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Missing the India bus - carmakers who aren't here yet


Ah, where do we start? A story that talks about the missing links in the Indian automotive sphere can and should start from the top. When it comes to the automotive eco-system, to me, Ferrari is the shark. And those magicians from Maranello have no presence in India yet. Some say that fuel quality is to blame, while others think that Indian roads don’t deserve a Ferrari yet. But the real fact is that with about 6,250 cars sold last year, Ferrari is full-up — the supercar firm (which incidentally does not advertise its products except by participating in F1 racing) cannot build more cars from their home base without sacrificing their exclusive image which is oh-so-critical for the premium money they charge. But in a market where Lamborghini and Porsche are doing reasonable numbers (the latter especially, thanks to capable SUVs), Ferrari should not be far behind, right?

Under the same Fiat umbrella (and definitely more accessible) yet with the twist of mystique that only the Italians can pull off is Alfa Romeo. The Milanese sportscar/sports sedan maker of repute makes some of the most achingly beautiful cars in the world today. But when compared to the rear-wheel driven competition from Germany like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Alfa fails to impress. If launched in India, the Alfa Romeo 159 sedan for example, can straddle a price range of Rs 25 lakh to 35 lakh and can give prospective owners a chance to own something hot, red and Italian. So what if it’s not a Ferrari? One Mr Enzo worked for the Alfa Romeo racing team some time ago, after all!   Aston Martin — the name sounds fast but it has yet to reach our shores. Along with Jaguar, this ex-Ford owned, Bond-mobile maker has been going through rough waters for a while. Now under the enthusiastic ownership of Prodrive and with the recent launch of the four-door Rapide, Aston can make a crack at the Indian supercar market. Going by the interest people are showing in practical sportscars like the Porsche Panamera, the future looks good for the Rapide which can retail at around Rs 2-3 crore in India.

General Motors has done everything in India, from selling their premium European brand Opel to re-badging Subarus as Chevrolets (the Forester). But they have not offered Indians their flagship brand yet — Cadillac. In their quest to become a serious volume player, GM has decided not to spend time and energy (well, they need to build right-hand drive Caddys for us) on the famed luxury car brand. If they were present in India, the Escalade SUV would have been a big hit with its high bling quotient while the dynamically superior CTS sedan would have been kicking some German derrieres!

While Peugeot has tried its hand and failed miserably, its sister brand Citroen has never had a run in India. They came very close when the Escorts group wanted to build a people’s car in India in the 1980s and looked at the effervescent 2CV very closely. Now looking at the fate of the Renault-Mahindra joint venture, it remains to be seen if the Peugeot-Citroen Group would be interested in India at all. The car that would make brilliant sense in India would be the C3 Picasso — a five-door MPV that should retail at around Rs 9-10 lakh if it was produced and sold in India.   Indians love the Hummer the same way the world loved it — it’s a big hit with cricketers like M S Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh and with the moneyed set. In fact, at one point of time right-hand drive versions of the H3 built in South Africa were supposed to be coming our way. Though Hummers could tackle landmines let alone potholes, they couldn’t navigate their way through a financial minefield or face the blast from the anti-gas-guzzling monster brigade. Despite the best of efforts by GM and the Chinese suitor with the unpronounceable Chinese name to seal a deal, Hummer is on its way to becoming history. If only somebody like Mahindra & Mahindra, with a strong SUV/off-roading focus, would step in...

Either Toyota knows what they are doing in India or they don’t… Period. The Lexus brand has tremendous market value in India and many think it can be a runaway success on par or better than BMW or Mercedes-Benz. If they decide to bring the brand to India, Toyota will be better off launching the top-end LS600 hL with the relaxation package. It has even got a hybrid powertrain that would buy you carbon credits! Those who have had enough of grey market Land Cruisers from the Gulf with Lexus badges can then put their names against the 4x4 RX 450 with or without hybrid power Now that Ford has off-loaded its majority stake in Mazda, this small car giant from Japan can look forward to making its presence in India. While the excellent Mazda 2 and 3 models will be good, it will be even more meaningful to hunt for an Indian partner to get into niche vehicles — such as the excellent Miata convertible and the unique RX-8, powered by a rotary engine. A Miata should be available at an on-road price of Rs 15-20 lakh and it’s something that driving enthusiasts crave for.   The cars bearing the famous Bologna trident, Maserati, are rare on our roads — Vijay Mallya owns and drives one in Mumbai and so does Ajay Devgn, but they are imports. While the sportscars can be extreme, the four-door Quattroporte can be yours for under Rs 1.5 crore. The Quattroporte offers the best of both worlds — sports car attitude and luxury with plush carpeting. The GT is the sporty two-door Maser that has the performance attitude of a Ferrari and the sybaritic comforts of a Roman villa. It’s possible to have both, you know, and Indians will love it!

It looks like Fiat did the dipstick research for BMW when they launched the Rs 15 lakh 500. Everyone liked it, but very few bought it. While Fiat could do with the rub-off of a successful mainstream model, BMW needs no such favours from its wildly popular Mini brand. Hence the absence of the iconic German-owned British brand in the country. The Mini range obviously cannot be cheap and it will require its own independent sales channels. The volumes cannot justify the investment for the moment, but the Mini and its new Countryman variant that’s much more utilitarian are sorely missed.

Still on small cars, the Smart city cars are expensive for Europeans let alone be viable imports into India. But these Mercedes-built beauties are strong and never ever miss a beat even when abused. The ForFour four-seater (Rs 17-23 lakh) makes sense in India as a weekend getaway car for the rich cats while the ForTwo is a superbly built urban runabout. But the effort and the engineering that has gone into the Smart range plus the costs of production in Europe means Indians can’t get, er, Smart.

Now under the authorship of Spyker, the Saab story will continue to be written in Swedish — something that everyone who worked for wanted it to be. During GM’s time Saab was reduced to being a badge-engineered product but one that is reliable and refined like the other GM products today. It is virtually an unknown brand in India and the new owners of the company don’t have the money to establish its title here. But remember, at one point of time, even Skoda and Hyundai were unfamiliar names to most Indians!