Smaller, cheaper, but still a looker

Published: 21 October, 2012 10:28 IST | Moeena Halim |

Mini versions of the hitherto monstrous SUV are taking over Indian roads. Once considered a luxury for the extravagant off-road traveller, compact versions of the car are changing the name of the game for this segment. No longer out of reach for the middle-class buyer, these compact SUVs seem like the perfect family city car, finds Moeena Halim

I’ve always been an SUV-kind of guy,” says 16 year-old car-buff Karthik Shriyan. “My dream car,” he continues, “is the Porsche Cayenne, a brilliant example of an SUV.”

The Cayenne (which could cost anything between Rs 60 lakh and 1.28 crore) may not fit into the Shriyan family budget, but the Malad residents recently invested in the much more reasonably priced Mahindra Quanto (they paid Rs 8.92 lakh). Karthik’s dream of owning a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) has certainly come true. The Mahindra Quanto, which was launched last month, closely followed the launch of the Renault Duster. The latter was one of India’s first mini-SUVs. 

Paloma, Arun, Neel and Sonja Chandrachud (left to right) with their new Duster in Pune. Pic/ Krunal Gosavi

“The launch of the Duster five months ago certainly set off a trend in India,” says Srinivas Krishnan, Business Standard’s consulting editor for motoring. Ford’s Ecosport, which will be available in the market by next year, will also fit into the same segment.

For the love of the SUV
According to Krishnan, automotive companies have realised that there is no reason to build bulky SUVs when a smaller one can serve the same purpose to most city buyers.

“Buyers who invest in SUVs, which cost anything upwards of Rs 20 lakh, find that they are spending far too much money and not using all the features. They invest in these all-terrain vehicles but seldom hit even a speed breaker within the city. The cars are often used for intra-city activities such as dropping and picking up kids from school,” says Krishnan.

Sidarth Sarda poses with his Renault Duster

“But Indians love SUVs,” he continues. “Apart from its functional features like ground clearance, better road visibility and more space, an SUV is a status symbol. Owners love showing them off. There is also an irrational belief that the SUV is safer,” he laughs.

That’s where the compact SUVs — cheaper versions of their monstrous counterparts — have managed to cash in. Delhi-based Mandeep Singh may not go off-roading very often, but with his Duster he knows he doesn’t have to worry about the badly constructed roads within the city too. “I am a car buff. I read a lot about cars and talk to my friends about little else. So when I heard about the Duster, I knew that was the car for me,” says Singh, who is involved in the family’s business of the sale and service of Tata cars.

Semi-sedan, semi-SUV
Renault’s target audience is both sedan and SUV buyers. “Our product manages to meet the requirements of both segments,” claims Rajiv Mitra, vice president, public affairs, Renault. “The Duster is a sedan and an SUV both plugged into one car. It has a higher seating position but drives like a sedan. Its powerful performance combined with the price tag makes it great value for money,” adds Mitra.

Arun Chandrachud, an investment banker based in Pune, who recently bought the car, agrees with Mitra wholeheartedly. “It has the sporty feel, the looks, and the ground clearance of an SUV, but is still easy to manoeuvre within the city as opposed to say, a Mahindra XUV,” he continues.

Chandrachud chose the mini-SUV for two main reasons. “My family really wanted an SUV. We wanted the higher seating and ground clearance. Secondly, sedans like the Nissan Sunny or the Honda City weren’t as exciting. They are just too run-of-the-mill. Now, I feel like the talk of the town. Everywhere I go, people take a second look at the car,” he smiles, saying he drives the car himself. When the Duster, which fell well within the family’s Rs 10-15 lakh budget, was launched, they knew this was the car for them. “Parking is no longer a problem for us,” adds Sonja, Chandrachud’s wife, comparing it to the bulky Mahindra Scorpio they owned earlier.

Sedan vs SUV
“Why would a person buy a sedan?” asks 27 year-old Sidarth Sarda, who also owns a Duster. A mini-SUV, he claims, has everything a sedan does and more. “Cars like the Duster and Quanto are practical cars. They drive like a sedan but are spacious enough to fit in large families. Vans like the Maruti Suzuki Omni might provide space, but don’t offer the comfort level and the social standing of an SUV. Manufacturers are finally giving the Indian public what it wants,” continues Sarda, a former employee of a telecom service provider who now works with his family.

Sanjay, Karthik’s father, couldn’t agree more. The 45 year-old insurance consultant and financial adviser decided to invest in the Quanto because his extended family was moving into the same building. “My mother-in-law is to move in with us soon, so we required a larger car. We were looking for something that would seat six to seven people. Also, everyone in our building seemed to own an SUV and we were keen on owning one too,” he adds. The Quanto fit their budget, was spacious enough, and came stamped with the SUV status symbol.

