Scorpio's ride on the Modi wave

Mahindra Scorpio

Since its launch back in 2002, the Mahindra Scorpio has never had to piggyback on a brand ambassador to sell itself. Being the first sports utility vehicle from a company which used to make only tractors, it did not feel the need for a celebrity push. But it could soon get its biggest promoter till date.

Working tirelessly for eight months, a collection of nearly four dozen Scorpios ploughed the road from Vadodara to New Delhi for former Gujarat chief minister and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In fact, a fleet of 45 bullet-proof Scorpios has been part of Modi's official entourage, which he has been using since 2005-06.

Anand Mahindra, the chief of $16.7 billion Mahindra group has requested Modi to continue using the Scorpio as his official car, even as his company Mahindra & Mahindra promises to meet all the security requirements befitting the Prime Minister.

If Modi chooses the Scorpio to be his official vehicle, it will replace the custom-built, high-security saloon range, the BMW 7 Series, which would be a feat as the latter is considered to be among the best in the world, used by scores of heads of state.

With sales of nearly 51,000 units last financial year, the Scorpio retained its tag of India's largest selling SUV despite being in the market for nearly 12 years. Renault's Duster, launched less than two years ago, was close behind with sales of 46,800 units during the same year, while the Ford EcoSport stood third with sales of 45,000 units.

Pravin Shah, chief executive (automotive and international division), Mahindra & Mahindra says, "Brand Scorpio has its own locus standi in the market. We have renovated the car from time to time, which has helped it retain the top spot despite competition. We introduced the talking feature, automatic transmission, hybrid features on the Scorpio that have kept consumer interest high."

Recently, online retailer Snapdeal has signed an agreement with Defence Land Systems, a Mahindra Group company, to retail the bulletproof kit via its website. The fully armoured version of the Scorpio, complete with bulletproof windows, comes for Rs 12.66 lakh.

Scorpios have also been to be used by governments of other countries: "Many governments and state-run institutions across the world have chosen Scorpio as their official car. They have chosen the off-road capabilities of the vehicle", Shah says.

In the last financial year, sales of the Scorpio remained flat even as sales of its segment dipped by 17 per cent to 208,350 units. The dip largely came on the back of an additional excise duty of 3 per cent imposed during the budget of 2013. The Scorpio, however, managed to dodge the bullet.

No more unchallenged
Market watchers say that it is because of the lack of a strong competition that Scorpio has been able to flourish so far. However, apart from the Duster, it now has the Nissan Terrano, and the older players such as Force Motors Force One and Tata Safari, for company. Ford has created a new segment of mini-SUVs where it sells the sub-4-metre EcoSport. Competition has already had an impact: In the calendar year of 2013, the Duster stood ahead of the Scorpio with sales of 51,400 units as compared to 49,500 units.

Deepesh Rathore, director, Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors, says, "The Scorpio has been able to hold on to its position and sales volumes because there is hardly any competition in its segment. There is hardly any choice for the customer who wants a Rs 10-15-lakh SUV, a rugged vehicle with an old-world SUV charm but with decent off-roading capability and suitable for urban environment, as well. In that aspect, only the Tata Safari competes with the Scorpio and the Safari fares poorly against it."

Mahindra is set to further bolster Scorpio's position later this year when it launches the upgraded version of the vehicle. The facelifted model is expected to feature a new set of head- and tail-lamps and interior changes.

These will be the final changes made to the Scorpio before it goes for a complete makeover on a new platform that would be ready for launch in 2016. Tightlipped about the 2016-launch, the company says it is yet to take a call regarding the future of the current version of the Scorpio.

"The Scorpio has been around for many years and Mahindra should now bring in a new platform, to focus on improving the fuel efficiency, safety and driver comfort aspects of the Scorpio", adds Rathore.

Owing to rising diesel prices and high borrowing rates, sales in the entire utility vehicle space dipped by 5 per cent to 525,000 last financial year, as compared to 553,000 sold in 2012-13, according to data supplied by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers.