Mint: Designing a car for India is easier said than done
Designing a car for India is tough. Old, legacy vehicles don’t work. And any designer with a mandate to make a car for India needs to start from scratch
The sub 4-metre car, is a situation and a segment unique to India and a few other automotive markets. The Volkswagen Ameo is the latest to join the segment. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
New Delhi: Stuart R. Norris, managing director of design at General Motors Co.’s Korean unit, tells it like it is.
Designing a car for India is tough. Old, legacy vehicles don’t work anymore. And any designer with a mandate to make a car for India needs to start from scratch. Get into the market and understand what people want.
“But it is not like you can draw inspiration from the Taj Mahal and put together a car,” says Norris, who’s in New Delhi for Auto Expo 2016. “Design, it is becoming very, very global. You can tailor the product for the market and the infrastructure needs but it has to meet the aspiration, affordability and practical need of the consumer—these three are still the most important factors, which influence buying decision.”
A case in point is the sub 4-metre car. A situation and a segment unique to India and a few other automotive markets. How do you put together a car that can be both roomy and stylish under 4 metres? More often than not, car makers have resorted to the easiest trick in the book—slap a boot on an existing hatchback. Which of these cars look ugly and which don’t, depends on whom you ask. For Norris, who is on his first visit to the country, the sub 4-metre cars don’t sit well. The boot looks like an afterthought.
Pratap Bose, head of design at Tata Motors Ltd, believes this is both a challenge and an opportunity. “India is becoming a port of first call for many manufacturers in certain segments,” he says. “But the sub 4-metre car is by far the hardest car to design. A lot of designers can’t believe how you can do that. And have the head room and luggage room.”
How do you get around this challenge? Get inspiration. For Bose, it is the sub 3.5-metre car in Japan. “The K cars in Japan have 3.395m as length,” he says. “But the kind of products that have emerged from that are so unique. The space utilization, the typology, they have mini-vans, sports cars, everything in that size. So, sometimes from some of these constraints, you can have great output.”
Needless to say, understanding the needs of the market is just one part of the design process. A far bigger part is finding the right designers. Simply put, talent. There, the landscape in India is still in its very early days.
“The talent is coming through now,” says Bose. “But it takes time for talent to mature. See, it is not just raw talent, it is also experience. To convert something from a sheet of paper to sheet metal, there are some incredibly complicated steps. To ensure that the design stays like that throughout. And that comes with a certain maturity. You need an ecosystem to do that in India. A design studio is not just designers. There are people who can do clay modelling, digital modelling, there is a whole team, which is not easy to find in India. This has come up often that many global OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) find it difficult to find the right design people here.”
Nobody knows about this challenge better than Gerard Detourbet, the legendary designer at Renault SA, who designed the Duster and who stepped out of retirement to design the Renault Kwid. Specifically, the CMFA Platform, on which the Kwid is based and which will serve as the base for several other Renault cars. Also Nissan Motor Co. Ltd, Renault’s alliance partner. The Kwid has got off to a flying start, with bookings of more than 100,000 units. Detourbet says a lot of it has to do with the simple design of the car—with a bold, aggressive front.
Ask Detourbet how he went about it and what worked for the Kwid, he puts it rather simply: The car’s looks and affordability compared with what’s being offered in the market by Maruti Suzuki India Ltd.
“That’s the first thing we did,” he says. “Look at Maruti and be as close as possible to what they are doing but a little bit more, so that people will see the car as better.”
Explaining what worked for the Duster is more difficult. “I don’t know. Till date, we don’t know why the Duster worked.”
It is an important point, however vague it may sound. Just to take a case in point, what are the reasons, perhaps, that the Kwid is doing well, where the Datsun has failed to get buyers?
Detourbet says a lot of it has to do with what the company wants to do with the car. The design intention, so to speak. Datsun was launched with the idea of making one of the cheapest cars for India. Not the Kwid.
“During the development of the Kwid, I have completely changed the logic of the car. Unlike Datsun, which is the cheapest. So, during that time, Maruti launched the new Alto. And I was like, oh la, we need to change. So, I increased the number of features in the car. Same price but with more.”