Not everyone feels the same way, however. If space or ferrying people is a concern, an SUV isn’t the be-all and end-all, insists solicitor Gautam Bhagwat. In May this year, soon after it was launched, the Bhagwat family booked the Maruti Suzuki Ertiga. The spacious car, which falls well within the under-Rs 10 lakh segment, is being marketed as a Multi Purpose Vehicle (MVP). “It was incredible how this compact little car could easily seat seven people. My father recently hired a driver and travels in the second row, which is extremely comfortable too,” says Bhagwat. He says that buying an SUV was never something their family had considered. Although he does admit that the mini-SUVs might have been prospectives had they launched slightly earlier.

Many more to come
Within the first three weeks of its launch, the Quanto has crossed the 5,000 bookings mark. Meanwhile, the five month-old Duster has already crossed 30,000 bookings.  The Duster wasn’t technically the first mini-SUV to be launched in India but it is the one that has set off the trend. “The Premier Rio was technically the first of its kind,” says Krishnan, “But it never really took off. Premier just didn’t have the bandwidth that Renault does.” 

But the car expert is clear about one thing: “This trend isn’t disappearing anytime soon.” Maruti Suzuki, long associated with smaller hatchbacks and sedans, recently showcased a concept car — the XA Alpha. It will take them several years to launch it in the market, but Krishnan is positive that their mini-SUV will come. “By 2014, every car company will have jumped onto the bandwagon,” he predicts.

Decoding cars

A Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) is one that has off-road capability. Often, but not always, they are equipped with a four-wheel drive, which allows the driver to switch to rear wheels. But several full-sized SUVs (such as the Honda CRV) do not have the four-wheel drive option

Illustrations/ Amit Bandre

Mini SUV
These smaller SUVs are front-wheel driven. They are constructed in the mono-coque fashion — there’s no separate chassis on which the body is attached — it is one integral unit. They have a sedan-like ease of driving; manoeuvring is easier. Construction costs manufacturers less, which brings down the car’s price.

Simply put, a car with a boot is known as a sedan. When looked at sideways, this car is divided into three separate section — the engine, cabin and boot. It could be a four or five seater.

A Multi-Purpose Vehicle (MPV), also referred to as a Multi Utility Vehicle (MUV) or a minivan. These are taller than a sedan and are considered “people carriers”.  

What to buy and why
“The mini-SUV trend has really taken off with the Renault Duster,” says Ritesh Madhok, editor-in-chief, Cardekho (.com). While earlier entrants into this segment have gone unnoticed, several big players are now in the market, Madhok notes. Now that the buyer is spoilt for choice, Madhok tells you what to expect from each contender:

Renault Duster
>>Four-cylinder K9K engine. This engine powers every Nissan-Renault series, including the Micra and Sunny
>>It has two diesel and petrol variants — 85 PS and 110 PS
>>Not as spacious as the Quanto. The showroom model offers a five-seater, however, there are dealers who provide an option of fitting in jumpseats to create seven-seater
>>Its entry is lower than the Quanto
>>Has an SUV feel about its looks — muscular, wedged body, its styling is very macho and robust
>>Rather than a family car, it is something a middle-aged man would buy and flaunt
>>More fun to drive around especially along the Ghats — the engine, and its handling — is better than the Quanto. This car is more driver-oriented
>>The ex-showroom price of the base line model — Rs 9,39,000
>>Mileage — 18 kmpl

Mahindra Quanto
>>Three-cylinder engine
>>100 PS power
>>Extremely spacious — plenty of leg and head room and cabin space. It seats seven, but tall people wouldn’t be comfortable on long drives. There are four jumpseats (seats facing each other) in
the back
>>Great for driving around the city or on the highway
>>It is a practical family car; not too stylish
>>In the looks department, it could pass off as a small version of a Xylo
>>Not a fully capable SUV, leans more towards an MPV (Multi Purpose Vehicle)
>>The ex-showroom price of the base line model is Rs 5,99,764
>>Mileage — 13.8 kmpl

Ford Ecosport
This is a highly anticipated car. It is going to be the next big mini-SUV to hit the market. It was going to get a Diwali launch, which has been postponed. We can expect it to arrive sometime in January. According to reviews, this will be a very strong product. It will be at par with the Duster, which might have only one advantage — that of being launched earlier.

Maruti Ertiga
>> This is an all-out MPV. It fits into the Toyota Innova category of being a people’s carrier 
>> Its greatest plus point is that it is from the House of Maruti — tried and tested. It has good resale value, and great post-sale services — comes as a package. 
>> Has the same Fiat DDiS motor that powers the Dzire, SX4
>> It may look compact but manages to seat seven people very easily. Instead of jumpseats, these are front facing seats

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