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22 September 2012

Abhishek Mishra on: Compact SUVs

Manufacturers seem to have awakened from their slumber with recent SUV launches. But some seem destined to take a tumble before they’re fully awake

Abhishek Mishra
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Isn’t it great that we’re finally seeing good compact SUVs in the Indian market? It’s something a lot of buyers had been hoping for and manufacturers seem to have finally woken up to this demand. So here’s a quick lowdown on the evolved SUV scene. Let me start with the luxury brands.

The first thought that comes to my head upon seeing the success of the BMW X1 and the greater success of the Audi Q3 is that Mercedes-Benz must be very unhappy. It must hurt that it doesn’t have a compact SUV to take on the X1 and the Q3. Or the X3 and Q5, for that matter.

Actually it does have a compact SUV; it just can’t sell it in India. The GLK was launched internationally as far back as 2008, a year before the X1, and three years before the Q3. Unfortunately, it was launched only in left-hand-drive (LHD) markets because the RHD version doesn’t exist. The lack of an RHD version on the GLK affects MB’s fortunes not only in India, but also in other important RHD markets like Indonesia, Thailand, South Africa, Australia and Britain. Until the second-generation GLK is launched in 2015, MB can only watch as its two German rivals milk this lucrative segment.

Compact SUVs have always had huge potential in India and it is baffling that manufacturers are waking up to this fact so late. These vehicles make much more practical sense compared to sedans in a country where road conditions are often as bad as, and sometimes worse than, off-road environments. To make things even more tempting for buyers, the X1 and Q3 are the cheaper models in BMW’s and Audi’s respective lineup.

It’s also a bit strange that Mercedes would launch something like a fairly pointless R Class instead of the much bigger and cheaper Viano MPV. Or why it won’t launch the diesel SLK 250 CDI. It’s the one diesel sports car that has even many purists excited. And with an astonishing 500Nm of torque from an inline-four diesel motor, it’ll be a hoot to drive. But I digress. Let me stick to the SUV story.

Tata too is likely not feeling very happy about the success of Mahindra’s XUV500. Especially considering how badly its ‘crossover’, the Aria, is doing.

At the launch of the Aria in September 2010, a senior Tata executive acknowledged that it will be launching the new Safari based on the Aria platform soon, because there are some niggling issues that the legacy Safari platform doesn’t allow Tata to fix.

In my November 2010 column, I’d written this bit – “Why is the Aria more MPV than SUV?...  With the Aria, I think Tata has done a very smart thing. An MPV will certainly not sell in large numbers like an SUV, and perhaps that’s exactly what Tata wants – a reasonable number of vehicles to sell before it can put out the real McCoy – the next-generation Safari, due out sometime next year.”

I was wrong. Tata did not do a very smart thing. The horrid looking Safari Storme is not going to do anything for its fortunes and will never beat the XUV 500.

I use strong words because the design of the Storme is an epic disappointment. More so because it comes from a company that has some of the best designs in the market today. The Nano, Indica Vista, Sumo Grande, Xenon and Aria are some of the best designed cars in the market. And after all this, we get the Safari Storme, which looks like a bad facelift to a 15-year-old design.

And the funny thing is, it’s not even a facelift. Here’s an SUV that can genuinely be called “all-new”, and Tata wastes that opportunity with a bad design. If it could spend time and money making the Aria the best-looking MPV (in my opinion) on our roads today, surely a Safari deserves better.

Any school kid will tell you that a good looking Safari will sell more than the Aria. And priced well, even better than the XUV 500.

Tags: mahindra, xuv 500, tata, aria, bmw, audi, x3, x1, q7, q3

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