One might imagine that a car brand that redefines the meaning of personal transport in a country of a billion people must be pretty powerful. And yet the unassuming people's car, the Maruti 800 (always referred to by its cubic capacity), has ruled the Indian roads for almost two decades and keeps the cash registers ringing for its manufacturer – the Suzuki Motor Corporation, acclaimed for its small car ingenuity worldwide.
Not surprisingly, the name Maruti has become generic for "small car" in India, since it is invariably most Indian's first car. It is probably also the world's cheapest car, priced at US$ 5,000. Considering the car's accessibility, Maruti's tagline "Realize your dreams" seems especially apt.
The car's humble beginning dates back to the year 1982 when Suzuki Motor Corporation entered into a joint venture with the Government of India to manufacture fuel-efficient passenger cars under the brand name Maruti (a winged Hindu deity) at its plant outside Delhi. The company was christened Maruti Udyog Limited (MUL), and the first car rolled off the lot in December 1983 with a 796cc 3-cylinder engine that delivered 39.5 bhp at a very affordable price of US$ 960. Additionally the car ushered in a work culture and Japanese philosophy for super-efficient manufacturing. It was a formula that brought about the renaissance of the Indian components industry, rebuilding it from scratch over 20 years.
Doubting Thomases wrote the car off as a "matchbox" for its diminutive proportions and pronounced it likely to cave in at the slightest bump. But the seemingly innocuous-looking car proved that looks are deceptive when it debuted on the Indian roads. For its tiny dimensions the car was surprisingly spacious enough to carry four adults. It did its job with great élan and proved a delight to drive in start-stop city traffic. Suzuki's precision technology coupled with Maruti's sheer determination and will to attain high levels of indigenousness have enabled a value-for-money pricing strategy for its vehicles.
Buoyed by the 800's success, MUL launched the car's van avatar, the Omni, in 1984. The van was an instant hit among large families and taxi operators who took to its sheer functionality and economy. Between 1973 and 1983, the year Maruti 800 made its advent, the Indian car market had stagnated at a total volume of 35,000 cars. Maruti 800 was the change agent, reaching a total production of 1 million vehicles in March 1994. It crossed the 2 million mark in 1997. Together, 2.5 million units of the two models (Omni) have been sold so far, representing a staggering 50 percent of all cars sold in India in the last 18 years.
Over its lifetime the Maruti 800 has been put to the test on the most severest of Indian terrain (known for its inhospitable nature) by the most insensitive Indian drivers, but the car's excellent maneuverability assisted by a lightweight body structure weighing all of 665kgs with an efficient small capacity engine makes it extremely drivable, leaving its critics behind. There have been numerous instances where the Maruti 800 has registered six digit mileage measurements on the speedometer without an engine overhaul. The car's versatility can be gauged from the fact that it has assumed every role for which it was not originally conceived. But the USP of this car, which makes it all the more invincible and enviable, is its unmatched fuel efficiency of 16-18 kilometers per liter under any circumstances coupled with ridiculously cheap spares backed by a nationwide strong sales and service support. No other car on Indian roads is more economical to own and run, with spare parts available on virtually every corner of the sub-continent.
The road to fame was not easy for Maruti. For over a decade, MUL's focus had been churning out as many 800s as possible, rather than doing anything to the car itself. The only major facelifts given to the car were in 1986 and 1997 with the body exteriors. When competition arrived in 1999 from the Korean carmakers Hyundai and Daewoo in the form of flagship brands Santro and Matiz, Maruti 800's near ten-year monopoly came under fire.
Maruti became further waylaid when India's second largest automaker, Telco, challenged the automaker for non-compliance with Euro2 emission norms. Suzuki responded aggressively by transplanting the car's engine with a modern MPFI unit and improved the car's breathing characteristics through a 4-valve-per-cylinder head; a new 5-speed gearbox further complemented the engine. The result was a zippier Maruti 800, which delivered 47 horses from the same 800cc displacement and achieved a top speed of 140kph. The car was widely acclaimed as a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Over the years, Maruti has quietly set the stage for the successful launch of Suzuki's international range in the Indian car market by way of the Zen, Alto, Wagon R, Gypsy, Esteem/Swift, Versa and the Baleno, all backed by the inherent value proposition of high on quality, fuel efficient, and compared with the competition, low in cost. This formula has been largely responsible for a new generation of Indian car users swearing by the Maruti brand name.
Maruti 800 also holds the distinction of being the first "made in India" car to be exported to select European and South American markets. In 2000, MUL was the lead in its home market and in the JD Power Customer Satisfaction study.
However, today the Indian car market is in a transition phase with the Maruti 800 steadily losing market share to bigger hatchbacks. Although the car retains its numero uno status, its market share has declined from 49.5 percent in 1991 to a modest 21.7 percent now. Realizing that the 800 is toward the end of its product lifecycle, Suzuki has conceived the AltoLX as its replacement. The AltoLX has Maruti’s 800cc engine bolted on to a contemporary chassis, which conforms to the latest safety norms.
Despite the passing of the torch, for now Maruti 800 remains the best-selling car in India since its launch two decades ago. Its low cost structure remains unmatched even today. No manufacturer, not even MUL itself, would be able to make a car like the 800 today, at the same price. The very fact that Maruti 800 still adorns the porch of millions of Indian houses is itself a tribute to the inherent strength of the car. As foreign automakers make a beeline for the still virgin Indian automobile market, Maruti 800 continues to gratify the basic commuter needs for the common Indian. It will go down in automotive history as a car that put a nation on wheels.