INDIAN roads may never look the same again. Maruti 800 is getting a makeover. After more than a decade, Maruti Udyog Limited (MUL) is all set to unveil a brand new version of what is now regarded as one of the symbols of the Indian middle class.
The first version of the car—the 796 cc low hatchback—was launched in December 1983 with an extremely low indigenous input. And the last time this model got a facelift was way back in April 1986 when the high hatchback 796 cc passenger car, with a higher degree of local components, was launched. Thereafter, only a few small cosmetic changes have been made.
But over that decade the '800' captured a 60 per cent market share and in the process literally changed how the country travelled. The 'little car' is probably the first car a whole generation bought to announce their entry into the great Indian middle class.
So naturally, as this mascot of a socioeconomic revolution changes its look, there is bound to be much scrutiny. And with a clutch of competitors now sharpenin g strategies to duplicate the Maruti miracle, attendant questions on the need to tamper with a winning model will no doubt be asked.
MUL officials, for their part, are incredibly cagey about revealing their plans and simply say that a new design has been necessitated as the old dies had worn out due to prolonged usage. But industry sources point out that the change was a result of changing, and increasingly competitive, market conditions. Plans of other automobile manufacturers to launch cars in the small segment—where for years Maruti has enjoyed a monopoly—have prompted MUL to go in for a state-of-the-art look.
Among the car manufacturers all set to enter the small car market in India are Daewoo with its 800 Tico, Telco with Indica and Hyundai. Then there are others still in the planning stage. Eicher Motors has announced a proposal to launch Volkswagen's Skoda and the Kinetic group is finalising plans to launch a 660 cc micro-car with French technology. Also waiting in the wings are Fiat's 900 cc Cinquecento and Punto, Honda-SIEL's 600 cc Today and 660 cc Beat, Daihatsu-Kirloskar's 500 cc Mira and Subaru's 658 cc Vivio.
Automobile experts point out that the 600-800 cc segment is more competitive than other car segments and witnesses a constant upgradation of design and technology. MUL is no doubt aware that any new entrant is likely to have a considerable design and technology edge, as also a price advantage, over the existing version of the Maruti 800.
The new design is being finalised at Suzuki Motors' design laboratory in Japan, with some 'vital' inputs from MUL. Sources say that the new design should be ready by September 1997.
The company had already cleared a separate assembly line at its Gurgaon plant for the new '800' and all the vendors supplying auto components to Maruti have completed developing production facilities in accordance with the new requirements. At present, MUL has 10 joint venture companies to manufacture various auto components for its cars in addition to about 390 vendors across India. MUL has also given contracts to two Japanese companies, Kumatsu and Taikisha, through global tenders for a press shop and a paint shop, respectively, which are expected to be engaged in the production of the new Maruti 800.
If all goes according to plan and the new design is cleared by the Indian government, the car is scheduled to hit the roads by October this year. In that case, production of the current model will probably be phased out by the end of September.
Keeping up with the latest in global automobile designing, the new-look Maruti 800 will be more sound aerodynamically and will have extremely 'soft' features following the internationally acclaimed 'jellybean' design, which has already been incorporated in MUL's Zen and Esteem models.
According to sources at MUL, there will be no change in the engine of the new version, with only the exterior features undergoing a makeover "more or less on the lines of the Zen". It will also look slightly bigger and longer than the existing design and will have a rounded and soft mien. However, engine modifications too have not been ruled out and the design has been formulated in such a way that an engine change can be incorporated without much fuss.
So, what will the car look like? The basic frame is being remodelled to give it a more sleek look and to change the angle of the windscreen and the dashboard to enhance the driver's vision. The headlights will change from the present modular, concealed beam lights to overlapping, composite light units that are currently used in MUL's own Zen. The bumpers will also get a facelift and will be fused and synchronised with the basic body design. As will the back, seats, floor panels, and tail lamps.
While company offic-ials refuse to divulge the total investment on the makeover, it is believed that the proposal, when implemented, would trickle down to a hike of about Rs 4,000 to Rs 6,000 per car. The retail price, of course, will see a bigger hike. MUL's multi-utility vehicle Omni has also seen a lot of changes. In December 1996, the company converted to an eight-seater targeted at the taxi segment. The price was also scaled down after the 1996-97 budget lowered the excise for seven-seater-plus vehicles. However, when the 1997-98 budget raised the excise to 25 per cent and the demand for the eight-seater did not pick up despite the low price tag, MUL decided to revert to the five-seater model.
With the waiting period for delivery of the existing Maruti 800 being just a month, the last of the current version will soon roll out. Having redefined and conquered the Indian automotive market with its earlier models, the latest version of India's 'people's car' is sure to create a splash. And with a new managing director slated to take over the strings in September after R.C. Bhargava retires, it will indeed be a new era for MUL.