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MONSTERS INC

Do you want to rule the road with a macho set of wheels? No, we aren’t talking about a zippy low-slung sports car. Wouldn’t you rather flaunt the ‘big is beautiful’ tag and take on the world with a powerful and rugged sports utility vehicle (SUV)? Well, keep the adrenaline pumping because a score of gleaming new models are about to zoom onto Indian roads.

From the luxurious to the affordable, from compact city-friendly wheels to rugged off-roaders, the new SUVs come in all sizes and shapes. What’s more, with their diesel-powered engines, they fit the bill in these times of surging petrol prices.

So last month, Mercedes-Benz unveiled its aggressively stylish third generation M Class SUV to take on muscular competitors like Audi’s Q5 and Q7 and BMW’s X5 at the top end of the SUV market. The new M Class starts at Rs 56.9 lakh (ex showroom Delhi) but price it seems is no deterrent — even in these times of economic gloom and doom. The company has already sold 1,500 M-Class vehicles, which come with cool features like PRE-SAFE technology, which can help prevent collisions, and Attention Assist, which can pick up signs that you are falling asleep at the wheel.

Meanwhile, Audi’s just rolled in its swanky new luxury SUV, the Q3. This compact SUV is slated to be the most affordable Audi SUV in the country. But make no mistake. Audi’s not snipping any frills. It offers Audi’s famous Quattro all-wheel drive system and also enhanced slip-free acceleration, which could come in handy especially if you decide to rev up and head off in the wilds. This model’s going to be available in 2-litre Turbo diesel and Turbo petrol versions. And it’s expected to be priced from Rs 27 lakh.

The other carmakers have moved into high gear too. Hindustan Motors, which markets and manufactures Mitsubishi’s vehicles in India, rolled out the new Pajero Sport recently along with upgraded versions of the Outlander and the Montero. Tata Motors also launched an upgraded Sumo Gold while General Motors India brought in its face-lifted new Chevrolet Captiva with a 2.2-litre diesel engine earlier this year. And Volkswagen will soon unveil its burly new Touareg.

There are others who are also stepping on the gas. So, Renault will launch the Duster, an entry-level SUV, by the end of the year. The company first showcased the Duster at the Delhi Auto Show in January. Incidentally, the Auto Show also saw Maruti Suzuki India unveil its concept compact SUV, the XA Alpha. But coming up before that are the Mahindra-Ssangyong Rexton II, the Ford EcoSport and the Nissan Evalia, which is a multi-purpose vehicle (MPV). Besides, Tata Motors will also launch its Safari Storme later this year.

SUVs have been burning up Indian roads in recent years. Today they account for 15 per cent of all passenger car sales — and that’s up from practically nothing a few years ago. And judging by what’s happening on foreign highways, that figure is likely to rise swiftly. In the US, for example, SUVs have an awesome 50 per cent share of the passenger car market.

According to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), total utility vehicle sales (this includes SUVs and other UVs) in India accelerated by 16.47 per cent to touch 367,012 units in 2011-12 against 315,213 units in the previous financial year.

“The SUV segment is one of the fastest-growing vehicle segments in the country today,” says P. Balendran, vice-president, General Motors India.

Several factors are responsible for this. These bulky hulks have always been popular with fans because they command attention and on-road respect too. There’s the greater visibility factor as well, with the driver sitting up high.

But as Hormazd Sorabjee, industry expert and editor, Autocar India, points out: “The SUV market has mainly grown because, in these fuel-sensitive times, they’re mostly diesel cars and well suited to Indian conditions.”

Deeper factors are also at work. Michael Perschke, head, Audi India, reckons that “the growing base of young buyers” tops the list of reasons fuelling SUV sales in India. “The last four years have witnessed an emergence of younger achievers and New Age entrepreneurs. This fall in the average age of car buyers, whose urge for sporty and masculine vehicles is perfectly met by SUVs, is leading the SUV segment to outperform other segments,” he says. In fact, he points out that with demand spiralling, long waiting periods have become quite common for many SUVs.

