Boyz II Men

Written by Alokananda Chakraborty | Updated: Oct 9 2007, 07:48am hrs
Can the SX4 keep up the good work When Maruti Suzuki India (MSI) launched its luxury sedan SX4 in May this year, curiosity levels were unusually high. If theres always a big buzz around any new car, the SX4 was making its debut in India (on May 7, 2007) even before it was rolled out in Europe and Japan. For another, the new car was, for all practical purposes, a replacement for the Baleno, Marutis mid-size sedan in India. Suzuki is betting big on SX4, said MSI managing director Jagdish Khattar at the launch. It has a major role to play in changing the companys image from leading small car manufacturer to a complete car maker.

By all accounts, SX4s early performance has stirred up the premium A3 category. In May, July and August, the sedan left behind category leader (four years running) Honda City in sales. According to figures supplied by the company, in its first five months, the SX4 has sold more than 15,000 unitslogging an average of 3,000-plus units a month. Thats a milestone in itself, says a company executive.

Milestone no doubt. Small high-value cars have always been a Maruti stronghold. Of course, the company had the Esteem and the Baleno in the sedan category, but they could never quite break into the big league. For a company that has a stranglehold over 50% of the passenger car market in the country, Maruti has only a minuscule 15% market share in the A3 (sedan) segment. So this was the companys momentto break out of the small-car hangover and stake its claim in the big car segment.

Of course, the company firmly backs the Baleno: The Baleno was eventually phased out not so much because it was not sellingit had started to do about 1,000 cars a month, says a company spokesperson. Rather, it was phased out because it had to make way for a new model, SX4.

On its part, the Esteemwhich has had a fair share of successis in a segment of its own, in the cusp between a premium hatchback and an entry-level sedan. Over a period, the Esteem began attracting value-conscious buyers, who clearly aspired to owning a sedan but were ready to trade-off frills for affordability.

In that sense, SX4 was a big gambit for its manufacturer. The timing was just right: The sedan was launched soon after Maruti completed its best year ever (2006-07) in terms of sales, financials, investment milestones and model launches. (And just in case, you are wondering, the S in SX4 stands for sport, X denotes relaX, and 4 denotes 4-seasons drive.)

However, what baffled many was its low-profile entryalmost hush-hush compared with the launch of the Swift or the Baleno. Yes, it was a quiet entry because there has been no big- bang television ad campaign, says a company executive. The print ad was also an announcement ad. Within a month of launching the car, we were able to sell all the 3,000 SX4 cars we could manufacture. The plant, which makes the SX4, is operating at full capacity. In that situation, it did not make sense to advertise big time. Ah yes, the company did issue big ads on the SX4apologising to customers that they had to wait for their SX4 cars, adds the spokesperson.

The new television commercial, conceptualised by Lowe, is a letdown though. A bevy of beauties hissing Men are back, one the lines of the early Bajaj Pulser ads, are seen on mostly on news, sports and lifestyle channels. But of course, the car deserves every ounce of the praise that has come its way. At its price (three variants between Rs 6.18 lakh and Rs 7.24 lakh, ex-showroom New Delhi), its a smoking deal when you put it against competition such as Hyundai Verna or Ford Fiesta. Consider the package. It is the widest, tallest and longest car in the premium A3 segment. It is also the most powerful car (it has a maximum power of 102 bhp). The looks of the car are bold and muscular; the interiors are cockpit style and plush.

Its tallboy look is derived from its parent, the original SX4 that was launched as a hatchback in Europe last year. The hatch had been designed by Italdesign and sold as the Suzuki SX4 in Europe (also as Fiat Sedici), while the elongated variant is sold as the sedan version in India and China.

Some of the features in the SX4 are unique, making it comparable to an A4 segment car. For example, the music system is snugly integrated into the dashboard. There are buttons on the steering wheel from where the music system can be controlled. Whats more, the antenna doesnt jut out of the carit is embedded in the glass. As regards the air-conditioning, there is an auto-climate control system, which means you set the desired temperature and that manages the AC (came for the first time with the Swift, actually).

The safety features are great for its priceincluding ABS (anti-lock braking system) and dual SRS (supplementary restraint system) airbags. The car also comes with an anti-theft feature called Immobiliser or iCATs. The Immobiliser is a mandatory anti-theft device in advanced car markets like Europe and Australia. Though an Immobiliser is yet to be made mandatory in India by regulation, Maruti has proactively introduced the iCATs system. In fact, Maruti is the first car company in India to have equipped all models with Immobiliser, be it Maruti 800 or SX4.

Impressive, but the initial hoopla seems to be dying down. In August, sales of the Honda City and SX4 were almost neck-and-neck. SX4 sold 3,129 units to Citys 3,095. In September, City has overtaken SX4 in sales, selling 3,635 units to the latters 3,176, according to market estimates. Says an auto industry observer who didnt wish to be identified in the story, The SX4 may be great value for money, but the City has a much lower ownership costwith low maintenance as well as very high resale value. Above all, it is much more fuel efficient.

Coming back to our original question: was the SX4s early success just a stroke of luck A result of the excitement that any new car in the market generates The next few months will be interesting to watch.