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Thursday, Mar 25, 2004

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Endeavouring to grow

Sravanthi Challapalli

Ford India hopes small car owners will be inspired by its roadshow to trade their vehicles in for its bigger cars.

THEY giggled out of sheer nervousness, made sure their seat belts were firmly in place and didn't say a word for fear that the brave, bright smile on their face would come unstuck. The Endeavour was poised at such an angle it seemed it would topple over any minute ... the scene is from The Great Ford Drive, a two-day event organised by Ford India Ltd in Chennai as part of its 10-city roadshow that began in January.

A test drive of the Endeavour and luxury cars was not all that the roadshow had to offer. Customers could even conclude a sale on the spot, avail themselves of finance offers, get their current vehicles evaluated if they were considering an exchange offer with Ford, check out a wide range of Ford accessories and memorabilia. Not only that, they could gawk at the Thunderbird, the very car that Halle Berry drove in Bond flick Die Another Day, which preened under the possessive glare of its blonde chauffeur/caretaker/technician Bob (who travels with it wherever it goes), and marvel at vintage cars.

"All this is to reach out and explain to customers that this effort is unique for a car company to make," says Vinay Piparsania, Vice-President (Marketing & Sales). An increasing number of people are buying cars, and they're buying bigger cars now. Ford sees great potential for smaller cars being turned in for bigger ones, hence the show.

"About five lakh small cars have been bought every year in the last four years, and that means around 20 lakh small car owners are looking to upgrade. Assuming that around 10-20 per cent of them do so this year, that would mean at least two lakh cars being bought in the mid-sized segment," he says.

At the Great Ford Drive, on display and available for test drives are the Ford Ikon 1.6 SXi NXT which recently won JD Power APEAL and BBC Wheels awards, the Mondeo and Endeavour, which won BBC Wheels' and CNBC Autocar's best SUV awards. Rally driver Jagat Nanjappa designed special test tracks for these cars at the arena. There's mud, there's slush, a steep gradient, sand pits ... "a true offroading experience" of the Endeavour, says Piparsania. For the Ikon and Mondeo, there is a tar road with rumblers and traffic cones to help drivers experience the suspension and brakes. Also, auto shows are almost always held in Delhi and they are `stationary', but the Great Ford Drive is different because it offers test drives, he points out.

Around 170 Endeavours are produced every month, and since the launch late last year, have sold 500 units. The Ikon sold 2,028 units in February this year as against 1,403 last year. In total, Ford sold 18,558 Ikons in 2003, this year, it will sell at least 20,000, says Piparsania.

The test drives are proving to be a huge success, totalling 700 in every show, which is being held on weekends. The number of visitors is twice that, says Piparsania, adding that all of them are serious car buyers. There are special offers on the cars to spur sales. In March, for instance, the incentives included free insurance and a price bonus on cars being exchanged. In all the cities this roadshow has visited so far, there have been over 4,000 test drives. "Sales from these are hard to track but I'm hitting my targets month on month," he says, to a query.

Ford India is also expanding its dealership network from 89 distributorship facilities in 70 towns to 105 in 85 towns in 2004. As cars zoom in and spit out of the tracks in Chennai's Nehru Indoor stadium, Piparsania says, "The ongoing roadshow is just the kick-off; we will take it to Mysore, Shimoga, Surat and such towns," adding that the company plans to tap smaller places which present a growth opportunity among small car owners.

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