Tuesday, January 08, 2008

(Just maybe) Looking forward to 2008

The Indian Revolution (1)

It’s not yet time to forget China’s as yet unrealised promise, but the big excitement all seems coming from India these days.

Tata are, we are led to believe, on the brink of owning Jaguar and Land Rover, but even more significant is their imminent launch at the ninth India Auto Expo of the 1 Lakh car - two days away as I write this.

1 lakh=100,000 Rupees – at today’s rate £1288 ($2545). We’ll know much more in two days’ time but the basics are a four seat four door monospace with a rear-mounted twin-cylinder engine. Despite the cylinder deficiency – what do you expect for that sort of money? – the thinking sounds more ‘50s Fiat Seicento than Citroen 2CV or Renault 4.

The Fiat comparison is apposite on a lot of levels. The Italian company is now Tatas's major automotive technology partner, lending huge credibility to their Jaguar and Land Rover bid, and they are reported to be in discussions with Tata to assemble the 1 Lakh car in their traditional Latin American markets like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.

On a far more subjective level, India’s present spirit of creativity, confidence, and enterprise is highly reminiscent of Italy in the 1950s. It’s not stretching a point too much to suggest that the Tatas are already the sub-continent's Agnellis.

The Indian Revolution (2)

Pininfarina have just announced that they will set up a design centre in India, within a 2-5 year timescale. In doing so they ar merely catching up. Dilip Chhabria’s DC Design in Mumbai, operating since 1993 have long since made the move from being a sub-contract prototype builder for major manufacturers to build up a growing reputation as a styling house in their own right, exhibiting at the major European Salons.

Remember that the ability to produce prototypes more quickly and cheaply than anybody else was as important to the Italian carozzerie's many decades of world dominance as their styling prowess.

If further demonstration is needed, Suzuki’s A-Star "show car" also to be shown at the New Delhi Auto Expo is the first concept car in which designers from Maruti Suzuki India’s research and development division have been involved from the initial stage of its styling. It’s not only an advance on the dreary Alto which it will replace, but makes the Splash (q.v.) look unadventurous and derivative. India’s importance to Suzuki cannot be underestimated.- last year they sold more cars there than they did in Japan.

When will we see a good electric car?

A far less admirable Indian product, the grim Reva G-Wiz, continues to set the case for electric cars in the UK back by decades. 5ivegears was heartened by the news that the Norwegian Think car, cruelly abandoned by Ford in 2002, returned to production in November 2007. The Think was vastly better than the G-Wiz even before the new generation’s adoption of Li-ion battery technology developed by Tesla Motors. The small fleet kept by Heriot-Watt University were fondly remembered as doughty dual-carriageway battlers – fully charged not much could touch them for acceleration up to 40mph.

Zombiedom beckons if your name begins with S…
(Subaru and Suzuki of course excepted)

Seat. Having tried in the past to be Volkswagen’s Alfa Romeo and Subaru, this week Seat are mainly playing at being Renault – people carriers in assorted lengths and configurations, including their own take on the Scenic RX4, a derivative liked only by 5ivegears. What’s next? Possibly a re-launch as VW’s sub-Skoda answer to Dacia, otherwise oblivion in the early years of the next decade.

Saab. Last year’s lairy 9-5 style makeover for the 9-3, with yet more hommage to the Citroen Belphegor truck, isn’t going to secure Saab’s future. There are future products planned – a Vectra-based 9-5 replacement next year, along with a Mexican-built (relatively) small SUV sharing its platform with a Cadillac. The following year could see an Astra based A3/1 Series rival. Unease at the dilution of the ineffable Saab essence to near-imperceptibility is balanced by GM’s touching determination to maintain stewardship of their "Swedish Patient", in marked contrast to Ford’s precipitate zeal in unburdening themselves of Aston Martin, Land Rover and Jaguar.

Smart. And in one bound the great carmaker was free of Chrysler. 5ivegears could never have predicted the rapidity of the split which created Daimler AG. No such luck for Smart. Misunderstood and under-exploited by its owners, Smart looks set to remain a burden on its owners when a new generation of ultra low emission small-cars inherits the earth as standard-bearers of the individual’s fight to retain the right to personal transport whatever the price.

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