Only in India: Attack of the Stubby Little Sedans

Satish Kondapavulur
by Satish Kondapavulur

How automakers address the sedan question in India is particularly interesting. It doesn’t involve increasing legroom or wheelbase. It doesn’t involve creating a reason to increase the average transaction price of those cars. And despite India having some of the deadliest roads in the world, it doesn’t involve safety.

In India, most automakers go in the exact opposite direction with their sedans — by building them shorter and cheaper, but no more safer — yet they remain just as comfortable inside as the models on which they’re based.

There are some automotive markets in the world that are large enough to force automakers to substantially change the specifications of their cars. The Chinese market gets long-wheelbase versions of the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, and Volvo S60. These cars tend to be used by lower-level politicians and businesspeople who don’t want to pay the higher prices of larger cars but still want extra legroom. The North American market gets a Volkswagen Passat that’s notably larger than the version available in the rest of the world.

Yet, in India, cars that are four meters or less in length are only taxed at 12.5 percent, provided their diesel engine displacement is 1.5 liters or less or their petrol engine displacement is 1.2 liters or less.

Back in April 2012, then-TTAC contributor Faisal Ali Khan touched on the upcoming phenomenon, predicting that stubby sedans would become popular in India because of Indians’ negative views toward hatchbacks. I couldn’t agree with him more after spending much of December 2015 in the country. Most of the taxis I saw were of the stubby sedan variety. Cars that were used by lower-level government officials were largely of the stubby sedan variety. The Maruti-Suzuki Swift Dzire, Tata Indigo eCS and Mahindra Verito (you probably know the last one as the Dacia/Renault Logan) made up many of the stubby sedans on the road. Much of this was due to an excise tax reduction (down to 8 percent) during the second half of 2014.

I know. This is much uglier than the hatchback. But it’s surprisingly popular throughout India.

A stubby sedan on your dealers’ lots makes all the difference in the Indian market. For instance, Toyota doesn’t offer a sub-4-meter sedan in India. The closest they offer is the Etios. Neither does General Motors, whose closest offering is the Chevrolet Sail developed by GM China. The base level version of the Etios tends to be 100,000 rupees (around $1,500) more than any sub-4 meter sedan, while the Sail tends to be closer to 50,000 rupees more. In a market where these cars sell anywhere from $7,500 to $12,000, these figures tend to be substantial amounts. Couple that with the razor-thin margins on cars in this “city car” class and creating a stubby sedan to increase sales volume isn’t a bad idea.

This didn’t make the cut.

As a result, more manufacturers over the last few years have brought out stubby sedans. Hyundai has the Xcent. Ford decided to release a Figo Aspire sedan, a version of its smaller-than-Fiesta Figo hatchback. Tata introduced the Zest to provide an updated take on the stubby sedan. Honda debuted the Amaze, which is seen more often around most Indian metros than its hatchback counterpart, the Brio. All of these cars sell in large numbers, whether the customers are taxi companies or private citizens. And most recently, in the best example of this trend, Volkswagen released the Ameo.

The new stubby little sedan from VW.

If you’ve ventured outside the United States and Canada, you may notice the Ameo has the same front end as a Polo. But if you’ve ventured into Mexico, India, Russia and a few other Asian countries, you’ll know VW already makes a sedan version of the Polo called the Vento: It has a longer wheelbase and offers more rear legroom for its passengers, but its 4.4 meter length incurs an excise tax of well over 20 percent in India, putting it into premium car territory. For a company like VW that’s trying to substantially increase sales, creating the Ameo is almost a no-brainer, regardless of the extra engineering costs.

The Vento.

And yet the stubby sedan approach doesn’t sacrifice comfort. I rode in many different stubby and non-stubby sedans while I was in India, including both the Indigo eCS and the long-wheelbase Indigo XL, which possessed an insane amount of legroom. Honestly, I didn’t feel there was much difference in comfort between the two cars despite the differences in wheelbase. (I should also note that there were four other people with me in the back seat when I rode in the eCS.)

I rode with seven other people in this car. Never again.

You may think Indians wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice cargo room in their vehicles to have a more “prestigious” body style. After all, it’s always the Indian family that has an ungodly number of suitcases at the airport, and auto rickshaws in India tend to be crammed with as many people as possible. However, Indian buyers like being separated from their cargo when riding in a car. In addition, an Indian consumer will take the cheaper option if there’s a possibility of saving a substantial amount of money with fairly minimal sacrifices. It’s due to this that I would go as far as to predict that VW will discontinue selling the Vento in India, as most buyers think they’re spending less on what is essentially the same car with the Ameo. Those customers who want something bigger will likely go up a class and buy a Jetta, which is considered a premium car in India.

Much of the Indian buyer’s focus on sedans is due to the fact that hiring a driver is still relatively cheap, especially if you live in a less developed part of India and can afford a car. In some major cities, a driver’s salary could be as high as 50,000 rupees per month, or around $750 US dollars, which is fairly cheap if you have the money to purchase a car for many times that amount. Due to heavy traffic and the high prevalence of stickshift-equipped vehicles in India, those who can afford a driver end up hiring one to remove the stress of driving.

Ultimately, the stubby sedan will be staying in India for the foreseeable future. The infrastructure in cities isn’t keeping up with the increase in the number of cars on the road. Excise taxes will always remain the lowest on the smallest vehicles. People like to be separated from their cargo. Anyone who uses a driver will always want a sedan, no matter how short it is. The only part I’ve yet to figure out: how many people can cram into the back seat of an Indigo eCS before I actually become uncomfortable?

The Tata Zest

The Honda Amaze

The Hyundai Xcent.

The Ford Figo Aspire. Ford probably wanted to renew the trademark on the Aspire name.

Satish Kondapavulur
Satish Kondapavulur

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  • LD LD on Feb 11, 2016

    In India a car purchase is not only about getting transportation but more importantly about making a statement. The first modern car made in India was the Maruti 800, a Suzuki microcar and it was a hatchback and is considered synonymous with cheapness today. As better and more expensive cars became available the Maruti 800's prime selling point was price. And then Tata decided to build the cheapest car in the world, the Tata Nano, another hatchback. So when you are trying to climb the social ladder in India and want to make a statement about that climb, the last thing you want to do when you buy a car is to buy a hatchback. If car buying in India ever returns to more rational buying traits, the hatchback may stage a return, but I would not hold my breath for that. In the meantime, SUVs and CUVs are all the rage.

  • CincyDavid CincyDavid on Feb 13, 2016

    At the risk of stereotyping the Indian population of Cincinnati, I can tell there is an Indian funeral as soon as I pull on the parking lot...acres of Camrys in subdued colors for the folks who haven't "made it big" yet, and Lexus sedans and SUV/CUV variants, again in subdued golds and silvers, for those who have. Not a whole lot of Hondas or Korean cars, and almost no domestics, but Toyota and Lexus as far as the eye can see.

  • Craiger I love the people who call Musk an imbecile. As if they could even get an interview for a job at one of his companies.
  • Lou_BC I'm waiting for Tesla to make a pickup!
  • Lou_BC Autograph? Turn Up the Radio?
  • Oberkanone Were these available with diesel?At $3700 this Volvo presents nicer than other vehicles I see at this asking price.
  • V16 Lobbyists, not a Senator from Missouri are the real power brokers in Washington.Money, the mother's milk of politics dictate every outcome.