Introspection time

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The mainline media hangs on to every word that Ratan Tata says. Every time he utters something to the effect that the Nano has not done what it set out to achieve or that it’s a shame that Tata Motors let Mahindra & Mahindra overtake them in the first quarter of 2012, it gets played up everywhere. Ratan Tata’s words usually make for good copy despite the fact that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – new in what he’s saying. But is anyone surprised that Tata Motors’s domestic passenger car business (as opposed to the trucking and JLR businesses) is perhaps at its weakest point? They may have bounced back and overtaken M&M in the second quarter but the point is Tata Motors has become vulnerable. Why?

Look at it this way: has Tata Motors launched any exciting new product lately? The only significant all-new launch has been the Aria – but it was doomed right from the moment they announced the price. The Venture would have been a nice alternative to the Omni; despite the way it looks, it still is a compromise. The Nano 2012 was only a much-needed upgrade. What happened to the much-vaunted new Safari? Why are the Vista and the Manza so sleepy? Why are they still flogging the Indica, Indigo and Indigo eCS? Why is the Sumo and its derivatives still around? See anything remotely interesting about Tata’s current portfolio. I was just going through the innumerable Which Car? questions we receive on a daily basis – maybe a miserable five per cent have a Tata vehicle in their shortlist let alone BSM recommending one to people. Tata vehicles are not even in the mindspace of the people asking advice on car purchases.

In fact I find the CV side of Tata Motors to be more exciting than the passenger car business. The only Tata vehicle that I see on the road that I really feel like driving it is the little Magic Iris! Even at the Auto Expo this January – which would have been a great opportunity to showcase the nice things you’ve lined up for customers – there was hardly anything. I had a mere glance at the “new” Safari and spent more time looking at the CVs and the new Ultra range of LCVs! Well, this non-glamorous side of Tata Motors is what gets them the business, but it’s the passenger vehicles that command more attention – which sadly, has nothing substantial to command.

Okay, so they don’t have any exciting products lined up. What about taking care of customers who have actually bought into Tata cars with their hard-earned money? Do the cars let them down often? Are they served well? Do they feel like upgrading to another Tata product? Will they stay in the same brand fold? I don’t know. And is it any surprise that the Tata-Fiat service venture didn’t work?

We have an Indigo eCS in our long-term fleet now – it’s frugal and that’s its greatest asset. Okay, it’s spacious. But the car itself is a compromise when it comes to ergonomics, dynamics, fit and finish and virtually everything else. In today’s day and age, when all cars meet a certain grade, this is unacceptable. I had great hopes of the Manza and Vista, but the competition is too strong for these two products and simply offering great value is not enough for customers now. The cars have to be good across the board and the ownership experience has to be flawless – just because you’re buying a cheaper car shouldn’t mean you should compromise. Maruti Suzuki has shown the world how it’s done.

Which brings me to the Nano. Tata’s international star hogs all the attention and all the other cars have to be also-rans. Till a diesel Nano comes along, it will continue to plod along. And to make it a ‘cool’ car, Tata’s latest idea is to produce Nano accessories – so suddenly the Nano becomes a trendy and youthful car. Sure, all the best for that. With the Nano, it’s not the car that’s the hero, but it’s the prospective buyer in the Indian hinterland. Make the person who bought the Nano a hero – that he has spent money beyond his two-wheeler budget to take his family in comfort and safety. Make his peers admire him for what he is done. Make his neighbour think of him as the guy who is not going to take his family on a vulnerable two-wheeler. For this, those accessories and city-bred sales spiel of low EMIs or exchange schemes are not going to work. If there’s no pride in Nano ownership, the car’s not going to sell. I still fear this may not be enough – the Bajaj RE60 and Maruti’s new small car will end up influencing the Nano’s fate.

The writing on the wall is clear. Tata urgently needs a product pipeline that needs to churn out desirable cars and UVs/SUVs rapidly. It needs to make the ownership experience glitch-free. It needs to make owners stay in the Tata fold. It’s not easy, but it needs to be done.