Gavin Green's review of the 2012 Delhi auto show

Published: 05 January 2012

Quick question. What do you know about the Indian motor industry? I asked a couple of friends, car literate but not car nuts, before I set out for Delhi, and both cited the single fact that they still make the Hindustan Ambassador there (a 1950s Morris Oxford to anyone west of the Himalayas).

We westerners have such a quaint and clichéd view of India that you’re probably expecting me to report that the 2012 Delhi motor show saw the unveiling of the Rover SD1 or the Austin Maestro. I am pleased to report this was not so. (I can further add that there was no Hindustan Ambassador on a show stand, although production still chugs away in Calcutta).

Mind you, old British motor enthusiasts may be pleased to hear that there were new vehicles displayed by Ashok Leyland and Royal Enfield. There is still a corner of a foreign field that is forever England.

Delhi auto show 2012: electric, hybrid and SUVs star – just like in West

Instead, rather prosaically, the main themes of the Delhi show were a plethora of electric and hybrid cars, and loads of new production and prototype SUVs. Which, rather disappointingly, is exactly what happens at a western car show.

Just as in the west, most of the new EVs and hybrids on display were mere green PR posturing, no more likely to hit production anytime soon than India is likely to abandon the naan for a loaf of Hovis. One exception, likely to strike fear in the heart of most  London drivers, is that a new baby EV was unveiled by Reva, makers of those Bangalore-built G-Wizs that ply UK city streets, aimed at gullible Greens. The new one is bigger, has a bigger range, and looks better, although these things are relative.

Small Ford SUV makes world debut

Of the new many new SUVs on show, the most commendable – and easily the most significant for Europeans – was the new Ford EcoSport. It is the first major international launch, by a global maker, at an Indian motor show. This Fiesta-based urban SUV was designed in Brazil – where it will replace the existing South America-only EcoSport – and will be made at a Ford factory in Chennai, among other locations. World Ford boss Alan Mulally was on hand to unveil it, and so was global design boss J Mays, who described it as ‘aspirational but still low cost’. He claimed it was perfectly suited to India, where even freeways are frequently scarred with crater-sized potholes. It will be sold in Asia, South America and Europe – but not North America (who prefer their SUVs XL-sized).

Local market leader Maruti Suzuki had a handsome B-segment SUV concept, called the XA Alpha (built on a Suzuki Swift platform), while Mahindra also had a striking new SUV. Both had more than a hint of Range Rover Evoque in their styling.

Land Rover Defender concept stars in ‘second home market’

Meanwhile the new size-zero Range Rover made its Indian debut, alongside a brace of Land Rover DC100 concepts. They were the familiar DC100 and roofless DC100 Sport prototypes, first shown at the Frankfurt Show, and in Delhi after appearances at the LA and Dubai shows, as Land Rover gauges global reaction. They now sport handsome red paintjobs and the hardtop gets a contrasting white roof.

Jaguar Land Rover boss Ralf Speth describes India as ‘our second home market’, in deference to the company’s ownership by Tata, and says reaction to DC100 has been ‘overwhelmingly favourable’, Apparently, only old Defender diehards are giving it a consistent thumbs down, in a vain attempt to stop the old icon going to the grave. Just as classic Mini diehards, initially, hated the BMW Mini.

Talking to Speth, design boss Gerry McGovern and Land Rover brand boss John Edwards – all of whom enthuse about the DC100 – I don’t expect the design to change massively before production starts within four years. Just as important, Ratan Tata loves it. Company patriarch Tata and his heir apparent, Cyrus Mistry, were both on the JLR stand for the press conference, and Mr Tata was looking rather pleased with his decision to buy JLR – against much advice – four years ago.

Despite receiving much flak in India for his investment, especially when Lehman Brothers took a dive, JLR (especially Land Rover) is now highly profitable, and expanding ambitiously. Other JLR models may soon join the Freelander on an Indian production line (in Pune), while an announcement on Chinese production is imminent. Meanwhile, production in the UK at Halewood and Solihull boom. Jaguar also strongly hinted that it would launch a sub-XF priced car within four years – a 3-series rival, in effect – but wouldn’t give details. A straight X-type replacement, it will not be.

Tata Nano: cleverest small car of past decade

Tata showed new iterations of the refreshing Nano, the most intelligently conceived small car since the Audi A2, never mind that it seems cruelly misunderstood by a sizeable chunk of the Indian motoring media, who – like their western counterparts – seem obsessed by anything big, shiny and fast. Meanwhile the brilliant Pixel baby car concept, first shown at last year’s Geneva show, made its Indian debut. They were the two best local cars at Delhi, by a long way.

The Nano has now bred low price rivals, too, of which the most interesting was probably the Bajaj RE60, a four-wheel version of that maker’s ubiquitous (in India) three-wheel auto rickshaw.

So what was the Delhi show like? In some ways, it was just like any western car show, with big crowds, loads of shiny new cars, bright lights, pretty girls draped over metal, and much testosterone talk. But India is never like the west, no matter how much the locals like to imitate. Thank goodness. I know of no other car show in the world – certainly not in Europe, America or Japan – where locals crouch outside the show halls cooking chapattis on small gas stoves, or where showgoers shelter from the sun under the big dusty leathery leaves of banyan trees, where stray dogs wander, or where rusty old buses with smoky exhausts and glassless windows convey – on press day – journalists from hall to hall. India – big charming chaotic bureaucratic filthy noisy smelly wonderful inimitable India – is, as always, unlike anywhere else in the world.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience