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“The Swift gave us the understanding and the experience needed to come up other winning vehicles for the Indian market”

S Muralidhar Chennai | Updated on June 15, 2020

CV Raman, Senior Executive Director (Engineering), MSIL

15 years since launch, the Suzuki hot hatch has delivered a 30 per cent market share for Maruti in the premium small car segment. But it has also helped spawn other models for the car market leader.

There are a few defining moments in the history of Maruti Suzuki India that have been instrumental in it’s vice-like grip over the car market. The M800 was the first and most important, setting Maruti on a path of dominance in the small car category; a segment which till today constitutes nearly 70 per cent of the total car market. But, of all the other models that had worn the erstwhile winged logo or the current Suzuki one, the car that truly helped redefine MSIL as a brand was the Swift. It brought a whole new perspective, reinforcing this belief that a Maruti can also be exciting to look at and drive.

And the most important measure of the Swift’s success has not just been the 2.2 million units that have been sold since 2005, but its continued ability to convince customers about the freshness of its design and positioning. Into its third generation (fourth globally), the Swift recently crossed a milestone, completing 15 years since its introduction in the Indian market. Before it was introduced in 2005, the global Suzuki Swift project was the first to involve a large Indian product development and engineering team in Maruti’s history. The company’s in-house R&D has grown in capability and matured in the years since. What were the challenges in 2005, how will MSIL’s future development work with parent Suzuki look like? CV Raman, Senior Executive Director (Engineering), MSIL, spoke to BussineLine. Excerpts:

You were part of the international team of engineers that worked on the Swift from 2002, and this was the first model to involve such a large contingent. What were the challenges then and what were the issues that the Indian team was looking to address?

We were all so used to working on the ‘Jelly Bean’ design that the initial sketches of the Swift really seemed radically different and unbelievably sporty. The Zen was the premium hatch at that point in time. So, there were some initial thoughts about whether the Swift was too radical for the Indian market. But, it was going to be a global strategic model and India was going to be part of the launch markets. More than 30 engineers were sent to Suzuki in Hamamatsu, Japan over two years to work on design, and testing and evaluation. It was the first time for that level of concurrent engineering and development of a new model. Instead of post-development transfer of data and validated results, it was the first time that we were seeing design uniformity, and engineering changes coming online, managing these changes simultaneously and being involved with global sourcing.

Though we were sending Indian engineers to Suzuki for work on their global projects starting from 1995-96, the objective was initially to build capability to make minor model changes etc for Indian models and offer support to Suzuki. But with the Swift, since it was going to be a global model that had to be adapted, the management felt that it should be the start for Indian engineers to be part of the entire development process. The Swift meant for the European and Japanese markets was to have the N Series engine. But, for Indian market the plan was to use the locally made G13 engine, which was already being used in the Esteem, Gypsy and the Versa. So, the integration of the G13 engine was done on the Swift. The Maruti team had to collaborate with the Suzuki team for this integration. The second challenge was that, for India, we had to work on the rear seat comfort of the Swift. So, the packaging had to ensure that three adults seated at the rear should be possible. Third, the suspension had to be designed and tuned for Indian conditions, which happened simultaneously with Japan. Maintaining secrecy and testing camouflaged vehicles in real world conditions today may seem easy, but it was challenging then. Of course, the air-conditioner performance was the other metric that had to suit local conditions. A lot of the safety related testing, back then, had to be done in Japan.

From a product development perspective, why haven’t we seen another model that has really redefined the Suzuki label like the Swift did? While there have been a few that came close like the Ignis and the Baleno, was there a change in strategy to a more local market centric product development focus?

I would like to look at this point from a different perspective. There were other global strategic models like the Swift, and these included the Ritz and the Kizashi. These defined the change in the design philosophy of Suzuki. But, the challenge was to find models that are common in design, especially for Europe and India, and yet are also meant for specific regions. Japan was a very K-car market and so a boxier Wagon-R would work for that market, while it wouldn’t have in India. So, we looked at the second-gen Wagon-R, which sported a more relevant design, not a common one like the first-gen. So, the experience of working globally brought an understanding of what will click in the Indian context.

Also, the other aspect of your question is the fact that the Swift spawned other blockbusters for Maruti. From the Swift was born the Dzire, a model that is purely for India and was never sold anywhere else. By the third generation, the Dzire became a separate model line, splitting from its original. Unlike the first-gen which just had a boot to make it a sedan body style, and the second-gen when it became a sub-four-metre sedan for positioning, the third-gen Dzire became the more authentic independent model line with its own A-pillar structure and design characteristics. The Swift also gave us the understanding to get into other segments like the compact MPV and then the Ertiga happened in 2011-12. These were not traditionally part of the Suzuki stable. Similarly, we could change the game in the compact SUV segment with the Vitara Brezza thanks to the learning’s from the Swift.

Over the last 15 years, MSIL’s in-house R&D has grown in size and capability. Given how legislation in India for emissions and safety has caught up with global standards, can Maruti R&D independently work on a new model in the future?

The plan all along was to raise the Indian R&D capability, over the years, so that we could augment the effort by the Suzuki global team. Not just for the Swift, but other models too, the strategy created a work share understanding between Maruti and Suzuki about each other’s strengths. The work plan continues to be one where the platform, powertrain and some of the development of future technologies will be done by Suzuki R&D. But, some of the other work done by us here could have model specific variation in terms of level of involvement.

India is a large market for Suzuki Global and surely the local R&D capability is important. Also as mobility evolves in India, and customers and their preferences evolve, a lot of the groundwork and initial product development is done by the Indian team for Suzuki Global. So, even though we may be using a common platform and powertrain like in the case of the Vitara Brezza, it is still based purely on design, engineering and development efforts generated here.

Is Maruti’s famous strength in low-cost manufacturing a forte that its Indian R&D brings to the mix? Is it going to help future product development, especially in the EV space?

We have always believed in localisation and strengthening the supplier base in India for enabling low-cost manufacturing. We have been working on this for the past 35 years. But the Swift was another milestone here, where from that model we have also allowed Indian suppliers to be part of this global product development organisation. When a new model development begins, a lot of the technology of aggregates comes from the suppliers to be later integrated into the vehicle by the engineers. For example, development and integration of main exterior components like headlamps happens from the clay model stage itself. That combination has enabled us to ensure a larger footprint for local manufacturing, and to deliver more quality and value to the customers.

We have a huge vendor upgradation team that is working with Tier-II and Tier-III suppliers, so that the entire value chain can improve its efficiencies and effectively utilise theirs and our R&D facilities.

When it comes to green mobility, we have our targets and we will shorten the gestation for future new vehicles. Right now we will upgrade our IC engines and will continue to look at CNG in a very big way. We are also already into mild-hybrids, and will look at other technologies like strong hybrids, going up to full EV later.

Published on June 15, 2020

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