Bumper to bumper traffic on narrow, ill-made roads have become a part of life in most metros across the country. The fumes and frustration of navigating these roadways, however, has brought about a marquee shift in the Indian four wheeler market. Automatics, long vilified as fuel guzzling, expensive monsters, are now the toasts of the Indian metro consumer.
The last two years have seen the rise of relatively cheap, fuel efficient automatics — two adjectives that no discerning Indian consumer would have used to describe one, just four years ago. But the trend in consumption patterns of these vehicles point to another important factor — the exponential increase in the number of vehicles on city roads and the difficulty in maneuvering vehicles with traditional manual transmissions in such conditions. “The constant need to use the clutch, to be always alert while changing gears, all this is very tiring to the driver,” asserts V S Prasanna, who commutes from the OMR to Porur during peak hours every day. “An automatic removes one big chunk of what tires drivers. Not having to work the clutch is a huge relief, especially at the end of the day,” he adds. Prasanna now drives an automatic variant of the Baleno.
Automatics are riding this growing distaste for manual transmission vehicles in cities, as is seen from the percentage of automatic variants comprise of total sales in metros. According to KPMG, automatic variants comprise 45% of total sales of Maruti Suzuki’s Celerio in Chennai. Other cities also show high numbers for automatics - Bengaluru (56%), Kochi (53%) and Hyderabad (47%).
But it isn’t just the traffic or the influx of new drivers that has made automatics sudden viable. It is the inroads that Automatic Manual Transmission (AMT) has made in the recent past. The advent of viable AMT systems has simultaneously removed two of the biggest roadblocks that dampened the Indian consumer’s attraction for automatics — cost and fuel efficiency. “The price differentials between automatic variants and manual ones are decreasing quickly. They are now almost as fuel efficient as any other car and the increasing traffic on Indian city roads are making automatics a highly comfortable option,” pointed out KPMG’s partner and head for the Automotive sector Rajeev Singh.
The price differentials between automatic and manual variants have fallen as low as `40,000 and are only likely to decrease further.
The reason AMT has been effective in removing both roadblocks lies in how it works. “Fuel efficiency and cost have always been why automatics have never taken off in the Indian market, even while being highly successful globally. But the latent demand was there. Which is why we decided to experiment develop an AMT system for our automatics,” recalled a former senior technician at Maruti Suzuki during Celerio’s development. Both of Maruti’s first AMT equipped models did much better than expected, with other car-makers scrambling to introduce their own automatics.
The rise of automatic transmission four wheelers is reminiscent of the advent of scooters to an Indian market that viewed them as effeminate.
“This is how new technologies are adopted. It takes some time, but as they become better and cheaper, their adoption becomes inevitable. The steady increase in women drivers is also another reason. They find automatics easier to drive and quite hassle-free. Now that automatics are as fuel efficient as manuals, they will only continue growing,” said Singh.