“World’s most fuel-efficient bike," announced the advertisement featuring the Splendor iSmart, a 110cc motorcycle with a claimed mileage of 102.5 km/l.
About a month ago, its Pune-based rival Bajaj Auto Ltd had launched the Platina ES, a new variant with a claimed mileage of 96.9 km/l, as the world’s most fuel-efficient.
In the intensely competitive entry-level motorcycle market in India, that offers little scope of product and technology differentiation, fuel efficiency has re-emerged as a battlefront for Hero and Bajaj.
In the mid-1980s, the erstwhile Hero Honda’s “fill it, shut it, forget it" campaign for its CD 100 model had created ripples in the market.
But the renewed focus on fuel efficiency as a way to push sales, however, may not yield the same results in the current market scenario, say experts, adding that, if anything, such fuel efficiency claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
“These are signs of desperation as the segment has been declining," said Deepesh Rathore, founder and director at Emerging Market Automotive Advisory (EMMAAA), a Gurgaon-based consulting and sales forecasting firm.
Share of motorcycles with an engine displacement of up to 110cc declined to 62.8% of the motorcycle market in calendar year 2014 from 64.6% in 2012 and is expected to shrink further to 50.5% by 2024, said Rathore. The contribution of entry-level bikes (those with engine displacement of up to 110cc) in the sales mix of both manufacturers dropped in the 11 months from April to February. For Hero, it came down to 82.5% from 84.6% a year earlier.
The decline was sharper for Bajaj that saw the share drop 46% from 56% a year ago, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (Siam). The decline is largely attributable to the weakening sales in rural and semi-urban pockets which drive sales of entry-level motorcycles. Sentiments in the region have lately been impacted by inclement rainfall, poor crop yield and lower realization from the crops.
Both Platina ES and Splendor iSmart are targeted at the mass commuter segment. Six out of 10 motorcycles sold in India belong to this segment, which has been a Hero bastion for several years.
Buyers in the segment are mileage-conscious, but fuel-efficiency is not all that important as it is being made out to be, said Rathore. “One would be happy even with 80km to a litre; he would rather want to extract some more power at the same price point," he said, attributing it to the improved per capita income, deeper pockets and growing aspirations.
This is just another indication of the pressure that these manufacturers are under, said experts. “The commoditization of technology in the two-wheeler segment leaves them (manufacturers) with little choice. Talking up the model, therefore, is the only way," said Rathore.
Motorcycle sales in India, which bucked the trend in a slowing automotive market over the nine months between January and September 2014, have hit a rough patch over the past four months.
Motorcycles sales advanced 3.24% to 9,884,028 units in the 11 months to February. That compares with average growth of 13% a year between 2009-10 and 2013-14.
The slowing market has only intensified competition among existing players who are trying all they can to boost sales.
“The new Bajaj Platina is not just an upgrade on its hugely successful model, but also a technological leap," Bajaj said in a 4 March statement. “No other production bike in the 95-105cc range, either in India or globally, comes close." Bajaj has sold five million units of the Platina since its introduction in April 2006, it said.
On its part, Hero claimed the Splendor iSmart has been one of the most successful launches from Hero in recent times. It has already sold over 300,000 units of Splendor iSmart in cumulative sales since its launch just about a year back, it said. It comes with i3S (idle stop and start system)—a technology that automatically shuts the engine when idling and turns it on, when needed, with a simple press of the clutch—giving more mileage in congested cities.
Both Hero and Bajaj said fuel efficiency claims are based on the test results by certified testing agencies in India and abroad. “The values are certified by the iCAT (International Centre for Automotive Technology)," said Hero in a statement on 8 April. In a statement, Bajaj said it has done a global study on mileage across more than 50 major countries and over 500 motorcycle models.
“The results are based on standard test conditions. The actual output may be lower by 30% or so," said Bertrand D’souza, editor at Overdrive magazine.