This article is from Open Magazine.
By Aresh Shirali
Whizzing past at over 250 km per hour, the chequered flag is just a blur to a Formula One racer. And it's a flag that flutters with the story of how Mercedes-Benz has zoomed past Audi to regain leadership of India's market for luxury cars after a gap of six long years. The blur here is not about lack of clarity. Of that, there is plenty. It's about the blurring of squares, the blending of black and white, and the blowing away of old notions-- the re-pixillation, as it were, of what it means to be well-wheeled in an age where the 'revolutions' that make our pulses race are the ones displayed 'per minute' on a car's dashboard.
In 2015, Mercedes sold 13,502 sets of wheels, up a stellar 32 per cent over the previous year. Audi, which had led India's luxury car market for the previous three years, sold 11,192 units, up 3 per cent. The figures for BMW, which had stolen Mercedes' lead in 2009 and then had its own three-year run before it fell behind the other two German marques, are still awaited. But no one doubts that Mercedes is the year's top seller in market estimated at 35,000 units overall.
We are in India for a marathon and not a sprint
"We're doing the right things," chuckles Roland Folger, managing director and CEO of Mercedes-Benz India, on being asked for his response to the brand's achievement. "It had been a harsh few years for us earlier," he adds, after a few seconds, "But we always try to relate better to customers--and we have." Arch-rival Audi, meanwhile, draws attention to its 'consistent performance' over the years. "We are in India for a marathon and not a sprint," says Joe King, head, Audi India, "Leadership for us is not just sales volumes; it is about having good quality service, effective customer interaction and strong brand pull."
To the extent that a luxury car must serve as a cradle of comfort on the move, its raison d'être has always been the same: to offer you a kind of floating cushion enclosed in Alpine air that gets you from one place to another without your nerves getting frayed by the rough and tumble of the journey. This, needless to say, has been a need all too acutely felt by the well-off in a country with such bone-rattlers for roads. For decades, the most emblematic satisfier of this need was Rolls-Royce, followed closely by the stately three-pointed star sticking out of the bonnet of a Mercedes-Benz, a chauffeur- driven car for top executives and dignitaries designed to assure the grey eminence in its backseat the calm solitude of space required to mull over the next business deal or global treaty.
It's a classic image the company has held with pride ever since it entered India as a car maker in 1994. "A lot of it has to do with history," says Folger, highlighting the brand's presence at vintage rallies.
If Mercedes' logo looks like a peace symbol, BMW's blue-and-white insignia is inspired by the propulsion of a turbine. And once the latter hit Indian streets in 2006 as the 'ultimate driving machine' for the wealthy motorist who'd rather be at the wheel himself, the market began to slice itself up accordingly. For a while, the preferences were clear cut, the brand images sharp, the appeals well marked out. But global distinctions do not always survive the peculiarity of Indian roads, and by the time Audi came along in 2007 with the Olympics-like sportsmanship of its four-ringed logo, the unallied buyer had begun veering in favour of a balance between the tranquil cruise of a Mercedes and the sporty thrill of a BMW.
Rapid economic expansion, meanwhile, was turning the buyer younger by the year. Instead of the C and E Class of classic comfort, yuppie talk began turning towards BMW's 3 Series versus Audi's A4 and the 5 Series versus the A6. What Audi had going for it in its early stages was its spiffy diesel vehicles. With their Turbocharged Direct Injection (TDI) engines developed by Audi's owner Volkswagen, they had extra air being fanned in to generate the kind of power--and acceleration--that only petrol-fired pistons were once known for. With diesel no longer a dull drive, the cabins as cushy as ever, tech fittings all rather space-age and fuel costs so low, Audi had an advantage few had foreseen. Its rivals scrambled to outdo it, of course, but the company has been quite the fast- moving target, turning out better cars year after year. Its Quattro four-wheel-drives have been winners, for example, and its lights that adapt to ambient conditions have won rave reviews. "Our brand," says Audi's King, "has found a fan following among young achievers--their average age being 30-35--who are increasingly buying our cars to reward themselves for their achievements."
The rush of the recent past that would reshape brand perceptions, however, was of another kind of adrenaline.
Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes speeds past the chequered flag at the F1 British Grand Prix in Silverstone last year (Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters)
Formula One junkies saw it coming. In March 2014, as Nico Rosberg sped past the flag to claim victory for Mercedes- AMG in the Melbourne Grand Prix, it signalled more than just the end of Red Bull's domination of the world's greatest spectacle of speed. It had observers marvelling at what Mercedes AMG--a UK-based firm bought by the German company several years earlier--had come up with, now that the rules had switched racers to smaller engines for a cleaner competition. What it had, we learnt, was a turbocharged hybrid that used petrol and electric power to perform new tricks with kinetic and heat energy, and Rosberg's Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton would make the best of it to score win after win for the rest of the season. The Ferrari duo of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen just couldn't keep up. Hamilton ended 2014 as well as 2015 as world champion, giving the three-pointed star the sort of champagne-splashed podium prominence that forms the wet dreams of auto makers.
"The team's run has simply been spectacular," says an F1 fan, an analyst with a foreign bank in his mid-forties who bought a Mercedes C Class Avant Garde a few months ago. Of the 19 races held in 2015, Mercedes recorded as many as 12 first-plus-second finishes, the most in a single season for any car 'constructor' in Formula One history. "It's had its contribution," says Folger, "It has given us credibility with younger customers."
If the rub-off effect on the brand's image has been dramatic, so has the way Mercedes has recrafted its regular range of cars. In defiance of the marque's classic look, the new design exudes a youthful dynamism. The logo has been magnified and placed on the car's grille, even as its boxy expanse has been replaced by a sleek stance with wind-easing curves along the edges and chiselled motion lines along the sides.
