Friday, December 1, 2023

Talk about pick-up trucks, caravans: Small segments, giant statements!


While pick-up trucks are excellent personal mobility options, in India, they don’t have much foothold. The automakers too didn’t show a very keen interest in bringing pick-up truck offerings in India. The caravan is another segment that has the potential to be explored in India. Also, the automakers should focus on cars for elders and physically challenged persons. These small segments can make giant statements.

I was having an interesting discussion with an auto journalist friend of mine as to why doesn’t the Isuzu V-cross do well in India. I gave him all the rational answers that came to my mind. He asked me they were reasons enough to see niche segments not doing well in a country where three million new passenger vehicles are sold every year. Is there no place for even 30,000 of them, he implored?

That is the subject of what I share with all of you – is there no place for new and niche segments of passenger vehicles in India, irrespective of price, based on application?

The Isuzu V-cross has sold a total of 277 units from April till August this year, better than last year when it sold none. The Toyota Innova Crysta across all its 18 variants and 18,441 units sold in the same time period had none that was senior citizen-friendly. The Maruti Suzuki Celerio has 20 variants on offer but none for the physically challenged.

Why is this so? Why is there no place for recreational vehicles or for the handicapped? One can throwback rational logic at me and say that the market is just not large enough to accommodate all types and the government still sees the private passenger vehicle as a luxury item!

Is the government only to blame? What have the automakers been doing all these years?

How many new segments have the automakers experimented with? Take the recreational pick-up truck as an example. Tata Motors had tried with the Xenon but gave up and converted it into a commercial vehicle. Isuzu is the only one who has tried with the D-Max V-cross. But then it is not a mainstream brand like a Maruti, Hyundai, Tata or Toyota is. Any mainstream brand bringing in such a vehicle in these times would have put its marketing might behind it to make it happen.

The recreational pick-up truck is as bulky or cumbersome in the city as some of those humongous SUVs.

The recreational pick-up truck is as bulky or cumbersome in the city as some of those humongous SUVs. It is distinct, has serious multi-terrain capabilities and the right mix of comfort and function. Yet it carries an image issue as it is seen as a ‘truck’ and not a body style of status. People tell me that it is only for the US and the Middle East. They cannot explain what makes Thais and Malaysians buy them in thousands every year! Then there is the excuse of market research reports that say Indians do not like such styling.

I remember R.C. Bhargava telling us management trainees in 1991 that if Maruti were to depend on only market research the 800 would have never got launched as no Indian would in the early 1980s liked the hatchback style!

The badge will make a huge difference!

Automakers typically accuse the customer of not being experimentative enough to allow them to try new things. Really? The customer accepted a tiny hatchback in 1983. The customer accepted an unknown Korean brand in 1998. The customer accepted the SUV body style in the new millennium. The customer accepted yet another Korean brand in 2019. It is morally weak of the automakers to blame the customer for their own lack of guts in going out of their comfort zones. It is the automaker who has to constantly expand the horizons of applications and styles to encourage customers to explore and adopt.

The pick-up truck can be an excellent personal mobility solution for rural India.

I can think of special recreational segments like pick-up trucks/king cabs and also caravans that can be hitched for extended road trips and adventures. The pick-up truck can be an excellent personal mobility solution for rural India. It has to be made more premium in its interiors and be offered by more acceptable brands like Toyota, Hyundai and Kia to make people take notice. That might give the Tata Xenon a fresh lease of life. If India could take to something as impractical as the Tata Sierra in 1991, India is certainly ready to experiment out of the box.

The caravan is another niche luxury recreational segment. One need not buy one to enjoy its exclusive quirkiness but rent it out from luxury travel companies. It will start off as very small a number and will take some regulatory approvals, but it is a high margin segment certainly worth a try for those catering to the rich and famous bored with what life currently offers them.

The passenger car is always positioned and promoted for the young, ambitious, and stylish. The imagery is more or less the same across categories, whether for the Alto or the Alturas. Reminds me of the 1985 Tears For Fears song “Everybody wants to rule the world”!

Being a young nation, we have no place for the old, the infirm and the physically challenged.

Being a young nation, we have no place for the old, the infirm and the physically challenged. This is like the days of Nazi Germany when all pictures of people were about young men and women with blond hair and blue eyes. No place for those with walking sticks and spectacles. 

Therefore, we do not have automakers offering variants for senior citizens. They are not supposed to drive in the first place, only to be driven around. So, no swivel seats that will make ingress/egress easy for them. No electrical driver / co-driver seats that turn and glide out and down to make it easier to enjoy motoring. It is surprising that with so many Japanese automakers having variants for the elderly in their domestic market, not one showed the guts to do the same in the world’s fourth-biggest passenger car market!

Toyota Porte, tailored for the seniors in Japan.

It is worse when it comes to special variants for the physically challenged. Not one auto brand proudly communicates that it offers a specially prepared variant for this user segment. In the 1980s and 1990s, Maruti used to advertise the same and built a reputation of being empathetic and inclusive by doing so. Not anymore. Surprisingly, not a single automaker has a provision for fixing a wheelchair in the boot, let alone offering one as an accessory. But Isofix seats are common as they cater to babies…basically tomorrow’s customers. The pressures of the marketplace have taken their toll on simple acts of empathy.

Simple fitment to allow holding a wheelchair in the boot

If the automaker lacks empathy and society is low on maturity, you would expect the government to step in and play evangelist. Sadly, in our case, the government is a true representative of our society, operating by the same measures. Hence, while we see many notifications on curbing emissions and improving safety, there are none on even suggesting to automakers to have just one variant of one vehicle for the physically challenged. Our minister mandates flex-fuels for engines but has nothing to say about important segments of society that need to be duly recognised and included in the world of mobility.

The automobile industry and market mirror the value system and social ethos of the country it operates in. They do not need to be large to be diverse and inclusive. Diversity and inclusion are inherent in culture and society. It demonstrates both the power to explore as well as the warmth to accept.

Social consciousness must work together with governmental action to encourage automakers to cater to significant segments of society.

Purchasing power is also not a necessary and sufficient condition to experience new and niche segments. That depends on the openness to new ideas and the intent of the automaker to break fresh ground. The power and future potential of the Indian automobile market will lie not just in the quantitative aspects of numbers and penetration but also in the qualitative ones of applications explored, and social segments covered.

Social consciousness must work together with governmental action to encourage automakers to cater to significant segments of society. Similarly, the automakers have to think outside of their comfort zones to offer more solutions to explore and adopt.

Just like one small step for man was a giant leap for mankind, these small segments will be giant statements about the maturity of the Indian automobile market.

Also Read: Tata Motors’ turnaround: A brilliant story to inspire many

(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 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.)

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


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