Will Your Next Car be Made in India?

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Arko Datta / Reuters

Ganesh Adhav (L), an employee of Volkswagen, takes pictures of his parents at the German automaker's plant in Chakan, India, on Dec. 12, 2009

India, home of the $2,500 Tata Motors Nano, is quickly becoming the capital of a new generation of tiny econo-cars as major auto manufacturers crowd into the fast-growing market. Over the next 18 to 24 months, Honda, Toyota, Ford, General Motors and Nissan-Renault are all launching compact vehicles for India, which is rising as a manufacturing and export hub for cheap, fuel-efficient transportation.

With auto sales in the West in a deep slump, 2009 saw carmakers increasingly focus on developing countries like China and India, which have largely shrugged off the global recession and where disposable incomes continue to grow rapidly. China this year will surpass the U.S as the world's largest car market, while India has become the largest market for small cars, according to Dilip Chenoy, director general of the Society for Indian Automobile Manufacturers. Four out of every five cars sold in India are small cars, defined as vehicles with engines displacing less than 1.2 liters.

Suzuki India leads the segment with a 46% share, followed by Hyundai at 16.5% and Tata Motors at 14%. But the rankings are set to change as others pile in. On Dec. 12, Volkswagen announced its first made-in-India compact, the Polo, which will be manufactured at Chakan, 110 miles (175 km.) from Mumbai. India will also be the lead country for Honda Motors' planned global small car — tentatively named the 2CV — which will begin selling by the end of 2011. Struggling General Motors began producing the pint-sized Chevrolet Spark in India last year and plans to roll out another compact, the Chevrolet Beat, in the first half of 2010, while Ford Motors CEO Alan Mulally unveiled a made-in-India four-door hatchback, the Figo, in New Delhi in September.

Meanwhile Nissan's Micra hatchback will debut in India in May. And Renault, which has a tie-up with India's Bajaj Auto, is taking on the 660 cc-engine Nano by developing its own low-priced city car that will be constructed partially of motorcycle parts to save costs.

In terms of overall market size, India remains relatively small with about 1.8 million vehicle sales a year compared with China's 6 million. But the economy of the world's second most-populous country is growing by about 7% a year, offering tremendous upside. There are just 11 cars on the road for every 1,000 Indians, according to a Deloitte report, compared with 511 in the U.K. and 22 in China.

India's government has been encouraging automakers to build cars in India to avoid high import levies of up to 120% and to minimize production costs. Volkswagen, for example, plans to increase sourcing parts locally from 50% currently to 80% in the next two years, according to Joerg Mueller, head of the German carmaker's India group.

As car buyers worldwide shift away from gas-guzzlers to smaller vehicles, India appears destined to become a hub for manufacturing small cars for export, says Shekhar Vishwanathan, deputy managing director for Toyota in India. Toyota has designed a new small car for India, which is slated to start rolling out of the Japanese giant's plant at Bidadi on the outskirts of Bangalore by the end of 2011. Toyota plans to eventually export the car to South Africa and other developing markets.

A total of 350,000 cars will be exported from India this year, 30% more than were exported in 2008. As factory output grows, India's economy as a whole will get a boost, says Abdul Majeed, who heads the auto practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Chennai. Currently, the auto sector accounts less than 1% of India's gross domestic product, says Majeed, compared with 3.5% in China and 4.5% for the world as a whole. Economists say the automaking could account for 10% of India's GDP by 2016.

But some are concerned about the impact on the environment as millions of new drivers try to merge with India's already overtaxed road networks. "There have been concerns," says Darius Lam, assistant editor at Autocar Professional, a Mumbai-based trade publication. But the latest generation of vehicles will meet the latest European emission standards, and India's "road infrastructure is being rapidly improved to accommodate the new fleet," Lam says. At the moment, nothing seems able to stall India's drive to become a player in the global auto industry.