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Delhi: Quite apart from the claim to be the first in the calendar of global automotive shows to throw open its doors, the Auto Expo in New Delhi, a biennial event, is more importantly a key showcase of the changes and new developments that can be expected during the next two years in the Indian market.

And if the previous edition of the show in 2010 was an indicator of the small personal mobility vehicles that were due to be launched, this year's - the 11th ? Auto Expo 2012 was loaded with family mobility solutions. With the new launches and unveils of both due-to-be-produced and concept vehicles in the MPV and SUV segments, it would seem that the average Indian household is now only interested in group travel or maybe they are going to be more calculative and will want to keep per passenger cost per kilometer low in these inflationary times. Or is car pooling expected to become the norm going forward?

But, the reasons for the emerging trend and preference for compact family vans and affordable compact sports utility vehicles is not difficult to see. Just like in the feedback that we at Smart buy constantly receive from individual car buyers about the need for a family tourer or an affordable compact vehicle that has the butch stance and road presence of a SUV, I am sure that manufacturers must have seen the felt need amongst institutional buyers too.

The Indian family is still a joint family in most cities and often buyers are looking for one primary vehicle that can serve as an office commuter and a weekend joint family tourer. Institutional buyers who are seeing their operating margins going southwards due to the hike in fuel prices would have been looking for a vehicle with a smaller footprint ? both in terms of fuel usage and size.

From the manufacturers' perspective, it must have been a difficult proposition to develop and produce a vehicle in these two related categories and yet keep the costs low enough to make them attractive for the Indian middle-class. Most often, the need would have been the availability of a platform, which can be shared with an existing, successful low cost platform. That is why it's no surprise that the first to roll out a new vehicle in this emerging compact MPV/ SUV categories will be Maruti Suzuki India, a company that is a leader in compact vehicles. The success of the Mahindra Xylo and the new Mahindra XUV 500 shows that a stylish, affordable vehicle with a diesel engine in this class of cars can actually wean away buyers from sedans in the same price segment.

The Maruti Suzuki Ertiga will be launched before April this year and will attempt to catch buyers in with its hatch style design, but seven-seater configuration. The Ertiga's central premise is to capture the imagination of the upwardly mobile young Indian who is looking for a family tourer, but doesn't want an oversized vehicle.

The Ertiga on show at the Auto Expo 2012 is the final production version. Maruti also unveiled a new compact SUV concept called the XA Alpha. Positioned as an elegant off-roader Concept XA Alpha is said to be a fresh view on the SUV segment and captured our attention with its compact dimensions, aggressive styling and futuristic detail. According to Maruti, the ?Alpha' in the XA Alpha represents trendiness and newness that the youth connect to. The ?A' signifies that this compact, 4 metre long concept, is designed for customers wishing to enter the utility vehicle segment. The ?X' denotes the cross-over category.

The point that most onlookers will make, however, will be that Maruti's final production vehicles don't seem to carry forward too many of the concept's design and futuristic features. That was the case with the A-Star and now with the Ertiga too. Let's see how the XA Alpha turns out if it goes into production.

Ford India, which has had a taste of the mass market with the success of the Figo small car, will join the race with its own compact SUV. The company showed off a swank design concept of the EcoSport, and called it the urban SUV. The EcoSport will make it to the market by the end of the year and it will sport a three-cylinder, one-litre turbo petrol and a 1.5-litre diesel engines. The new compact SUV is said to be based on the Fiesta platform.

The other concept at this year's Auto Expo that holds a lot of promise - though it is going to take much longer to make it to the market, if at all - is the Hyundai Hexa Space. Code named HND-7, it is a Multi-Purpose Vehicle (MPV) Concept that will focus on the efficient use of interior space with innovative interior design. The vehicle features eight slim, hexagonally shaped seats that fit together like puzzle pieces, maximizing internal space while minimising vehicle width.

Hexa Space is targeted at urban customers in their 30s and 40s who have a demanding lifestyle and who live in bustling cities of the world's emerging economies. Like the new Sonata, the new concept is also built on the principles of ?Fluidic Sculpture' which gives its bold character lines on the side panels.

The seats offer multiple configurations ? centre seats fold flat for greater comfort, the second row folds flat to create a limousine function, the back row folds flat for light-cargo use. In addition, seven seats fold flat for heavy hauling and all eight fold flat for camping. Despite the roomy interior, the Hexa Space manages a narrow overall width, key for manoeuvring in crowded streets.

On the other hand, the compact sports utility vehicle that is likely to be launched first, by the second half of this year to be precise, is the Renault Duster, Renault's fourth vehicle in the Indian market.

The new Duster will be positioned as a compact, premium, yet affordable sports utility vehicle. Renault officials, however, haven't announced the price, specifications or trim levels of the Duster yet. This mid-size crossover will attempt to combine the comfort of a sedan and the bold styling and performance of a SUV. The Duster will be manufactured with high local content and will be available in both petrol and diesel variants.

The other vehicle in the MPV/ SUV segment that will make it here this year will be the Nissan Evalia. Earlier code-named the NV200 MPV, the Evalia will be a seven-seater with sliding doors on either side at the rear. The vehicle will be about 4.4 metres long and will possibly sport the same 1.5-litre dCi diesel engine that is currently available in the Sunny.

Meanwhile, Tata Motors launched the Safari Storme, which looked like a reworked, redesigned version of its Safari SUV, with the 2.2-litre DICOR engine and variable geometry turbocharger. Toyota Kirloskar Motor also launched new, face-lifted versions of the Innova MPV and the Fortuner SUV.

Amongst the cars that were on display at the expo, the one that will make it very soon will be the Hyundai Sonata. Hyundai, which has had the two earlier generations of the Sonata in the market already, will hope to score better with this new gen model. Looking much more appealing and in step with its new fluidic design philosophy, the new Sonata will surely be positioned at an affordable price point amongst the other luxury-segment sedans. The Expo also witnessed the launch of the MINI brand here finally. The iconic British brand is part of the BMW group and four of its models have been launched in the Rs 25-31 lakh price range.


- dated 17 Jan 2012

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