Monday, October 03, 2005

I don't feel like bitching out the media today

So, in part of an occasional series where I don't bash my cluless peers, I'll write about a clueless company instead...
General Motors India, who are even more clueless than their American parent. (note no update since 2003)
Over the weekend a friend of mine asked me whether he should buy a Tavera or an Innova. Now, because I often put on my hat as an Automotive-Geni-ass (which ranks alongside my tech-writing prowess as stupendously awful) I though about the answer for two seconds and told my friend to buy the Toyota. This despite the fact that the Innova has a worse turning radius than a Tata 407 Light Truck, but nonetheless, I told this person to plonk down 10 lakhs and go in for the top-end ‘V’ model, the same one my crazy father has bought as a Labrador carrier.

But, why did I give the Tavera such short shrift – it actually is an Isuzu, but GM is all their intelligence has gone and branded it with an American brand. While this hasn’t killed the Tavera as yet, GM India’s brand intelligence did effectively kill the Subaru Forrester calling it a Chevrolet. The Tavera is a decent vehicle, but given Indians fascinations with all things East Asian (heck, I have a thing for Zhang Zi-Yi), Isuzu might have sold better. Similarly, when somebody asked me if the Optra was a good car, I called it a “Korean piece of shit.” Despite my not exactly liking the Hyundai Elantra (or any Hyundai car other than the Terracan, an maybe the pretty Sonata Embera and the really snazzy Azera they have launched in the US) I will never refer to any Hyundai car the same way. Anyway, I’ld shun both the Optra and the Elantra and buy a Toyota Corolla.

GM launched the ‘Chevrolet’ brand in India because they felt that Indians would be able to associate with it better (pre-1973 oil crisis Bollywood movies all used Chevrolet cars – somehow the baddies always drove them). Now, GM made a couple of fatal errors here – not too many cars were sold in India before 1973 and in a country where half the population is under 30, 1973 was a long time ago (which is why The Emergency of 1975 can never be a rallying point for votes). Not just that, GM India actually admitted (indirectly) that they screwed up with the Opel brand.

Well, actually the sad thing is that the Opel Astra and the Opel Corsa were decently nice cars. For one thing, the Astra had the most amazing ride of any car in the 7-10 lakh price range. The same with the Corsa, which had stupendously good comfort – it’s just that GM cars had issues. Firstly, sales and service – GM dealers were (and are) as obnoxious as their management. Secondly, product upgrades came few and far between. So while the Astra and Cortsa underwent upgrades in Europe, nothing happened in India – the management of GM over here believed that their cars were still the bee’s knees’, but there was something called the internet. Then, as I just mentioned twice, there was the small issue of GM India’s thoroughly incompetent management – a situation that has not improved.

Their media relations verge on the disasterous, no wait, they are disasterous. GM India used to fete auto-magazine journalists with junket after junket, but somehow forgot mainstream media, when you did make a request for an interview, their former MD used to show nakhra and refused to meet under the rank of Associate Editor. This same man when called for a panel discussion on a TV Channel with BVR Subbu and Jagdish Khattar of Hyundai and Maruti respectively said that he wouldn’t appear unless Ratan Tata was on the show, aukaat dekho.

Once when I did get a meeting, after waiting for a month, I was told in no uncertain terms to get my Senior Editor along, which was fine (other than the fact that I had endure a drive back with him – which was a bit on the frightening side) but even he couldn’t understand what was up with the company.

Of course, GM will praise Narendra Modi to high heaven – after all their plant is located in their state. They praised him to high heaven despite the fact that the Gujarat riots shut their plant down for three days, burnt down two dealerships and held up transport for two weeks. There was not a peep, which was as bad as the large Indian investors in the state. Despite foreign governments damning the riots, the most damning indictments could have come from foreign investors – but GM praises Modi at whatever opportunity they get. Quite unlike the Japanese who are always willing to pour scorn on the Haryana government. For a long time, GM was courted by the UP government to buy the defunct Daewoo plant at Surajpur, but in a weird display of sensibility, GM has decided not to buy that rusting hulk. Instead they are most probably going to pour a few hudred million more into Halol. Which will mean that Modi will take out even more full-page adverts in the newspapers about how Gujarat is ‘the bestest state in the whole wide world’.

Of course, this is not exactly a case of a company that is doing stunningly well across the world is it? Adam Opel AG is losing sales in Europe, and GM is America is quickly resembling a joke. But unlike other automakers, they say they don’t have a small car. Yet, when the Suzuki Swift was launched, GM say they had the first super-mini the Corsa Sail – however, sales charts show that the Swift sells 5000-odd cars a month while the heavily discounted Sail (cheaper than the cheapest Swift) sells around 100 a month. The Optra is seeing sales drop because of bad fuel economy – so much so that GM is resorting to buying articles in one particularly unscrupulous auto magazine about how the Optra gives amazing milage. The truth be told – you’ll get better milage in a Honda Accord – the Optra 1.8 in Delhi will barely hit 10km/litre, the Accord 2.4 gives 8-9km/litre easily - in a far more powerful (and needless to say) and better to drive car which though more expensive is extremely frugal.

