Over the last four years, the sale of passenger cars by Tata Motors has fallen by more than half from around 3.7 lakh to 1.5 lakh. The great enthusiasm with which Ratan Tata expanded the car business seems to have waned. In his tenure as Chairman, Tatas acquired the British Land Rover and the Daewoo truck businesses. In quick succession, Tata Motors launched the Indica and the Tata Magic which were well received. For a few years, the sales of the Indica zoomed; it became quite popular among taxi operators. The Nano, launched with great expectations, as the Small Wonder (borrowed from the famous VW Beetle) did not fare well. Impressed by the passion and imagination with which the Nano was launched at the Auto Expo, I ordered for two, each costing on the road around Rs. 2.15 lakh. Air conditioning was effective as also were the power windows limited to the front seats. But the absence of power steering made one feel like driving a truck. Repair costs were high; combined with poor resale value, Nano lost its popular appeal.
Renault’s Carlos Ghosn built his Kwid on Ratan Tata’s Nano experience. The care bestowed in designing it through the combined efforts of Europe, South Korea and India, the focus on very high indigenisation (98 per cent even at the launch), tight costing and the electrifying launch contributed to the quick success of the Kwid. This small car received a good response, with an estimated 100,000 cars booked during the first year.
Guenter Butschek, who has taken charge as MD and CEO of Tata Motors, pointed to legacy issues as among the reasons for the steep decline in interest in Tata cars. Butschek brings with him rich experience, having worked earlier with the German giant Daimler. He headed the company’s operations in China and also worked for Airbus Industrie. His experience in contributing to the spectacular growth of the Chinese auto industry should help Tata Motors arrest its decline and revert to its earlier era of high growth in the passenger car segment. Competition is acute from global auto leaders, notably Maruti-Suzuki, Hyundai, Toyota and Renault-Nissan. Add to these the technological prowess of Volkswagen, Ford and GM and the going would indeed be tough.
Looking back, Tata Motors could have acquired Daewoo’s Matiz facility in Noida that had better design and performance. The company could also have focused on an electric car that would help it leapfrog technology. Competing on traditional lines in the highly evolved passenger car segment is not going to be easy. In our previous edition, we referred to the Tata Group under Cyrus Mistry re-looking at its different businesses, as did Ratan Tata in the early 1990s and deciding which sectors to focus on and excel in. Will these include passenger cars?