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SUV love

Four-wheel seduction

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It's official now: India is head over heels in love with Sport Utility Vehicles. Even in a sluggish car market, SUV sales are powering ahead in India. TOI-Crest examines the big love for these big wheels.

Rajesh Dalal has driven a sedan almost all his life. A media professional in his 40s, Dalal now wants to "upgrade" to an SUV - largely because he feels it will best suit his outgoing personality and bring out the "real adventurous me". Dalal is not alone in his love for these off-roaders. Seenu Kurien, a marketing professional, feels much the same. In her early thirties, Kurien has been driving a Mahindra Scorpio for almost three years - since the time she came back to India after studying in the US, where she fell in love with big wheels after driving the Nissan X-Terra for five years.

"You can take them anywhere, and I mean anywhere, even onto a footpath, " Kurien says with a smile. "When I saw the (Mahindra) Scorpio ads, it was positioned as the King of the Road, very macho. I wanted to be associated with a branding like that, very macho in appeal and rough and tough in looks. "

Welcome to the new India. Small cars, which ruled the roost for years even as cranky Ambassadors and Premier Padminis faded into oblivion, are no longer the 'in thing'. From young professionals just beginning their careers to senior professionals, everyone now wants an SUV parked out front.

And the options are plenty, and growing, which means there's one for everyone. The numbers also speak the trend out loud - from being a mere niche category in the burgeoning Indian car market, SUVs and MUVs (multi-utility vehicles) today are the force leading the growth. In a year when the overall car market struggled to move ahead and rather fell to a decade's low, SUVs have remained unfazed - models like Renault Duster, Audi Q3 and Mahindra Quanto have shown that buyers can be tempted even in a stagnating market.

Companies are rushing back to the drawing board, quite literally, and changing plans to cash in on the trend. After all, who can ignore the fact that Renault - which had been a struggler in India for years - emerged as the biggest winner last year riding on the success of the Duster. "It is just the start, and we have literally opened the floodgates as far as the SUV market is concerned, " says Marc Nassif, Renault's India head.

Launched in July last year, the Duster sold over 20, 000 units in just six months, a tall feat considering that Renault was virtually an unknown brand till then, and, traditionally, Indian buyers take time to warm up to something new. "Indians always had an aspiration for a value-for-money SUV, and the Duster fulfilled this, " Nassif says. "People today want a vehicle which is good to travel to office, and also for evening get-togethers and also for weekend getaways. " But Renault is not alone in having found its feet in the market while riding the SUV boom. Audi, the German luxury brand, is another such company that cracked the code through the SUV route. The company's entry into India came riding on its 'Q' range - its fleet of SUVs - and the success helped it edge past compatriot Mercedes Benz in 2012 after just five years of existence here. "There is a clear paradigm shift in preferences towards SUVs. Even at a time when the overall car sales saw lackluster performance in 2012, the SUV segment continued to rise. In fact, demand for SUVs in India has been so high for some time now that long waiting periods have become a norm, " says Michael Perschke, head of Audi in India. The Audi management was shocked, though pleasantly, when in June last year, their Q3 SUV - costing nearly Rs 30 lakh on road - managed to sell 500 units in just five days. Perschke says an increasingly younger buying population and the desire among buyers to flaunt their power wheels is leading the push. "The luxury customer is getting younger and wants to make a statement about his individuality. This fall in average age of a car buyer, whose urge for sporty and masculine vehicles is perfectly met by SUVs, is leading the segment to outperform other segments. Moreover, the status attached to owning a luxury SUV is as enticing as the sportiness and comfort it offers. " Eberhard Kern, CEO of Mercedes-Benz India, is also betting on the trend, and plans to assemble more of them locally. "SUVs are today growing faster than the market. People today want a vehicle that offers individualism;gives a better view of the road and fulfills the desire for inter-city travel and off-roading. SUVs are just the right vehicle for all these, " Kern says. Mercedes plans to increase the production of SUVs in India as it feels that the off-roader segment will grow faster than their famed sedans.

Pawan Goenka, automotive president of Mahindra & Mahindra - the biggest player in the Indian SUV segment - feels that increased options for buyers have fuelled the trend, and it will only get stronger with time. "There is a much wider choice (for buyers). SUVs have always been preferred due to the flexibility and functionality they offer, and now these are available across price points. "

Mahindra, that also credits its strong industry positioning today to the initial success it saw with the Scorpio, is now beefing up its portfolio to maintain its grip of the market. The company managed to move up the value chain with the successful XUV500, and last year made a bid for entry buyers with the Quanto, which at under Rs 6 lakh is perhaps the cheapest SUV brand in India.

Another big reason that has fueled the recent run for SUVs is the lower price of diesel fuel (when compared to petrol), at a time when the road infrastructure is getting better, prompting more people and families to travel inter-city.

"Indians are travelling, and more and more move with families. An SUV is thus a natural choice for those who regularly venture out, and more diesel options on SUVs just add to the rush in demand, " an industry analyst says.

And one of the most surprising trends is the rising popularity of SUVs among women. "I was always fascinated by SUVs and got one - a Scorpio - as a graduation day gift from my parents six years back, " says Geetika Gujral, a teacher in Chandigarh in her late twenties.

Gujral says her SUV is more than a mere vehicle for her and is rather a reflection of her personality. "I am a no-nonsense person and my Scorpio reflects just that. Men step aside when I arrive in my SUV as they think that if I can drive a Scorpio, I can also slap them if they misbehave. Thus, my car also gives me a sense of security. "

Vidya Menon, VP with a media publishing group, feels that her SUV - a Mahindra XUV500 - gives her a sense of achievement. "I know how to ride a bike and now driving an SUV gives me a sense of accomplishment. In a country like India, the mindset of most people has been that how can a woman drive such a big car. They feel a woman is meant only for smaller vehicles. Driving an SUV defeats such notions and deters people around from messing with me as the size (of the vehicle) does matter. People tend to stay away from bigger vehicles. "

Most women also say that the SUVs assist in providing better driving conditions too. "They give you a good view of the road ahead and offer a better grip while driving, " Menon adds.

And the best part is the final statement that almost all the women spoken to above sign out with, "I am completely sold on SUVs, and will never buy a sedan in my life. " The women can't be wrong now, can they?

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