Thursday, April 07, 2011

Raising the Design Bar, on Cars

For the last few days, I have been clued on to entry level luxury cars. Trying to test drive the cars present in the Indian market has been an enriching experience. Some bare facts which are hard to ignore, come to the fore-

Marginal utility reduces after the entry level sedan. The basic features which are being packed in a Rs. 5 Lakh (USD 11000) car (Toyota Etios, Ford Ikon etc.) are great for a city ride. The extra real estate, safety features and comfort features which you get by paying thrice over or multiple times the price are really not worth it. As far as performance is concerned, do I really care, as an Indian consumer, in how many seconds the car will reach top speed? Speaking of safety features, all we get to hear is ABS and airbags. Thankfully, the base models in luxury segment have the air-con, power windows, music player, central locking and even ABS. But it comes to the upper model; one gets airbags, alloy wheels and fog lamps. One does not get air bags for all the seats. Only front passengers are protected. In a situation where usually a chauffeur is driving, imagine the 'safety money' being paid not for you, but for the chauffeur.

Sheet metal thickness does not really change for higher models. That changes only from manufacturer to manufacturer. Skoda uses thicker gauge sheet metal that Honda and Toyota (?). All said and done about the airbags, I think in the Indian situation, thicker sheet-metal for the cabin still has more utility and safety value.

Coming to ride quality, driving Skoda Laura or Superb does not really give you a smooth ride at the rear as Honda Civic can. I get to hear that German car makers believe in 'harder suspension' while Japanese believe in 'softer suspension'. Do I care what they believe in? I need a quality of ride that matches the thousands of dollars being spent over and above my current entry level sedan.

We worked with Volkswagen around five years ago on conducting ethnographic and trend research studies with respect to car users in India. I guess other companies were also conducting huge research on understanding Indian consumers at around the same time. However, it is sad to see that the rear seat features have not been designed for Indian users. Etios did turn both the air-con ducts in the centre to one side so that the rear seat gets better draft. Etios also introduced more leg-space for the rear seat users. However, such basic needs have not been met by any of the luxury car manufacturers, leave aside 'engaging the kids', 'food serving', laptop-station, car-health dash-board at the rear kind of features.

Let's look at another side of luxury evolution- While leather upholstery is sure shot 'luxury', what about 'seat belt height adjustment'. Is this luxury? This is a basic necessity. Why can't this be made mandatory? I really can’t understand if it takes a huge amount of product cost to provide extra compartment on the roof to keep goggles, bills etc. Extra glove space which Etios has managed to offer is really a luxury. The average Indian is not a business traveller. Average moneyed consumers in India travel with a lot of luggage, including food. More compartments are always welcome. Tata Aria has provided (I think) 6 overhead storage compartments. Great! Hopefully this need for more in-cabin storage will be understood by the luxury car segment, beyond the boot (which is empty 80% of the time).

Yesterday I happened to attend a guest lecture by Prof. Elmer Van Grondelle, head of advance automotive design, Delft University. Prof. Elmer's direct and insightful analysis of current auto-styling trends actually brought home the same point in styling as well. 'Poverty' of ideas and individual interpretation v/s best practices is what he talked about. He talked about the exchange of platforms, technologies, packaging between the car manufacturers which is leading to increasingly similar cars across segments and geographies. He also talked about 'stupid' inventions in luxury cars like 'rain sensor on the wind-shield', which starts the wiper automatically. Lines criss-crossing, unaware of the brand legacy, simplicity, optimisation of production process for the sake of design today is hitting blindly all around; something is not right in the way car design and planning is taking shape.

Another important point before leaving this discussion-

Interaction experience at dealerships: One of the dealers in Pune recently switched from Tata Motors to Volkswagen. I imagined a pleasant and efficient change in the people who earlier used to handle a local but powerful Tata brand. But surprisingly, it wasn’t to be! Car models are easier to change than the people's mind-set. By far, Toyota dealership presented the most comforting and personalized experience. India will catch-up fast in product design and brand promises, but design of service and living the promise in brand experience will be the harder task to deal with.