Over the past decade, I’ve attended a lot of vehicle launches and in this list are a plethora of SUVs that have made it to our streets that are offered only as two-wheel-drive vehicles. At the launch of each of these machines – be it the Mahindra TUV300, Ford EcoSport or even the more recent Hyundai Tucson, the one question that undoubtedly crops up is why these machines aren’t offered with 4×4 capabilities. After all, the very definition of an SUV is a vehicle that is destined to go where no other car can! I have often asked this question myself and the answer has always been about how the inclusion of a 4×4 or AWD system would invariably increase costs and customers would anyways then go and buy the 2WD versions. True. This does happen a lot, especially in a price sensitive market such as ours and for the manufacturer, the game is all about clocking in the sales numbers and not playing to a niche segment of customer. Having said that, there are enough enthusiasts out there who take to social media to vent their frustration against such models and this can hamper the sales of a particular product.
It is easy to point fingers and say that a certain manufacturer doesn’t know what they are doing or that they don’t understand the market. In most cases, manufacturers actually do a considerable survey of the market before bringing in a product – especially if it is a product that is destined to cater to the masses. The idea is to get the product right every time, and even on that account they sometimes fail, however the research is a good indicator of peoples wants and needs. Being an automobile journalist, I have the privilege of attending events where manufacturers share these details and there are clear trends that can be spotted. Take for example, the fact that the SUV market in India is growing at a staggering pace. In fact it is the fastest growing segment in India currently and the overall segment is expected to post a CAGR of 32 per cent from 2015 – 2019 (source: Global Insight 2016). That is undoubtedly a sizeable chunk of the market and it does point at why every manufacturer is rushing to enter this space.
Having said that, it is also about getting the product right and this brings me back to the need of offering an SUV with 4×4 capabilities. Why are manufacturers shying away from doing so? Well, the truth be told, it is the customer who isn’t driving this need – not the manufacturer. A manufacturer will only cater to demand, and when customers don’t create that demand, manufacturers are only too happy to comply and offer their product without four wheel drive. After all, it is only the niche enthusiast that really wants their SUV to have it all. The large chunk of customers just want the ‘look’. Even the current batch of 4×4 vehicles on offer in the country (both low end and high end models) don’t see a lot of dirt. Who in their right mind would take a Land Rover mud bashing? It is immensely capable, but the fact is that it costs a bomb and the owner can’t imagine putting a scratch on it, so in many ways, the 4×4 tech on the Land Rover is a little pointless for most customers. Such is the case with a majority of Mahindra Scorpio owners as well. Despite it being a rather affordable offering, those who do buy it, seldom take it off road. Now if that is the case, why would manufacturers bother offering a 4WD version in the first place, especially if nobody is going to use that feature!
Keeping that in mind, it actually makes sense to offer SUVs as 2WD models. Customers get the road presence, the commanding driving position, the good ground clearance and the entire aura of owning something tough. The term SUV has become more about a body style than a reference to a certain type of vehicle with 4×4 capabilities. It’s not a bad thing really, and it helps people define what they want. Do I want a 4×4 or an SUV? That is the differentiation that both manufacturers and customers need to make. In today’s day and age, both these terms are not synonymous as they once were. SUVs have moved on from being rough and tough machines that you take on your next expedition across the planet. They now boast of creature comforts that are designed to pamper. Sure, you will always have the Range Rover, Mercedes-Benz GLS and even the Tata Hexa or Mahindra Scorpio that will offer you the choice to indulge in a drive off the tarmac and pamper you as well, but to a large extent, you will also see more and more SUVs cropping up that are destined to stick to a nice road and maybe a little dirt track.
Despite the lack of a 4×4, such SUVs make a lot of sense for the Indian consumer. We don’t have the greatest roads, and on occasion we love to travel with a whole bunch of people on board plus a ton of luggage. 2WD SUVs cater to this kind of customer and there are a lot of them out there! The car buyer is happy to just sit higher up and not worry about destroying the under body of their vehicle on a speed breaker and this is what has given rise to this new breed of soft-roaders. Demand is at an all-time high and it’s good to see manufacturers stepping up the game in this segment by offering products that come with the right features for such a buyer. It is a win-win situation for the masses.
As for the enthusiast, it is time to stop ranting about why every since SUV launched doesn’t have 4×4, because frankly let’s face it, even the enthusiast would rather buy an old Mahindra, Maruti Gypsy or a Willys and customize it for the purpose!