Taking steady strides

Written by Vikram Chaudhary | Updated: Mar 7 2014, 08:27am hrs
Pawan Goenka has been religiously attending the Baja SAEIndia event, held annually near Indore, for the last seven years. It is a competition where engineering students race single-seater, all-terrain vehicles (ATV) developed by them. And Goenka has an emotional connect with Baja. I decide to meet him over dinner on the eve of the event. But then, it is hard times for the auto industry, so Goenkas priorities are also attuned to the same. I am told he is at the Indore dealership and would be arriving shortly. I pour myself a Sula Sauvignon Blanc, as I wait.

Soon, he arrives, and I ask him whether the excise duty cut in the interim budget is going to be of any help. Goenka is optimistic, but he would like to wait. Our dealer in Indore told me that footfalls at the showroom have increased sharply after the cuts were announced, and that he is hopeful of seeing a lot of sales. But well have to wait for March sales figures to gauge the real impact. This is probably the beginning of a gradual upswing for the auto industry as we move into the next financial year.

I turn to subsidies for electric cars, which were promised under the National Electric Mobility Mission, and ask him about the steps that could perk up electric mobility in India.

The mission was announced more than a year ago, but not much has happened, Goenka says, before biting into French fries. Mahindras electric car E2O, which was launched last year, has not been moving the way Goenka would have liked. In fact, what was already in place has been taken downthe incentive of close to R1 lakh on electric vehicles has been discontinued. There is no value in having an ambitious R20,000 crore programme and then taking a year to spend even R20. I would rather have a R5,000 crore programme, or even a R2,000 crore programme, but make it happen. One E2O launched by one auto company is not going to make India an electric-vehicle-friendly country. His disappointment is evident.

Goenka picks up a vegetarian snack. And since Sauvignon Blanc goes well with something rich, I pick fried fish. We move into the next gear and I ask him about the XUV 500 hybrid, touted in the market as worlds first diesel-electric hybrid.

A hybrid means better fuel-efficiency and lower emissions. Diesel engines have higher fuel-efficiency than petrol engines, and hybridising a diesel means you are adding to the already high value. What I mean is that, theoretically, a hybrid petrol engine brings the vehicle close to a diesel-powered one in fuel-efficiency, and a hybrid diesel takes that efficiency even higher, Goenka says.

But there has been a reluctance to take the diesel-electric hybrid route globally, so why has Mahindra chosen this path.

Goenka explains, Work on hybrid engines has happened mostly in Japan and the US, and these are primarily petrol-usage countries. Now, because Mahindra is a diesel-engine-centric company, a diesel hybrid was the obvious step forward for us.

Goenka has to meet other guests so we decide to continue our conversation the next morning at Baja, where Goenka arrives in the Ssangyong Rexton. After the customary flag-off, we sit in the lounge. I am curious to know about the Ssangyong platformsX100, W201, U301. I enquire about the possibility of a Mahindra vehicle developed on a Ssangyong platform, or vice-versa.

Goenka sips on some tea and gathers his thoughts. Obviously, things are happening backstage but he can only share them at the right moment. I will not rule out the possibility, but there are no plans right now. As the two brands start sharing finer details, it may just happen, he says.

This will take time, but Goenka has another challenge at hand. The two-wheeler foray of the company is yet to gain firm footing.

Goenka is pinning his hopes on the Centuro motorcycle. The success of any new foray depends on the product you have and the way you market it. A couple of products launched before the Centuro werent quite liked by the people. But with the Centuro weve hit the right chord with the consumer.

Goenka knows that the competition in the two-wheeler and the truck segments is intense and it will take time for Mahindra to become a significant player. But he is ready to wait.

Now, the connect that Goenka has with Baja SAEIndia. He has been instrumental in bringing the event to India, which originated in 1976 in the US and has spread to six countries, including Mexico, South Africa, Korea and Brazil. Goenka points out that it is critical to catch the innovators young, and he would go to any extent to do that. Finding time every year to promote the event, therefore, comes naturally. The excitement is written all over his face as he leaves to ride pillion on an ATV towards the racing arena.