Folger with the Mercedes-AMG GTS
"Why did I buy an Avant Garde? Looks, performance, interior comfort and features-- it's fully loaded," says the analyst, "Also because the dealership was so friendly." The company has been expanding its dealer network furiously, with 15 new ones sprouting last year, taking the total to 82 (of which five are for AMG vehicles). "We put a lot of effort in training dealers," says Folger, pointing out that the firm has also emerged the best for the second year in a row on JD Power's Customer Satisfaction survey for after-sales service. "The loyalty of customers is a key issue for us," says Folger, "If Volvo is 'safety' and BMW is 'the joy of driving', Mercedes is 'the ultimate luxury ownership experience'. We have extreme luxury as defined by Maybach, and then there's the drive towards sportiness with AMG."
Of late, Mercedes' big head-turner on the streets has been the GTS sports car it launched just a few months ago for a cool Rs 2.4 crore. Equipped with a 4-litre monster of an AMG engine (F1 cars have 1.6- litre engines though they're a lot lighter), it packs in enough vroom to get from 0 to 100 kmph in 3.8 seconds. Its top speed: a claimed 310 km per hour. While the Porsche 911, Lamborghini Huracán and even the Audi R8 may boast of slightly better pick-up, the GTS has clearly broken into the top league of tarmac scorchers.
At the end, it all goes to accentuate the spiffy new image the marque has given itself. Among sedans, the CLA it rolled out in early 2015--with its aerodynamic styling and fancy navigation tools--has led this new thrust. In Folger's description, "It speaks a sportier design language." Priced in a range of just Rs 30-35 lakh, it has taken many a test driver by surprise.
Little wonder, then, that the average age of Mercedes buyers in India has fallen to 37 from 45 some five years ago. Folger mentions an all-brand Nielsen survey that reveals Mercedes as "a top ten choice" among 15-25-year-olds. "For years, it was a car for the financially arrived, the wealthy businessman," he marvels, "Now it's a top preference of the young."
In terms of sales, the big gainer of the brand's new image has been Mercedes' mainstay, its C-Class, the latest avatar of which is back in hot favour of a market segment--the Rs 30-40 lakh bracket-- that accounts for an estimated 40 per cent of all luxury cars sold in India. "It's fun to drive, has great pick-up and is really smooth on the highway," says the analyst of his new purchase. It's no sports car, but so long as it offers the feel of one, it satisfies an inner urge for a spot of raciness to break the routine of luxury as usual. Like Audi and BMW vehicles, the car accomplishes this by offering a variety of 'Agility Select' modes. The idea of this is to provide the experience of various cars in one. So if 'Eco' mode is engineered to minimise the car's fuel consumption (and emissions), its 'Sport' mode re-gears everything to accelerate rapidly in response to the slightest flicker of the driver's intent. It's not the sort of ride that heart patients are advised against, but it sure hurls you back in your seat.
No less dizzying has been the pace at which Mercedes rolled out its fancier models (the all-new S Class, for example). In all, the company unveiled 15 new vehicles last year, a flurry by auto industry standards. But it wasn't just about that, Folger would like to clarify. "Contrary to general belief, it's not just the number of launches, but also the touchpoints, the sheer amount of [engagement]. We had dealers inviting customers over [to see a new vehicle] once a month, sometimes more." There will be no let up this year, he says. The company has already had one launch in 2016 and has 11 more lined up for the rest of the year. The dealership web, meanwhile, is set to expand by 10 outlets, some of them in Tier 2 and 3 cities.
Audi, on the other hand, had 10 new launches last year, most strikingly its Audi RS6 Avant sports car, and promises extra action this year. "Going ahead," says King, "our strategy will focus on showcasing the brand's commitment to offering customers an unparalleled luxury experience of class-defining products and world-class services through experiential drives and marketing initiatives." One can expect a vroomful year ahead.
Diesel is not part of the problem, but the solution
With emission issues in the public glare these days, customer preferences are not all that car makers must watch, though. There is regulation too. The Delhi NCR clampdown on sales of diesel vehicles with 2-litre-plus engines has turned the sales chart of several fast-selling models screechy. Audi, whose green credentials took a hit after Volkswagen's emission scandal last year, has called for a '360-degree cohesive approach' to the environment. Mercedes is busy battling perceptions of diesel being particularly bad for the environment (four of every five vehicles it sells in India use this fuel). "Diesel is not part of the problem, but the solution," argues Folger. With adequate technology, not only is this fuel better on carbon emissions, he claims, its nitrogen exhaust can be cleansed to near perfection; and it's about 20-25 per cent more fuel efficient too, the reason diesel cars sell so much in the first place. What of the Government's decision to shift to Bharat Stage VI norms? "It doesn't change our plans," says Folger, "We'd rather have it earlier: by 2018 instead of 2020. We have the technology available." Mercedes is already on Euro 6 in Europe and a switch- over in India would reduce emissions by 80 per cent, he estimates. What's missing is fuel availability. Even so, he suggests, tax incentives could be used as a policy nudge to hasten the switch.
The trickier policy to frame in the years ahead could be one for driverless cars, a concept that almost every automobile major in the world has been working on. "Audi is committed to 'piloted driving'," says King, "and feels it's the future of mobility." It could, of course, shift the entire paradigm of four-wheeled transport-- though it's still not clear if people are ready to give up manual control of their vehicles. "It's a challenge, but it's technically feasible," says Folger, "What you'll need is a new set of legislation. If we have an accident, who's at fault?"
Until that question is satisfactorily settled, wheeled luxury will probably evolve along the curve it's already on: with the thrill of what's under the hood as crucial to the experience as a cushy cabin. And it won't take a Rihanna to get anyone to 'shut up and drive'. A heady blur of anticipation would be enough.
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