S. Muralidhar

WHEN over two decades ago it quietly rolled onto Indian roads, little did anyone realise that a a revolution in personal transportation was in the making. Since then this no-frills `supermini' has come a long way. Today, the Maruti 800 may be described derisively as a `skin and bones' box on wheels and, yet, for millions of Indians it is a dream vehicle that they hope to own one day. It is the epitome of affordable, comfortable personal transportation.

The Maruti 800 (M800) was the darling of the relatively small section that could afford a car in the 1980s and the early 1990s and for 16 years since its launch nobody quite found the car lacking in anything. But after global car-makers crowded Indian roads with vehicles of every description in the late 1990s, the M800 has probably been the most criticised car.

The criticism, the doomsday predictions and all, it has been impossible to ignore the M800. And though the automobile industry has metaphorically grown into an adult in the last 6-7 years, the car that started it all has displayed amazing tenacity and staying power.

Some people who despise the M800 will attribute the continued demand for the car to its killer pricing (it is one of the cheapest cars in the world) or to the fact that Indian car buyers are not very demanding. Whatever the reasons, the M800 not just stays afloat but also sells in big numbers.

For the diminutive M800 the cumulative sales numbers tell a big story. A total of 2.4 million cars sold in the last 20-plus years in the domestic and export markets is no mean achievement. The M800's sales in the past few months have slipped from its highs, more due to competition from another of Maruti's small cars the Alto. A lower priced variant of the Alto has poached into the M800's sales. This was often referred to as the last straw and that the M800 would be phased out with the Alto filling in the vacuum left by the country's First Small Car.

The speculation has been doing the rounds for a few years now, but every time the M800 has managed to re-emerge a serious contender in the small-car segment. The latest round of changes to this car was definitely overdue and comes at a time when the phasing out speculation is again picking up steam in the market.

A makeover

The changes to the M800 are only cosmetic in nature. The alterations are intended to enhance the car's appeal and give it a bit of a premium feel, though essentially it is a budget car. It is an attempt, let's say, to try and play up to the `catching up with the Joneses' emotion among M800 buyers.

Of course, like the last time the M800 was given a minor makeover, this time too, the changes to the car's exterior and interior have been made to coincide with the introduction of the next level of emission standard.

Also, as was the case when Bharat Stage II (BS II) emission norms were introduced in 2001, the M800's engine has undergone minor modifications to bring down emission levels to meet the latest Bharat Stage III (BS III) standard (to be enforced in 10 cities from April).

While meeting the BS II norm involved the addition of a 16-bit microprocessor controlled, multi-point fuel injection system to the engine, the latest BS III version of the M800 will sport a 32-bit electronic control unit. The new control unit will make the M800's engine a bit more refined, ensure that it remains as fuel-efficient as always and reduce emissions by monitoring and finer control of fuel injection.

On the outside, the new-look M800 sports sparkling clear lens headlamps with projection-type reflectors and a new bonnet grille that sports three horizontal slats and a diamond mesh with the new Suzuki chrome badging (the winged Maruti logo is gone) prominently positioned at the centre. The car's styling has not been altered; so all the body panels remain the same.

At the rear, the car has been given clear lens, combination tail lamps that improve the hatch's looks and also simultaneously visibility of the stoplights. For the interiors, the changes centre round the seats and upholstery. The new M800's seats, including the rear bench seats, have been redesigned to provide better lumbar and thigh support. The headrests have also been slightly altered to provide improved whiplash protection. The new upholstery and colour combination inside the car exude a dual tone finish. The theme extends to the door inserts too.

The other changes to the M800 include the headlamp levelling device that will allow the driver to adjust the beam of the headlamp to offset the effect of an increased load at the rear and the addition to three new metallic colours to the list of all-time favourites white and mailbox red.

The simple explanation to Maruti's ability to price the M800 so competitively is the fact that the car's plant is one of the most depreciated assets in the industry and, hence, almost no fixed costs get loaded on to the M800's manufacturing cost. The company has shrewdly not invested much into upgrading it now, lest it becomes uncompetitive or less profitable.

So, overall what you get in the new M800 is not a radical new design that completely alters its image as a `Janata' car. But the new embellishments do attempt to at least partially modernise the car's otherwise dated looks.

The M800 has never been positioned as a car that boasts of great build quality. It was always only a practical, comfortable alternative to a two-wheeler and yet, that didn't stop it from being the first car of many famous Indian, including Sachin Tendulkar.

What you get in the new M800 continues to be just the same inherent qualities. Only, the new version comes with the cosmetic equivalent of lip-gloss and fake eyelashes.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 13, 2005)
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