SUV demand is also coming from Tier II and Tier III cities. Debashis Mitra, director, sales and marketing, Mercedes-Benz India, says: “While the surge in demand in Tier II and Tier III cities is due to easy finances and high disposable incomes, SUVs are just the thing for long travels with a large number of people too.”

No wonder, sales are climbing. Look at Force Motors, which rolled out its One SUV, priced at around Rs 10.5 lakh, some five months ago. It’s already sold nearly 2,000 vehicles through a mere 17 dealerships. “With its excellent handling, the One is perfect on and off the road though its sheer size makes it slightly tricky to use in cities,” says Prasan Firodia, managing director, Force Motors. Firodia will launch two more variants of the One (a 4x4 one and an ABS-EBD equipped variant) over the next three months.

Or take M&M. According to Pravin Shah, chief executive of M&M’s automotive division, the company has grabbed a cool 41 per cent share of the premium SUV segment after launching its successful XUV500 last September. (The premium segment includes SUVs ranging from around Rs 10 lakh to Rs 25 lakh.)

The sleek XUV500 — its lines are, apparently, inspired by the cheetah — comes with all the trims and frills and is priced aggressively starting from Rs 11.51 lakh (ex-showroom). And M&M’s “off-roading DNA and all-terrain reliability” are built into it too, says Shah. No wonder, the company’s ramped up production of the XUV500.

Besides, with M&M acquiring Korean car maker Ssangyong last year, Shah is also looking forward to launching the big and burly Mahindra Ssangyong Rexton in India, which is based on the first generation Mercedes-Benz M Class.

The new SUVs are aimed at all segments of the market. For instance, Renault is targeting the lower end of the market with the Duster. It’s expected to be priced from Rs 7.5 lakh. Rajiv Mitra, vice president, public affairs and communications, Renault India, says: “There’s a huge need gap in the lower end of the SUV segment in India as there are hardly any products that are affordable and come with top-end features. Renault wants to plug this gap with the Duster.”

It’s a fact that many SUVs in India never get a chance to test their off-road capabilities because their owners would rather show them off on city roads. So manufacturers are focusing on bringing in more city-specific vehicles than before. Yes, these vehicles can take the rough with the smooth. But factors like styling, refinement and luxury coupled with greater comfort, space, safety and also eco-friendliness are becoming far more crucial.

On top of this list is the much-awaited Ford EcoSport, which is being positioned as an urban explorer. The EcoSport’s a mini-SUV really. But its chunky look ensures its brawn factor. The EcoSport will also have features like side curtain airbags and an impressive voice control system called SYNC. More importantly, Ford will introduce its global EcoBoost powertrain technology for the first time in India with the three-cylinder EcoBoost engine in the EcoSport.

The growing popularity of SUVs is also spurring the growth in other utility vehicles. So, the Maruti Ertiga, which is pitched as a life utility vehicle or LUV, created at stir when it was unveiled a couple of months ago. The Ertiga has a distinct UV-like body while offering a sedan-like driving experience. It’s available in petrol and diesel variants and in six trim levels.

And now, Nissan and Chevrolet are set to launch their MPVs too with the Nissan Evalia and Chevrolet Enjoy respectively. The Evalia is designed primarily for city use and is aimed at large families. Then, there’s the new Innova with fog lamps, dual-tone seat covers and wood-finish interiors from Toyota too.

On the other hand, some Indian SUV owners are also taking to off-roading —that’s driving vehicles on unsurfaced roads or tracks — in a big way as evident from the success of M&M’s Great Escape rallies and now, Tata Motors’ newly launched Full Throttle rally programme too. Then there’s Hindustan Motors’s Pajero-specific Heart-in-Mouth rally as well, which has helped showcase the Pajero’s off-roading abilities.

Tata Motors is in fact bullish on this segment, what with its upcoming new Safari Storme. This one’s all about luxury and style. And it will also sport features like the electronic shift-on-the-fly (ESOF), which means that you can switch from 2WD to 4WD even while the vehicle is on the move, and it will also have 12V gadget charging points.

Clearly, the brawn quotient on Indian roads is only set to grow as these big mean machines burn up the tarmac.