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People’s Car catches Advani fancy
- Deputy Prime Minister buys a ticket to ride dream machine

New Delhi, Jan. 15: Ever since Ratan Tata spoke at the Geneva Motor Show last year about plans to come out with a car sporting a price tag of Rs 1 lakh, the bogey about a People’s Car simply won’t go away.

Tata, in fact, only revived the concept of this utopian contraption — Sanjay Gandhi thought of it first, with Maruti.

Deputy Prime Minister L .K. Advani turned on the ignition again today at the inaugural of the Auto Expo 2004 when he asked car makers to work towards a four-wheel option that the man on the street could afford.

“The challenge before you (car makers) is to bring down the cost of the vehicle and make them affordable. Just imagine, if only we had a People’s Car costing no more than Rs 100,000, how many millions of people would be queueing up to buy it,” Advani said.

Is that a tail-pipe dream in the world of autos'

With a whole lot of feel-good sentiment swirling about the country in a pre-election haze, maybe the idea of turning the “people” into car owners isn’t so incongruous.

Never mind that “people” will need to be redefined because last known they earned about $480 (around Rs 21,800) a year.

The Tatas and Maruti have spoken about introducing the cheapest entry-level option, the best deal on wheels — but is that still a pie in the sky'

What will this contraption look like' What features will it have' Is there a magic structural material that will make this feasible' The industry is cagey about giving out details, but they all reckon they can do it. No one doubts that this will be the toughest task car makers have ever attempted.

Tata, who was at the Auto Expo today to launch the estate version of the Indigo called the Marina, said it would take around two to three years to develop the People’s Car — from the concept stage to actual manufacturing — which would meet safety standards and comply with norms.

“What we hope to do is to break new ground and be able to produce a real People’s Car with an identity of itself and will be available at the future Auto Expo,” said Tata.

“We would like to start with a clean sheet of paper and produce a vehicle between the price of a two-wheeler and a low-end car,” he added. “It would not be a fancy car, although we would give our buyers an option to upgrade to a higher variety.”

It isn’t as if such attempts haven’t been made before. At the 1998 Auto Expo held in the capital, Tata Engineering showcased a mini concept car, christened Zing. The Rs 1-lakh car, however, would probably borrow little from Zing. A parallel of the Rs 1-lakh car exists in Europe, where a company called Aixam manufactures mini cars (powered by engines ranging from 340cc to 500cc) made out of motorcycle equipment. It is known as a quadricycle and is sold in France, Spain and Italy.

Reports indicate that the new vehicle the Tatas plan to produce will primarily be in kit form and will be assembled at several places around India to create local employment.

Last month, Maruti Udyog chairman S. Nakanishi said in Japan that the idea to make an entry-level car with a price of Rs 1 lakh did not seem feasible, but Maruti would meet any challenge posed by the Tatas.

Maruti is currently showcasing a single-seater racing car at the Auto Expo that uses the engine and transmission of the Hayabusa motorcycle. That raises the spectre of a quadricycle with a two-wheeler engine. The aficionados will seriously question whether you could call such a contraption a car.

While automakers in India are silent on just how they plan to make these cars, analysts reckon that the production cost would be higher than Rs 1 lakh as the vehicle is developed from the design stage.

“Even if you make a car under the Rs 1-lakh-mark, the question is whether it will sell because used cars would be available at the same price in a good condition and with more features,” said Arindam Bhattacharya, auto consultant with the Boston Consulting Group.

B.V.R. Subbu, president of the country’s second largest carmaker, Hyundai Motor India Ltd, refused to say whether the company was planning to produce such a car.

“It would be very impressive if somebody is able to manufacture a car at such a price and still meet all the global safety and emission norms,” he said.

Equally impressive will be the definition of “people”, its supposed buyers.

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