Maruti, meet Mehran

What's in a name?

There are two automobile makes which ply the roads of India and Pakistan, one Mehran and the other Maruti. They are practically identical, both having their provenance in a model developed in the 1970s by the giant Suzuki Corporation of Japan. It is an appropriate commentary on the most tension-ridden geopolitical separation of South Asia, that just as the people of India and Pakistan are more or less alike, so are the popular little cars that they drive. A Pakistani visiting New Delhi thinks he is getting into a Mehran, while an Indian in Karachi thinks it is a Maruti that whisks him away.

It was in 1982 that the Suzuki Corporation started assembling the motorcar in Pakistan. With more than 70 percent of its parts made in Japan and only the assembling done in Pakistan, it was almost as good as an imported car. But far cheaper, and smaller. The 796cc Suzuki Fx, for convenience addressed as 800cc in both India and Pakistan, had the lowest horsepower of any automobile around —and the lowest price. At PKR 45,000, it cost less than half the next cheapest car in the Pakistani market than the 1000cc Daihatsu Charade, priced at over PKR 100,000.

The Suzuki factor revolutionised the automobile industry in South Asia, as millions more in the middle-class could now think of owning a vehicle. The seating capacity may be indicated at four, but who cared when you could fit in six or even eight passengers and head out to the bazaar for ice cream! In Pakistan, the Fx soon became ubiquitous, its small size and easy manoeuverability making it ideal for crowded| city streets and narrow gullies. Everywhere, the roads suddenly became congested.

Suzuki introduced its Alto in the market in 1988-89. It was basically an Fx with a different shape and a different name. More than 50 percent of the Alto's auto-parts were manufactured in Pakistan. Due to poor quality control, the model's performance suffered, and it was considered inferior to the Fx. In 1990, the front grill of the Alto was made more trendy, but it blocked the air passage to the radiator. The car would heat up and the model lost popularity, until local quacks diagnosed the problem and introduced some air space in front of the grill.

To get over its troubled past, the Alto was renamed Mehran in 1992, after an area in central Sindh — Wadi-e-Mehran (Mehran Valley). The modifications were slight, in lighting and monogram design. Relatively cheap to purchase, the Mehran is also cheaper to maintain, since much of the spares of the 800cc are now locally manufactured. A whole cottage industry for spares has sprung up, and not just in big cities like Karachi and Lahore, but also in smaller towns like Gujranwala and Faisalabad (formerly Lyallpur) near Lahore.

The Mehran also gives good mileage: an average of about 13-14 km per litres of gasoline in congested road conditions, improving on a highway by 2-3 km per litre. Like with the Maruti across the border, its remarkable maneouverability and economic efficiency made Mehran an ideal 'city car' for the middle class. For those who can afford an imported car, the Mehran is the ideal second car. It delivers excellent re-sale value and it is the car of choice for young professionals wanting to upgrade from a motorcycle. Mehran's easy driving has also contributed to an increase in the number of women drivers in Pakistan's cities.

The Suzuki Zen, introduced in India a few years ago with a lOOOcc engine and a highly efficient air conditioning system, has been a runaway success. A comparative model in Pakistan is the lOOOcc Suzuki Khyber, named after the famous pass above Peshawar. Higher powered engines were introduced with the Suzuki Margalla (1300cc), named after the Margalla hills near Islamabad. Pak Suzuki's most recent model, introduced in 1999, is the Balino (1600cc). 'Fully loaded' with accessories, it is pitted against luxury cars like the 1300cc Honda City and the 1600cc Honda Civic. It is doing well due to its excellent suspension, power steering and power windows.

Seeing that the Pakistani auto market is on the up and up, other car manufacturers have jumped into the fray, essentially taking advantage of a market created by Mehran. For example, the Daihatsu and Toyota companies this year started a joint venture in Pakistan to bring out an 800cc auto called Cuore. The lOOOcc Santro of Korea's Hyundai company, introduced in India last year, has just arrived in Pakistan with aggressive marketing. The 1300cc Kia Classic, another Hyundai make, has also descended on Pakistan, with its price tag deliberately notched below other 1300cc cars in order to break into the market. Suzuki has fought back by introducing the lOOOcc Cultus, an improved version of the Khyber.

Meanwhile, having created a niche for itself in the market, the Mehran's price has jumped from the original PKR 45,000 to PKR 325,000, a rise of more than seven times. But who would grudge the little car its big price, given that it was the Mehran who got the tyres rolling for indigenously produced cars in Pakistan. If only cousin Maruti knew!

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