Small cars' demand may overtake SUVs as Covid-19 changes rules of mobility

Covid-19 has changed the rules of mobility. As more and more people want personal cars as the preferred mode of transport, carmakers are seeing a surge in enquiries for smaller four-wheelers.

But sport utility vehicle (SUV) makers remain unfazed by the general downtrading trend (increasing preference for entry-level small cars). They believe buyers will continue to spend on pricier models, albeit with some deferment.

Says Shashank Srivastava, executive director, sales and marketing at Maruti Suzuki India: "All research reports point toward a downtrading or segment transfer trend."

Those who were buying a luxury car may settle for a premium mass model, while those looking at a premium model may go for a compact car or a used model, says Srivastava, adding that the overall demand may not dry up, but see a downward shift.

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"Affordability will be a prime mover," he says. He, however, adds, these are initial trends and there is no datapoint to substantiate the hypothesis.

Srivastava expects the share of first-time buyers in the market — more than 50 per cent now — to grow further, even as replacement buyers wait it out.

Hyundai Motor India, too, has seen impressive traction for small cars. "The bookings for the i20 and Neo have been better than expected," says Tarun Garg, director sales and marketing, Hyundai. But he hastens to add that these numbers show early trend towards first time buyers preferring personal mobility and hence buying new cars.  “We will need to see the numbers over a longer period of time to confirm this trend,"says Garg. chart

  Auto companies have just emerged from a zero sales month in April. After relaxation in certain pockets of the country, sales touchpoints and factories have resumed operations only a fortnight ago.  Most of them, however, are operating at a third of the capacity.

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Experts agree that as cars become a necessity, rather than a luxury, small cars will have the driver's seat advantage.


“A strong need for personal transportation, coupled with the current economic scenario, will give small car sales a push,” says Rahul Mishra, Principal at consulting firm Kearney. “There is general expectation that buyers will tend to down-trade," says Mishra. 

Buyers, however, may still prefer a model that comes loaded with features, compared to a low-frills one. The only difference being they will tend to bargain a lot more for better value, he points out.

The overall passenger vehicle market in India is expected to see significant contraction owing to the current economic uncertainty, which has come on the back of a prolonged lockdown, says Puneet Gupta, associate director at IHS Markit, a sales forecasting and research firm. 



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IHS expects small cars to decline 20 per cent over the next 18 months, while SUVs will see sharper decline of 32 per cent.

But SUV makers aren’t reading much into the initial trend. “It is an unprecedented situation. We do not have prior experience,” says Manohar Bhat, head-sales and marketing, Kia Motors India. 

Moreover, the buying pattern does not alter so soon, he says, adding Kia has not seen cancellations despite the gloom and doom. For the 1,000 bookings it has got the cancellations have only been 200, says the South Korean automotive manufacturer.

Hyundai is equally enthused about the strong booking numbers for the Creta. The South Korean automaker has got bookings for over 21,000 units.    

Others like Gaurav Gupta, chief commercial officer at MG Motor India, remain optimistic about a strong SUV run. “The SUV growth story will continue. But the overall industry will see a decline, with gross domestic product growth rate falling much more than expected.” 



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Gupta concedes that while buyers have been a lot more cautious, cancellations have been insignificant, compared to bookings. “Our immediate priority is to produce more cars and deliver them to those on the waitlist,” he says.

The bigger challenge, he adds, is meeting demand, given only a third of its dealerships are open and supply chain is broken. This has hammered production. He hopes to see the supply chain up and running by September.