Again, I do drive cars as part of my ‘I-do-everything’ job brief – and the Innova is a really pleasant car to drive. Sure it feels like the Queen Mary II while taking a turn, but unlike the Tavera, the Innova is far better behaved in a sharp turn than you would expect it to be. I mean the Tavera isn’t too bad, while engine noise and the notchy gearshift are issues, its nice enough to drive. Yet, don’t ask me why I still feel the old Qualis was a better people carrier. And while GM offer discounts to get the Tavera moving, the second-hand market for the Qualis is going through the roof – with prices actually appreciating!

Now, GM India has decided that they will drop the Corsa altogether and we will see something called the Chevrolet Aveo. Which they expect will be a ‘Swift Killer’. In classic GM style, they will try and price the Aveo below the Swift, but given that GM hardly has Maruti-esque volumes they will make a loss of few tens of thousands on every car sold just like the Optra. And still will not manage to buy enough sales, because the Aveo will surface with some really silly fault three months down the line. Or GM’s grouchy bunch of dealers will put all buyers off completely and they will start walking into far friendlier Maruti and Hyundai showrooms and drive off with Swifts (if they can find one with a waiting list under three months) or Getz’. And somehow, they would also unfailingly manage to piss off one or another very important customer (like a SC Lawyer), who would then would go out of his way to kill the brand. Or better still, their after-sales will continue to be so bad and expensive that you’ll never want to buy a GM product anyway.

However, for a bit of fun, GM will then make a huge Rs 100 crore advertising campaign which tries to show off their Indian-ness (and somehow manages to show them as the most completely north Indian company) which will be very arty-farty, because GM doesn’t do anything else (little sardarji kid, no way!) and which will gloriously fail. Of course, bad car adverts are not GM’s forte alone, I’m still trying to work out the last Maruti Esteem advert – but the new Toyota Innova advert is pretty nice mind you.
So when people write about Toyota becoming the world’s #1 carmaker in three years time and Hyundai taking over the position of #2, I’m not sad for GM. Not because I’m not American and live in Detroit, but because GM is possibly one of the stupidest companies around. And because they always consistently manage to hire idiots from the bottom of the class from ‘where-the-hell-are-they-located’ B-Schools. Plus, if nothing else - the sheer arrogance with which GM has treated the Indian market. While the company went ra-ra over the Chinese market, their reward there is the Chery QQ - a total rip-off of the Matiz, in India they gave us old cars and idiotic management and in a few years time when the Chinese learn to build their own cars and the Indian market booms while Americans buy Toyota's, Honda's and Hyundai's which don't drink petrol like water, GM will be completely doomed and I will really not be sorry.
So my friend went ahead and booked his Innova today. Delivery will take three-four weeks unlike the next-day at your doorstep delivery of the Tavera, but I’m sure he will be happier.
EDIT : Since we are talking about car companies and big people carriers - I mean big by Indian
standards, i came upon this report in Jalopnik, which says Suzuki, parents of our very own Maruti Udyog Limited are going to showcase two new concept vans at the Tokyo Motor show. The one pictured here is called the Ionis - which I have a very funny feeling might be showcased at the Maruti stall in next January's Auto Expo at Pragati Maidan. Now, don't laugh at these designs because the last major concept car that Suzuki highlighted was something called the Concept-S, which other than the kink being removed from the C-pillar is today known as the Suzuki Swift. Today's insane engineering could become tomorrow's call-ventre wagon!


Anonymous said...

Just brilliant!!! Very interesting style. Keep it up.

rums said...

i agree GM is completely clueless. i used to know someone called balendran there, who used to drive me nuts. then i realized that he is an ex-govt guy!

K said...

Sadly for us Rums, Balendran is STILL in GM and they've made him a Director no less. With him running media management, GM is a disaster zone.

Bonatellis said...

ohhh shucks ... i thought I'd remind u of Bal-endran (if u know what it means in Bengali) ... but then I see someone already has ... ;-)

Vijayeta said...

Hey K,
Came over yr blog thru someone who visited mine and thought the K in my last piece of you :) I was asked to verify. No, you're not THAT K, but yr blog's nice, since i moved frm Delhi too a month back and am frm media. Which is also why i find this blog sooo interesting ;) So miss all that buzz n gossip here :(

thalassa_mikra said...

GM's ass was saved by the SUV market, when the Japanese carmakers invaded in the 1980s. There's an elaborate protectionist system under which, strangely, every Japanese manufacturer has a plant in the US, but most US companies like Ford and GM have moved all manufacturing overseas.

But with gas/petrol prices soaring, SUV sales have stagnated and the resale market in SUVs has really slumped. GM needs a big idea, fast (Umm....Toyota's already light-years ahead in the hybrid game).

tony said...

I thought the Optra was a very nice car. But very intersting thoughts as usual.. And I sure would have to take ur advice before buying a car, which I don't intend to as long I am in Mumbai.

Anonymous said...

That was interesting reading.

You must have heard this : "What would Jesus Drive?" Well one of the answers is: Honda Accord, cause; Christ says: "For I did not speak of my own Accord..." (John's gospel)

Its funny how Americans use Gods name in everything ... it's high time GM/ford; core American auto-industries; change their strategy of producing monster set of wheels or behemoths of the roads: Stupid Useless vehicles( SUV) vans n pick-up truscks! At a place where 3 of 4 workers ride to workalone and carpool or mass-transport is highly underdeveloped; altenative strategies are needed. If Americans need God's intervention, global warming and the fury of hurricans are here to speak; dont you hear God's message :""pursue your enemies with your Tempest and terrify them with your Storm" (Plasm)