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Off-road automobiles

Print edition : Nov 18, 2005 T+T-
Maruti Gypsy in a testy terrain.-

Maruti Gypsy in a testy terrain.-

THERE is something people like about rappelling or abseiling.

A form of controlled descent used in mountaineering, it follows the more gruelling task of climbing up. Of late, rappelling has found popularity as a staged activity. Participants walk up a cliff or rock face, while securely anchored to at least one safety rope that is released in a controlled fashion from above. Some clubs keep a third line free for instructors to come down and assist should anyone get stuck mid-route. Most important, participants are allowed adequate pauses en route for that photograph of manhood's dawning, mama's precious boy looking great on vertical rock.

As many adventure clubs would tell you, very few of these muscle-totting, fatigues-clad youngsters return to climbing. The photograph endures; the mountain fades. Those who stick on do so because of a deeper fascination, fully acknowledging their fragility and hardly resembling the branded image of the adventurous.

Further, as with the maturity curve in Indian sports, deep purses do not always mean great talent; it is the progressive tapping of the pyramid's bottom end that reveals a wider canvas of talent.

The story is little different with automobiles, where self-image precedes utility in vehicle purchase. Utility vehicles (UVs), sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and a few crossovers make up the `adventure vehicles' on Indian roads. In 2004-05, total domestic UV sales had increased by 20.46 per cent to 176,339 units from 146,388 units. As at end August 2005, the trend for 2005-06 was a sales rise of 13.67 per cent to 72,686 units for the category.

Crossovers sell in very small volumes. So the country's adventure vehicle story is mainly that of UVs.

Of these, the obviously brute types - that is, the big, expensive SUVs - lord the relatively tame terrain of cities. Where else can the contrast be sharper? The key thing is to be seen, seem adventurous and look capable of crushing all else on the road. A well-known fact is that beyond the odd automobile journalist who test-drives a `brute' in testy terrain, most owners of off-road studs dare not stray from the tarmac, as the vehicles are expensive.

In a cost-conscious market like India with long periods of careful ownership, you could bunch a wide range of vehicles from the cheapest Scorpio, costing around Rs.7.3 lakhs (in Mumbai), to the costliest Porsche Cayenne, selling at Rs.92 lakh, into this segment. Naturally therein, the base of ownership and the tendency to punish the vehicle tapers with higher price points. So if the brutes are largely doing tame duty or, worse, showing off, where are the real adventure vehicles?

To pick out that segment, one needs to first outline the contours of Indian adventure. Like everything else, it tends to be and needs to be low cost. Indian civilian mountaineering expeditions, for example - and there are several every year - travel without radio contact, global positioning system or satellite phone, and cut down on porters and use borrowed or hired equipment - in short, rough it out wherever possible. The limited budget is entirely skewed towards the final goal with the highest priority in expense for critical inputs (specialised equipment, clothing, shelter and food ), all else enjoying lower priority.

It is a bottom-of-the-pyramid consumer experience, one in which the final stages of transport are met by rugged, low-end UVs. In the hills and mountains it is the Bolero, Sumo, Trax and their earlier brethren which remain trusted and are worked hard on rough tracks every day. Mahindra and Mahindra (M&M), Tata Motors and Force Motors (earlier Bajaj Tempo) make these vehicles. The companies are based in Maharashtra, which has the highest number of adventure clubs in the country and a strong presence of the automobile industry.

While on a trek or rock climb in the Sahyadris, it is common to run into somebody from Tata Motors or Tata Power, equally strong being the likelihood of having a batch-mate from one of the Tata companies if you are training at a mountaineering institute in the Himalayas. Sadly, however, the economies of mass manufacturing shies away from responding to niche segments and in India, adventure is a niche activity.

The market's darling therefore, remains the great Indian family or that faceless bunch of strangers, jammed into a "people's carrier". No marks for guessing which is the adventurer's longstanding favourite for personal transport.

Although the price of petrol has risen, the one vehicle that consistently captured the fancy of adventure enthusiasts was the Maruti Gypsy, now reduced to largely institutional sales. It has the perfect size to manoeuvre on mountain roads, is the best off-road vehicle around, commands respect in remote areas, allows space for others on roads and, in the true spirit of the adventurer, has a light-weight presence. No fanfare. It is the vehicle people will still give an arm and a leg to load up and head for the crags.

Interestingly, this size of the UV has been left unattended by all domestic manufacturers, including Maruti, which has often described the Gypsy's small size and petrol engine as potential sales dampeners. M&M has an engaging product in the larger Invader while Tata Motors and Force Motors have kept out. But Maruti's own view was partly based on the Gypsy's limited ability as a people mover.

But the typical adventurer, the sort hailing from the bottom of the pyramid, would have been happy with a manoeuvrable, off-road model that was backed by the country's largest vehicle support network. Neither Maruti nor other manufacturers found it attractive. For the present, therefore, India's adventure vehicles are gas-guzzlers, sold with little appreciation for the budget and requirement of Indian adventurers.