built and equipped car for Europe to take on the Suzuki Alto (A-Star) and Nissan Pixo. Fiat needs a sub-Panda/sub-Punto car for the European market and this could be its golden chance.

The car could share its petrol and diesel engine with Tata's own small car, though the picture will get clearer in the coming months. We expect both cars to share most of the stampings and panels and like Suzuki's contract manufacturing for the Pixo, differentiate using different grilles,headlamp /tail lamp designs and other small bits. Fiat's pricing might be a bit premium in India, but that shouldn't matter as Fiat stands to gain more in terms of developing and sharing the platform and engines with Tata Motors. It is not known whether this car will be called the Uno or by some other name in India, given that Fiat had recently launched a new Uno in international markets.   GM India's big small car story

 

General Motors India is on a bit of a roll. After launching the Beat and hiving off 50 per cent stake in its India operations to GM-SAIC, it can now focus on bringing a lot more economy models into the country. Apart from an Aveo replacement and MPVs in the Rs 5-9 lakh price bracket, GMI is also planning to bring in a sub-Spark car for the Indian market.

To be developed by GM-SAIC, this small car will be for markets like India, China and other developing Asian markets where GM plans to increase its presence. This isn't the first time GM has toyed with the idea of an inexpensive city hatch - as far back as the nineties it did develop a concept car using plastics and other lightweight materials but it didn't get past that stage. Of course it may utilise some of the learnings from that project, but might use conventional steel bodies to develop the car. Engines might include an 800cc unit offered on the outgoing Spark in other countries ( the bottom half of that engine traces back to the Maruti 800!) or could be even smaller. There is no talk of a diesel engine for now, and might just not be offered. According to Karl Slym, President and MD, GM India, the car would be priced around Rs 2 lakh, though that price might shoot up a bit with higher trim levels and options.

What is important to know is that SAIC will aid GM in bringing in frugal engineering lessons while GM India's own R&D outfit in Bangalore will help Indianise it. Moreover, the car will be built completely in India to keep costs in check. How soon could the car come? We feel that it might take GM at least another two years since it has its hands full with other GM-SAIC offerings.   Volkswagen's big small bet

 

Volkswagen's Up! car programme might be taking shape in Germany, but the ramifications of it can be felt here in India as well. From what we have learnt is that Suzuki is now partnering the company in its small car programmes and that the Up! could very well gain from the Japanese manufacturer's expertise.

The Up! car would not just be badged as a VW, but also Skoda and both versions might be offered in India. If that does happen, then Skoda will finally have a chance of making a dent in the volumes game. But it is not known at this point if both these products will be targeted at the A-segment or the entry B-segment. Yet one thing is for sure, the products will be front-engined and front-wheel drive for reasons of cost. The other thing will be that the Up! will come in two different versions - one with slightly lower cost trim and fittings for developing markets and one with premium feel interiors for Europe. Engines could be of the two and three-cylinder variety with both petrol and diesel versions. Space will be the Up!'s primary selling point with a tall-boy design structure and clever packaging. Pricing could vary for this product. In India, it could come for Rs 2.5-4 lakh, depending on where Volkswagen want to position it (and so do Skoda). With the project underway as we speak, the car could be in India by early 2012 by which time both Volkswagen would have spread its distribution and service setup, completed the launch of the Polo and its variants (including the Vento) as well as the new Jetta.   Maruti Suzuki Alto

 

It is hard to imagine Maruti Suzuki to just sit in a corner and wait for competition to squeeze in. That might just not happen, because by early August, Maruti Suzuki will offer an updated Alto.

This will be the first significant update for the Alto since its launch in 2000-01. The Alto will get the 998cc three-cylinder K Series engine from the Estilo/A-Star and Wagon R to give it some serious oomph. Importantly it will help Maruti improve volumes and bring down the cost of making the engine while paving the way for a successor for the tried and tested 800cc unit. It won't, however replace the 800cc Alto for the moment as both will co-exist. What it will help Maruti do is close the Rs 2.75-3.5 lakh rupee gap where Maruti doesn't have much presence. The car will also get a facelifted front and rear-end and possibly even refreshed interiors, a la the Zen Estilo.