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Ford India, which has seen sales of premium hatchback Figo waver in recent months, is set to fire a fresh salvo in the domestic passenger vehicle market with the launch of the EcoSport in June this year.

A compact sports utility vehicle (SUV) under four metres in length (which enables it to avail of excise duty of 12 per cent applicable on compact cars), the EcoSport is expected to be priced aggressively and throw a serious challenge not only to competitors in the entry-level utility vehicle segment but also to makers of premium hatches and compact sedans which have mid-range products positioned in the Rs 6-10 lakh price bracket.

Ford India declined to specify the price points of the EcoSport, adding it will be revealed closer to launch. Industry sources, however, informed that the SUV is expected to carry a tag of around Rs 6-9 lakh. The base variant of the product is significantly lower than Renault Duster, which with prices starting upwards of Rs 7.87 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) has expanded significantly the consumer base for compact SUVs in the past one year. Renault sold 39,188 units of the Duster since its launch in July last year, which translate into average monthly sales of a robust 4,354 units. EcoSport's pricing is closer to the high-end variants of compact sedan Maruti Suzuki Dzire (priced at Rs 7.50 lakh), and of premium hatchbacks such Volkswagen Polo (Rs 7.36 lakh) and Hyundai i20 (tagged at Rs 7.79 lakh).

"EcoSport addresses the white space with its competition-differentiating attributes like kinetic design language, first-in-segment SYNC voice enabled interactive technology feature, the 1.0L 125 PS Ecoboost engine that is 20 per cent more fuel efficient than a traditional 1.6L engine, spacious interiors and urban road requirements such as ground clearance (200 mm) and turning radius that define its on-road capability. We have a great product in the EcoSport and, therefore, we will not limit its draw to any specific customer base", says Vinay Piparsania, executive director (marketing, sales and service), Ford India.

EcoSport's target customer is a young male professional working in a multi-national, married with a child and lives with parents. He aspires to own a vehicle that is modern, premium, sporty, and technology feature-rich. Piparsania says the vehicle has been designed and developed to differentiate him from others in his social circle, who own passenger vehicles and at the same time support his daily personal and professional needs. The vehicle is suited for his kind of urban lifestyle enabling him to get away from the city.

V G Ramakrishnan, senior director (automotive practice), Frost & Sullivan says, "The EcoSport is a new product coming into the market with new technology, so the likelihood of the product succeeding is good. While it is true there is considerable anticipation about the product among consumers wanting to upgrade to an SUV from a sedan, the EcoSport is likely to draw in first-time buyers as well." Ford Ecosport is powered by a one litre ecoboost petrol engine. The vehicle will also be available in 1.5-litre diesel engine and 1.5-litre petrol engine with automatic transmission.

Ford India has invested $142 million at its Chennai facility to support the manufacturing of the EcoSport. Piparsania says. the company plans to localise the product aggressively to keep prices competitive. "EcoSport is an important product for us and we will localize it in India that to help us offer our customers competitive pricing and the desired cost of ownership."

To achieve economies of scale and manufacture the vehicle cost-effectively, Ford India has firmed up a blue-print to export the EcoSport to countries in Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia and South Africa.

Joginder Singh, president and managing director, Ford India, says, "The European equation works well with the EcoSport. We already export the Figo to 38 countries globally from India, and would look at a similar scale for the SUV." While Singh declined to specify the proportion of production of the EcoSport which Ford India has earmarked for exports, industry sources indicated that over 40 per cent of scheduled annual production of 150,000 units is being planned for sales in overseas markets.

The EcoSport will be launched in the largely untapped sub 4 metre compact UV market in India.

Though the Indian automotive industry is facing challenging times, industry experts see the urban SUV segment growing and keeping the consumer mood upbeat. S Sandilya, president, Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) says, "There is a distinct change in the behavioural patterns of Indian consumers. Ten years ago utility vehicles were looked upon as mini trucks. Today more people are buying utility vehicles as they are macho, can be used for weekend trips. Affordability has improved as has the preference for larger vehicles."

In fact in the last financial year, while sales of utility vehicle increased by a robust 52 per cent to 553,660 units to overtake volume sales of sedans at 454,719 units; sales of compact cars declined by around 10 per cent to 1,419,805 units in the same period.

A closer look at the sales number released by industry body Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers reveals some interesting trends. Last fiscal, the share of UVs in total passenger vehicle sales in the domestic market increased to 20.60 per cent (from 13.8 per cent the previous year). The in-road has largely been made at the expense of compact cars whose market share in the PV category has fallen to 52.9 per cent from the earlier 59.8 per cent.

What is also significant is that, even the demand boom for utility vehicles has come from new models at the entry-level such as Maruti Ertiga, Renault Duster and M& M Quanto introduced in the Rs 6-12 lakh price bracket. "If new models come in at attractive price points, there would be a further shift in demand for compact utility vehicles", added Sandilya.

Apart from EcoSport, around 10 new compact utility vehicles are set to hit the road in the next 2-3 years. Leading the fray are:
Maruti Suzuki (compact SUV based on XA Alpha concept) Honda (a multi-purpose vehicle and a compact SUV based on the Brio platforms by 2015) Toyota (Vios) Nissan (compact SUV) Renault (Lodgy) General Motors (Enjoy) Fiat (with products from both the Chrysler and Fiat brands)