How The Indian Car Market Is The Bizarro Version Of America'sS

For the second time on my trip to India, I find myself entering a building and having a chain of flowers draped over my neck as a woman paints a mark on my forehead, and then showers me in flower petals. I never really know what to do in these situations, afraid that as soon as I open my mouth they'll realize the grave error in judgement that was made by treating me with such lavish respect. Plus, I've never had this happen to me at a car dealership.

I was visiting Koncept, a Mahindra dealership in Delhi, to check out the Mahindra lineup in their pristine, unsullied state and to talk to the staff there about what the automotive world is like in India. What I learned was fascinating, as it's an automotive landscape wildly different than  America's, but with a number of traits that make it very appealing to the kind of gearheads that make up the core of our audience. Our audience is also full of people who are usually asked to leave (quietly, please) most American-market companies' focus groups.

The staff at Koncept, from owner to sales manager to service manager to front-line sales people all sat down with me and an office-full of food to explain how the Indian car market works. Here's what I learned.

The biggest difference in the Indian car market as opposed to the American market that our readers will likely find appealing is that around 99% of Indian cars are manual shift. Automatics are for the rich, lazy minority. Pretty much everyone, from grandparents to cricket moms to the 16 year old girl who just got her license are shifting their own gears. That's so far from the reality of the US it was actually strange to see, say, a minivan with a long 5-speed lever sprouting from the floor.

 The other obvious difference is that almost everything is diesel. It's not shocking for, say a Mahindra Bolero pick-up, but all the sedans and small hatchbacks are diesel, too.

How The Indian Car Market Is The Bizarro Version Of America'sS

For these two criteria, manual shift and diesel, it's like India is the exact inverse of the US market. Like if you could put both car markets in a container together they'd anihilate each other in a colossal burst of light and energy, and you could power the world with your incredible car market/anti-car market reactor. I smell a Nobel Prize for somebody!

The Mahindra range is pretty SUV-heavy, which makes much more sense in India than it does in the US, if we're honest. India is perfect SUV country: often very rugged driving conditions that could demand higher, beefier suspensions and 4WD, a culture that tends to carry lots of people and/or cargo per car (almost everything has jump seats in the wayback), and a traffic situation that means recreational driving is probably best attempted off-road. 

So, while India is an exclellent argument for the use of SUVs, it also manages to simultaneously make the opposing argument that no one really needs an SUV. This happens because for many of the situations you'd think you'd need an SUV (hauling huge things, rough terrain driving, etc.) people all over the place are doing with tiny hatchbacks and miniature 25 HP vans and trucks. 

So it's a little confusing. Unlike America, where 90% of SUVs probably never encounter terrain rougher than driving over someone's spilled Slurpee, Indian SUVs routinely get used for the purposes they were designed. Even though you can do much of the same stuff in a tiny econobox.

How The Indian Car Market Is The Bizarro Version Of America'sS

Make sense? Good, because the Indian market gets weirder. Indians are extremely value-conscious, which makes sense considering that the country is by no means wealthy. Sure, it's getting better every year, and there's a growing middle class, but money's generally tight. Indians are, collectively, some of the biggest savers of money in the world, so before they buy something like a car they research the hell out of it.

Now the tricky contradictory part here is that they can also be quite status-conscious, all the way across the economic spectrum. That's why, I was told, the Tata Nano hasn't met with the sales success it should have: they made too big a deal out of how cheap it was.

This is odd to hear as an outsider, because that's the big story about the car — a new car for under $3000? How do you not make a big deal out of that? 

The issue is that while there are possibly millions of Indians who could really use such an inexpensive car, none of them really wants anyone to know that they could really use such an inexpensive car. No matter how poor you may be, it seems that you'll always want to seem like you're not quite that poor. So you have the two very diametrically opposed forces of the need for something cheap and efficient but never letting anyone know it's cheap. This sort of idea of car as status symbol is, of course, all over the world, but it's interesting to see how big a factor it is even in the lowest levels of the economic ladder.

That's a tricky line to walk as a manufacturer. 

Another factor that would play well to Jalops in America is the need for Indian cars to be relatively easily fixed, without much specialized equipment. In the US, that goal would suggest the car is targeting DIY or hobbyists who like to work on their own cars — again, like many of our readers. But in India, it doesn't quite mean that. In India, there's not a lot of DIY car tinkering going on by the owners, but there are an awful lot of small repair shops doing work in very, very rudimentary conditions. Conditions probably similar or much worse than an average American's home garage. 

These shops don't have lifts, customized tooling, dedicated computerized diagnostic systems or even front doors, sometimes. They have basic tools, maybe a gas welding rig, and that's about it. So anything, say, Mahindra sells needs to be at least somewhat repairable by these little shops. That means if they're releasing some new engine technology they have to educate these smaller mechanics to know how to work on it effecively. This is also important because many people in smaller villages and towns rely on the mechanic for car purchasing advice. 

The result is rugged cars with fairly easily accessiblity for common maintenance and repairs. This is in stark contrast to most modern cars sold in the US, where the engine is as likely as not to be hidden under a plastic mask, and access to components and fasteners never considered human hands in the equation.

How The Indian Car Market Is The Bizarro Version Of America'sS

So far, there's some really Jalop-friendly stuff here: manual transmissions, torquey, efficent diesels, accessible repair — but there's a big downside, too. No sports cars. 

Seriously, no one even sells so much as a hot hatch here. In fact, Mahindra's SUVs are the closest you get to an everyman's sports car. Mahindra used their new SUV, the XUV 500, for a track-day event at India's lovely new F1 track. A diesel SUV, used as a track-day car. Think about that.

The reason is that traffic is just generally too awful to have a fast car. Sure, there's some R8s and Jags and BMWs for rich guys, but they have to wait until late at night to even get those things into third gear. Delhi is the only place I've ever seen a one-cylinder auto rickshaw beat an Audi R8 on the road. Because traffic is the great leveler.

Also, if you have a lot of money and get a fancy car, you're much more likely to have a driver than in the US. So what's the point of a tight-handling BMW 5-series if you're not going to drive it?

So, there's no FR-S, no GTIs. no LFAs, or any other combination of three letters that means speedy fun. Right now in India, driving fun means leaving the road.

This is a young market, only really having exploded since around 2000, so things could easily change. As it stands now, the Indian market is wildly different from the West. But it's pretty fascinating as well, and a brutal, unforgiving incubator that's turning out more and more innovative, capable cars every year.