Special edition cars vis-à-vis Customisation: Cannibalise or co-exist?

Special edition cars vis-à-vis Customisation: Cannibalise or co-exist?

Special edition cars is a way for the automakers to boost sales for a particular model that is quite old in its lifecycle. Also, OEMs take the route of introducing special edition models in an attempt to celebrate a special occasion. These special edition cars come with cosmetic updates and at times with some mechanical upgrades as well.

As a child, anything ‘special’ was always looked forward to…be it a meal, a celebration, a gift or even a guest. It was always something extra-ordinary, unplanned, and not necessarily budgeted for. The word ‘special’ has connotations that go far and wide across all product categories and occasions.

Coca-Cola has special edition cans during the FIFA World Cup. Pepsi competes with their version for the Champions League. Hot Wheels has special edition miniature cars, which of course are a bit more expensive but come in fancy packaging.

When I joined Maruti Udyog [now Maruti Suzuki] three decades ago, we used to look forward to the “Bada Khana”, a special meal for all employees to celebrate occasions. It is there that in 1993 I came across the first special edition Maruti prepared on the occasion of its 10th anniversary. During my induction, I was told that the red colour was also ‘special’ as it carried a UV coating to extend its life in the sun.

What really is a “special edition” vehicle?

It is when a variant or version of the normal stock vehicle is created with a different or enhanced set of features. They are special as they are either in limited numbers or for a limited period of time. Why would an automaker do this in the first place? There could be various reasons for the same…to mark a milestone, to celebrate an occasion, to reach out to a new kind of customer or to simply create some excitement in the marketplace!

So, one could create an edition to mark sales of a hundred thousand units of a vehicle. Or commemorate an event or occasion like Peugeot does with the Roland Garros Edition every year coinciding with the tournament. Or reach out to a performance-oriented customer with the Type-R editions of almost all Honda vehicles. Just like TRD of Toyota, AMG of Mercedes-Benz and MSport of BMW. Or simply to inject some life into slowing sales of the Maruti 800 by adding some colour and graphics with the Riviera edition.

special edition car

Many of the performance-tuned editions have started off as separate operations, almost out of a garage, and then have been absorbed into the main automaker once they have become huge individual brands.

Special editions could run in parallel with the mainstream products or could be made in specific numbers. Those are called “limited editions”. In 2003 Maruti Suzuki actually was bold enough to make just 600 numbers of 3-door Zens for the Indian market in two versions, Carbon and Steel.

A well-preserved Zen Carbon, (Source: Team BHP)

In India, special editions have mostly been cosmetic in nature, starting with just new upholstery, paint and graphics to adding body kits. Most automakers have not ventured into performance remapping and upgrades. Only the premium/luxury badges have them as part of their portfolio. There have been exceptions in the volume segments like the Maruti Suzuki Alto 1.0 [way back in 2000], the VW Polo GT, and the Skoda Octavia RS. The marketers have not been adventurous enough in pushing the business case to their bosses, leaving the engineers disappointed.

Individual tuners in India have never enjoyed a good relationship with the automakers. Most brands have seen the like of Pete’s as competitors and have never supported them in actually extending the appeal of the vehicle brands. They are not welcome in major auto exhibitions and automakers do not extend warranties to their special editions. In 2016 Tata Motors broke the jinx when they partnered with J. Anand’s Jayem Auto to create the JTP specials. But then, tepid acceptance in the market has seen the interest drop.

Tata Tiago JTP

Japanese automakers have traditionally been more mature when it comes to identifying the open performance-tuning market as a terrific way to build brand image. Every Japanese vehicle is designed to be tuned by enthusiasts. There is a huge market for remapping chips of Mazdas, Hondas and Toyotas. Watch any movie of the ‘Fast & Furious’ series and you will see only Japanese cars whizzing around. Only the hero typically moves around in an American muscle car.

special edition car

The automobile market in India tomorrow will be about “Self-Customisation” wherein customers will be able to configure their vehicles online and then order one of their likings. Most automakers are allowing certain levels of bespoke ordering on the vehicle configurators on their websites.

Just like special editions, it starts with the very basics like choosing a paint / dual-paint with a type of upholstery. Then it has add-ons like skid plates, graphics, badges and floor mats. Most customers will stick to such configuration as it also has to suit the budget kept for such desires.

It then moves up to tyres, alloy wheels and body-kits like air dams, roof rails, wheel arches and aero-kits.

The final stage will be when the customer will be able to make modifications to the chips and certain sensors, set-up suspension, configure entertainment and build his / her own interfaces, without disturbing the standard safety settings.

Two pieces of customisation will become important as offers from the automakers – [1] RSE (Rear Seat Entertainment) and [2] BYOD (Build Your Own Device). The first is crucial to vehicle owning with a large percentage of vehicles being chauffeur-driven. Objects like screens, windows and even roofs along with aspects like touch [haptics], volume and view will be configurable. AR and VR might even find their place in the experiences. The second will finally see the onset of the “DIY” culture in Indian vehicle owners who till now have been pampered with a massive ecosystem that does things for them.

Will customisation see the end of special editions? Will automakers excuse themselves from such exercises in the long run?

I do not think so as commemorating milestones and occasions will still be special to the automaker and there will be customers wanting to be part of the celebrations. So, a Roland Garros edition will always be welcome as long as it is truly ‘special’ and one cannot build one online. The AMGs and Cupras [from Seat] will remain as they will be uber-special and niche catering to true motorheads with big wallets. It is the cosmetic specials that will go and for good, as most of them look tacky and weak attempts at livening up the vehicle’s fortunes in the marketplace.

“Specials” and “Customs” will co-exist, with the former getting more serious and of a minimum standard while the latter opens up a whole new world for the automaker and customer alike!

(Also Read: Electric vehicles: How clean is “green”?)

(Avik Chattopadhyay is co-creator of Expereal India. Also, he is the former head of marketing, product planning, and PR at Volkswagen India. He was associated with Maruti Suzuki, Apollo Tyres, and Groupe PSA as well.)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Autofintechs.com. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)

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