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Sriram Narayanan on making Minis affordable

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Firstly, a lot of problems can be solved if we could just figure what came first – chicken or egg. Secondly, if you ask a kid in India to draw a car, he or she isn’t going to draw a crossover or a tourer or a fastback. He (oh well) or she is going to draw the classic silhouette of a sedan... a three box car... a car that has a long nose, a long tail and space in the middle for people to sit in. Now, I haven’t gone out with a pen and paper investigating trash cans in the back of playschools. But then, that’s our idea of a car. Engine in the front, big boot at the back, a cabin in the middle.

This has nothing to do with chickens and eggs. That is simply the case of nearly every car manufacturer in India going around chasing their own tails. You see, they will tell you how a car has to be completely imported because they don’t have the numbers to set up a manufacturing facility. That works if the car in question is an Audi R8 or a Ferrari 458. But if it’s a Honda CR-V... well. I guess even Honda realise that they have only been fooling their own selves. Are you seriously telling me that people wouldn’t buy the CR-V if it was manufactured here and cost only as much as the Civic? Or if Skoda started assembling the Yeti and it cost less than an XUV 500, more people wouldn’t buy it?

Which brings me to my big conundrum. A small car that’s fully imported. In about eight years in this business the one question I have no real answer to is this: “60 lakh and only two seats?” or “2 crore and no roof?” This is more tear-hair-inducing than that effervescent “average kya hai?”. Going by the state of our roads and our economy, the Citroen 2CV, the VW Beetle, the Mini, the Fiat 500 should all have been invented here. But as we were busy spending our post-independence years in promoting poverty and punishing enterprise, small car heroes like the Beetle, the 500 and the Mini have all hit our shores as rich boys' toys.

The Beetle looks so cute, you’d want to make sure it’s got its diapers on before you take it out. If you find that thought adorable, I hate the fact that you are reading Besides, it’s just a VW Golf. With Fiat bumming around and struggling to find homes for the incredible Punto, you can’t expect much with the 500. But the Mini is some car. It’s small, quick, and much more practical than anything with a V8 or a V12 in them; and in the real world, with real, traffic, it can outrun them. That is the car we all need. Small enough to fit into impossible parking lots. And quick.

But are we ready for the Mini? Yes and no. We are a nation that thinks of anyone who bought a hatch as a guy who couldn’t afford a proper car; also called sedan in other parts of the world. So imagine the plight of a guy who got himself a Mini, and the neighbours found out that he spent close to Rs 40 lakh on road, as he went about kitting it with every conceivable option.

Here’s a car that has great potential that will never be met as BMW go about chasing their own tails. They will tell you it’s a premium brand seeking out premium clientele. So it doesn’t bother them how many they sell, or how much money they make. Fact is, they are right. BMW’s Indian employees aren’t going to get their next bonuses based on how the Mini does. And like hundreds of other non-manufactured cars on Indian roads, the Mini has fallen victim to the great chicken and egg syndrome.

Do you make them cheap enough and make people buy more, or do you assume people won’t buy them anyway, so let’s just import them, pay the government a lot of taxes and recover the costs from moneyed idiots? Because in that great chicken and egg battle, everybody forgets a simple fact; whatever came first, you ultimately end up getting something sumptuous on the table.

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