It’s a virtually non-existent segment in the Indian automobile market. But it holds the potential to be huge. The minivan or the people mover, which can seat six-seven people but still operate in the under-Rs6 lakh price bracket, could be the next big thing. Coming within the next one year are several such vehicles that promise to attract a lot of interest from families, fleet operators and companies—especially in tier 2 and tier 3 cities. Before I tell you more, I want to clarify that the current crop of Taveras, Innovas and Xylos already serve the same purpose, but they are bigger and pricier. Really, it is just the Maruti Suzuki Eeco and Omni that fall into the affordable yet roomy people-mover bracket.
However, the big moves in this space will come from General Motors (GM), which—along with its Chinese joint venture partner Saic (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp)—is all set to tap this segment. I am talking about the vehicles from GM’s three-way joint venture in China—SGMW (Saic GM Wuling).
Marketed under the Wuling brand, these are pegged as commercial vehicles, since they also include pickups and light cargo trucks. The two models that interest me are the Sunshine minivan and the recently launched Hong Guang MPV. The Sunshine is the same size as the Maruti Suzuki Eeco, while the Hong Guang matches the Mahindra Xylo in size and function.
Sunny side up
The Sunshine first. The highest selling model for SGMW in China, with nearly 600,000 units sold last year, it’s a fairly basic vehicle in terms of overall build quality and attributes. The van has been designed to appeal to an entry-level buyer, yet one who needs the space for cargo or people.
Cost-effective: The Sunshine minivan is a best-seller in China.
The Sunshine has two petrol engine options in China, but in India it is likely to carry a derivative of the 1.2-litre petrol version that currently powers the Chevrolet Beat. It will also have the three-cylinder diesel engine that the Beat will get by December. The vehicle will also attract an excise duty benefit—since it is just under 4m in length, and will qualify as a small car.
The Sunshine’s cabin is fairly well finished, though functional and basic. The seats are reasonably comfortable, though the vehicle’s small size would make for a bit of a bouncy ride. The seats may also seem a bit inadequate and firm for a long journey.
The expected price tag is in the range of Rs4-5 lakh.
And that brings me to the larger, better-equipped Hong Guang. This vehicle has just been launched in China, debuting at the Auto China Show in Beijing in April. It is very much like the Mahindra Xylo. By that I mean not only the size, but also the features and overall appeal.
It is also a body-on-frame design, and not monocoque (where the body and frame are one unit). The seating space on the Hong Guang is for seven people, with flexible seats that can be removed or folded flat for cargo space.
Again, Wuling has no diesel options in its range. But in India, a diesel engine will have to power this beast for any form of success. And that will most likely be the 1.3-litre engine that GM is going to make in India at an engine plant it’s opening in a few months. This is the Fiat multi-jet engine licensed by GM—yes, the same one that goes into the Punto, Linea, Indica Vista and Indigo Manza. And yes, also in the Maruti Suzuki Swift variants. The 1.3-litre engine may seem meagre, but it won’t make the vehicle necessarily underpowered.
However, success will depend mostly on pricing, and here too GM has an advantage since most components and parts will be made locally, and shared with other GM vehicles. So expect prices between Rs6 lakh and Rs8 lakh.
Bigger is better: The Hong Guang should do well if it’s priced competitively in India.
GM-Saic would expect fairly large volumes from this vehicle. It is still undecided on whether or not to badge it Chevrolet, but with the ageing Tavera already operating in the same market segment, I think it makes sense for them to stay with the well-established Chevy branding and network.
More people movers
While GM is busy tapping the potential of this segment, you can’t expect the competition to stay quiet. So, for starters, Maruti Suzuki is set to begin producing its concept car, the RIII, shown at this year’s auto expo in New Delhi. The RIII is also an MPV that will seat seven people; it will retail in the Rs5-7 lakh bracket.
Utility vehicle king Mahindra and Mahindra (M&M) is also planning to tap the same segment. The company is hard at work to bring in a “mini-Xylo”. This would essentially be a shorter wheelbase vehicle minus the third row of seats. If M&M can keep it under 4m in length, expect aggressive pricing on a par with Maruti’s plans for the RIII.
And if you’re thinking this is not a segment you care to buy into, remember that it will still affect you—it could be as one of the company cars that ferries you about for meetings; or the cab that brings you back from the airport; or even the pickup service that takes your child to school. So watch it closely. Given the sheer volumes potential, I surely will.
Siddharth Vinayak Patankar is editor (auto), NDTV.
Write to Siddharth at firstname.lastname@example.org