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BW Businessworld

The Bold And The Beautiful

Because nothing else works better on Indian roads than those obscenely powerful SUVs that are a sublime combination of style, performance and perks

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Surprisingly, the luxury car segment in India is not dominated by suave sedans. It’s the robust luxury sports utility vehicles (SUVs) that lord over the roads. In fact, every third luxury four-wheeler of the 35,000 sold in India, is a high-end SUV. In terms of value, such SUVs account for nearly half the size of the luxury car market.

With more than a dozen SUV launches scheduled in the current year (most of them uplifts of previous models), the segment is slated to grow even faster in the near future. Manufacturers believe that in a market like India, which is characterised by challenging road conditions, SUVs have become the first choice of high networth individuals. The demand for these cars is so high that orders have a waiting period of at least four months.

Elaborating on the growing interest in luxury SUVs, Joe King, head of Audi India, says, “A large chunk of car buyers expect their favourite brand to be more than ‘just’ a car. They want their car to be an extension of their own personality. Over this premise, we have observed lately that the concept of individuality is fast finding a new audience.”

Audi’s exclusive range of luxury SUVs offer a higher degree of individualisation for particularly discerning customers. “Audi design selection offers customers an aesthetic pre-selection of exclusive materials and colours for the interior, and options to customise the seat upholstery, headrest and even the stitching colour or piping,” says King.

Ronald Folger, managing director and CEO of Mercedes India, says, “The luxury SUV portfolio for Mercedes-Benz grew by a robust 100 per cent in 2015, and the growth momentum has continued in the first half of 2016, as well.” He adds, “From 2009 till 2016, we have been able to introduce our entire SUV portfolio in India from the GLA to the iconic AMG G 63. The latest addition had been the global best-seller GLC, which we launched in India in June. The GLC has been able to create a strong traction in the market and has further strengthened our SUV portfolio.”

Mercedes-Benz’s GLE Class, priced between Rs 60 lakh and Rs 75 lakh, and Audi’s Q5 and Q7, which come in a similar price band, are among the most sought-after luxury SUVs. The demand for entry-level luxury SUVs such as BMW X1 and X3 and Audi’s Q1 and Q3, which are priced between Rs 27 lakh and Rs 45 lakh, are mostly preferred by first-time buyers.

Why SUVs?
Once upon a time, SUVs were only purchased by off-road enthusiasts and those with a preference for diesel engines. Not anymore. SUV is the first choice of those who can afford it because of the variations it offers. Supremely versatile and hardy, these beasts need less maintenance and motorists can use them any way they like. They serve multiple purposes, from offering that off-road experience to weekend trips and accommodating a large gang — not something that sedans can provide, says King.

“The ground clearance in luxury SUVs is just perfect for pothole-filled Indian roads. I can take it anywhere,” says Ravi Kapoor, an entrepreneur and a luxury SUV enthusiast. Barring select highways, Indian roads are a nightmare for drivers of most categories of cars. Even the best of cars have trouble in harsh road conditions, but not luxury SUVs. The high ground clearance and negligible shocker waves offer SUV drivers great comfort even when driving in uncertain territories. Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) SUV and Jeep are champions of rough terrains worldwide and both are now easily available in India.

With Jeep coming to India and the existing players focusing more on localisation, the SUV segment is set to witness more orders and less waiting time. According to a study by HIS Automotive, the luxury SUV market has witnessed good growth and numbers are projected to shoot up over a lakh by 2019, which would be a ten-fold increase, making India one of the largest markets for these vehicles after the United States, China, Germany and Japan.

Mercedes commenced local production of the M-Class in 2012 at its Chakan production facility in Pune and the GL-Class in 2013. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is all set to roll out locally-manufactured Jeeps next year. There is a strong buzz that JLR is planning to make Land Rover SUVs in India for both the local market and exports. The brand is reportedly holding discussions internally and also with component vendors, to mull over the possibility of making a mini version of the Defender in India by 2019-20.

Folger says the SUV segment remained among the key volume drivers both globally, as well as in India for Mercedes-Benz. The rise in the number of young and aspirational high-income consumers will continue to boost sales. “The young and the affluent customer base is expected to give a fillip to the growing sales of the SUVs,” he says, adding, “We see a huge potential for this segment in the foreseeable future.”

The Jeep Debut
Acknowledging the vast opportunity in the space, FCA India recently launched two global SUV icons — the Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Grand Cherokee in the CBU (completely built units) format. The company will add another vehicle to this line-up, an all-new premium Jeep SUV, when local production starts at its Ranjangaon manufacturing facility, near Pune, next year.

Kevin Flynn, president and managing director of FCA India says, “Jeep pioneered the SUV segment and the concept of off-roading. Now we are providing our Indian customers access to what Jeep has to offer by launching the Jeep Wrangler. The launch of Jeep in India marks a double milestone in the history of the brand, as this year we are also celebrating the 75th anniversary of Jeep worldwide.”

Flynn says the company has invested $280 million at its facility at Ranjangaon to mobilise the company’s localisation strategy. “We are on track with our plans to manufacture and roll out an all-new, premium Jeep SUV from our plant in 2017. After-sales too plays a significant role in our India strategy. With the launch of the Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Grand Cherokee, we will set a strong foundation for all the aspects that will further strengthen our future in India,” says Flynn.
If all goes well, Jeep has the potential to disrupt the SUV segment as long as its pricing strategy for India is set right. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ inconsistent pricing policy has drawn a lot of flak from SUV enthusiasts in India. The price difference between the US and Indian models, even after adding up various taxes and customs, is a huge 250 per cent. So the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, which is priced at around Rs 20 lakh in the US, will cost Rs 72 lakh in India.

arshad.khan@businessworld.in, ashish.sinha@businessworld.in; @ashish_BW, @arshadkhan_BW