“Its a b****y AMG. Make the full use of the car. Push it to its limits”
“Accelerate up to 100 clicks... and stomp on the brakes when I put my hands down”
“You are to avoid colliding with the obstacle in front of you”
“Keep to your left, hug the touchline, brake lightly, and let the car run wide while negotiating the turn”
“You will get a 5 second penalty if you touch any of the cones or stop outside the box”
Whenever you get to hear such one-liners crackling into your ears from the radio-equipped helmet that you are wearing, be assured you are inside a Rs 2.5 crore SLS AMG, a super sports car from the Mercedes stable and are being instructed by a German professional race driver who is training you to handle the over 6,100 cc steel beast that has a top speed of 317 kilometres per hour.
The instructor repeats these lines quite often. Familiarising the driver with a car that he or she is about to shell out upwards of Rs 2.5 crore.
Luxury car makers have found India to be their happy hunting ground and are going out of their way to help their “esteemed customers to make an informed decision and choice”, as they (car makers) say.
It is not only Mercedes that offers such driving courses, BMW does it, Aston Martin does it and so does Mahindra and Mahindra. These exercises are conducted not only as part of the brand building exercise but also to lure the fat pocket buyer to purchase their vehicles.
It’s one thing to be able to afford a fast car or an off-roader. But customers’ ability to buy seldom implies that they can drive in the way it was advertised.
Automakers are bridging this gap with initiatives that promote the brand while showcasing true ability of the car and how they can be achieved by ordinary drivers. Brand familiarization, as the process may be known, has led many automobile majors to conduct activities to further engage the driver and fuel their desire to drive as it was ‘meant to be’.
German luxury brand, Mercedes Benz initiated their AMG Driving Academy to help their customers realize the true ability of high performance vehicles.
Conducted thrice in a year, the course invites ordinary drivers to be trained by professionals for a fee ranging from Rs 50,000 (Benz owners) to Rs 75,000 (non-owners). Debashis Mitra, Director for Sales and Marketing, Mercedes Benz India Ltd, said that they conduct day-long training sessions on race tracks to equip the driver with basics of handling such fast machines.
Every session has 8 participants. The global level has 6 levels, basic, emotions, advanced, pro, winter and master levels of training. The company also conducts Star Drives, where professional drivers take their 4/4 Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV) through a punishing course and have their high performance cars speeding short distances and brake, highlighting their safety features.
On being asked if such courses convert into sales, he said, “We have witnessed a very encouraging response to our AMG range of vehicles from the Indian customers. Since its launch in India, the SLS AMG super sports car has sold more than 25 units, the price of the car is Rs 2.5 crore; while the iconic off-roader G 55 AMG has sold more than 30 units since its launch and each costs more than Rs 1.3 crore. In total, we have sold more than 50 AMG cars across the range in 2011 alone,” Mitra said.
“We see a very steady growth in the demand of our AMG range of cars inthe coming years,” adds Mitra.
Customers are also given a chance to sit alongside professional drivers, and in many cases drive through the obstacle course, to give a first hand feel on the vehicles’ capabilities. But this ‘customer connect’ is not limited to luxury car makers alone.
India’s largest SUV maker, Mahindra and Mahindra invite adventurists to join their Mahindra outdoor challenges and ‘Great Escapes’.
Says Vivek Nayer, Senior Vice-President (Marketing- automotive sector), M&M: “The company invested considerable time and money into such activities to showcase brand capability and passion.” For the original ‘cop car’, Mahindra has managed to get its customers to experience true off-roading.
“This is an opportunity for us to show you what the vehicle is capable of and how it can be done,” Mitra says adding, “StarDrive Experience is one such initiative, which is aimed at giving our customers and patrons of the brand, a one of its kind opportunity to personally experience the unmatched safety technology. This experiential marketing initiative from us is in sync with our ‘Go to Customer’ strategy.”
German auto major’s BMW run a campaign called BMW Xperience, which was held in Gurgaon in October last year. The company claimed that all their X-range vehicles were on show where customers were given live demonstrations that the vehicles ‘could do what one thought it could’.
Does it serve another purpose other than showcasing capabilities?
The answer is a resounding yes. Car companies admit that once the capabilities are displayed, then customers compare the cost of the car and its ability to do what other vehicles may not be able to do. According to a Benz official, “It’s a justification of why the cars cost several lakhs or crores.”
Similar thoughts are echoed by Lalit Choudary, the owner of Mumbai-based Performance Cars, which among other luxury brands also is the largest distributor in India of the icon Aston Martin.
“Yes, we have highly trained professional drivers from England who acclimatise our customers with the basic skill sets of driving cars that start at a range of Rs 1.9 crore for the Aston Martin Vantage and can go up to Rs 3.85 crore for the Vanquish.” Training or familiarisation sessions are becoming more frequent for luxury car makers as they know India is the new destination for luxury ranging from cars to cosmetics.