Driven by design

ROUDRA BHATTACHARYA | Updated on March 12, 2018

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Indians used to be happy with a car that gave good mileage even if it looked like a tiffin box. But not any longer. They want good design as well.

Global car-makers have always had designs on India. But it's only recently, after it became a major market, that they have begun designing for India.

Every carmaker now is trying to give the Indian customer what he or she wants, and not making them go shopping after buying the car. Gone are the days when you had to go from the showroom to the accessory- wallah for this and that.

Take the Brio – Honda's latest small car, especially designed for India. Jnaneswar Sen, Senior Vice-President (Sales and Marketing), Honda Siel, says minute details such as the seat's positioning with respect to the door and even the angle of the door opening were looked into. “When we were developing the Brio, two women colleagues who wore sarees went to Japan to help designers figure out the door and seat design. A few designers also visited homes in India and noticed that we love symmetry – so the cockpit has been designed to make one feel at ease,” says Sen.

So, does that mean we will finally be seeing an Indian design line emerge in auto products for the country?

Globally, all the major auto markets have what they call a ‘design language' that can be commonly identified with companies belonging to one country. The Germans are known for their tight fit and straight, clean lines, while the Italian cars flaunt their curvy shapes. French cars, meanwhile, evoke divided emotions with their oddly interesting lines, while British-built vehicles have a stately, elegant appearance.

Well, unlike these countries, we may perhaps not be able to flaunt an Indian design line – the reasons for which we will go into later. But, the good news is that, at least now the Indian customer's tastes are being counted.

Building to taste

“In the last 10 years, manufacturers who have understood that design is important to Indians have been successful. The Americans - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - had lost sight of their products and focused on financials and the Europeans had been slightly better. All that is changing now,” says Dilip Chabbria, Founder and Promoter of domestic design house DC Design.

Several hard lessons have managed to change the industry's perception that the Indian customer is simplistic and prefers cheap. A case in point is Renault's Logan, a well-built car that did well in certain European pockets but flopped in India. This made partner Mahindra re-brand the product with design changes and a new positioning.

“It (Logan) was targeted at the style-agnostic segment and they thought the Indian customer would lap it up. But, unlike America and Europe, we're still adolescents in the lifecycle of an auto market. They have a separate segment where utility matters more than style, but here the customer wants everything in one package,” explains Chabbria.

“The i10, Swift and i20 are sell-outs because of design. The Mahindras have done a good job with design as they have a better market connect and are more focused than the Tatas who are distracted with too many businesses,” he adds.

Another example highlighting the importance of design is the new Hyundai Verna. The previous generation model saw a lukewarm market response but the freshly-designed new model is now ruling the segment after toppling erstwhile leaders Honda City and the Volkswagen Vento.

The Santro, the car with which Hyundai made its India debut in 1998, has also seen major design overhauls to its ‘odd' shape over time. The idea was to make the ‘tall boy' design appear less boxy and more round.

“People want to stand out and the relative importance of design has grown in the last 20 years. Today, the customer can afford more, but still wants the highest value for his money,” says Honda Siel's Sen.

Listening to the customer's voice

Though fuel efficiency is recognised as a top priority, designing a car for diverse Indian tastes involves much more than that. A primary directive is efficiency in space usage – small outside, large inside.

As many car owners tend to sit at the rear, the seat comfort and leg space are very important. Poor road quality also makes higher ground clearance and more robust suspension essential, while being a tropical country with a dusty and humid climate makes a powerful air-conditioning system necessary.

“We have to adapt the models sold in Europe and Japan significantly to Indian conditions. We do customer clinics as the preferences vary across segments,” I. V. Rao, Maruti Suzuki's R&D Head says.

Maruti's cars sold at home are based on Suzuki designs from Japan, but are modified for the home market. An example is the new WagonR, a huge successful Kei segment car (660cc) in Japan, which got a bigger one-litre engine and new front and back ends for India. “Japan likes straight, boxy lines, but here curvy, round shapes are more popular,” says Rao.

The market leader has also made special variants for India, such as the Swift Dzire entry sedan which offers low operating costs, but has the benefits of a boot and a more comfortable backseat.

Global contours

Coming back to an ‘Indian design', why has one common design line not evolved for the country? Even the homegrown Tata Motors, which began with no global affiliations, has not really come up with a uniquely appealing Indian design. Strangely enough, nobody is blaming our diversity and different needs – but the cost factor.

“The worst thing (for designers) is that the customer wants everything, but is not willing to pay a huge lot extra for it. Design with low cost as a constant becomes a challenge in such cases,” says Maruti's Rao.

The second reason is that India's auto market has boomed too late. If it had happened 20-30 years ago, maybe there could be a distinct shape and character to our products, but in the new globalised milieu it is not possible anymore. All cars today are designed for global tastes with minor tweaks for a country. Which is why, though India is progressively capturing a larger chunk of the global auto pie (sixth largest globally today), something that can be called an ‘Indian design language' may remain an elusive dream.

As Ford Motor Co President and CEO Alan Mulally explained in a recent interview, “The requirements in India for vehicle size are kind of a surrogate for the entire world. Why India is so important to us is that the vehicles we make – the Figo, Fiestas, small SUVs – are the centre of the market worldwide.” In terms of the requirements for vehicle size worldwide, nearly 60 per cent are for the smaller size (B and C), about 25 per cent is medium size and 15 per cent for bigger vehicles, he adds.

“I think the customer is the same across the world today and design transcends markets,” Chabbria concludes.

Published on February 01, 2012

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