New Ford Figo Aims to Crash the India Market

New Ford Figo Aims to Crash the India Market

As the only U.S. car manufacturer that didn’t need a government bailout, Ford Motor was in better financial shape than its peers to ride out the recession. The question now is whether Ford is well positioned to prosper as the global economy begins to recover. The answer from Ford management appears to be: we’re not quite where we want to be.

Ford’s problem is its low profile in what will likely be the key markets for auto sales growth over the next several years. In the first six months of 2009, the carmaker’s U.S. sales fell 33% and European revenues shrank 39%. While Western economies look set to remain in the doldrums for the foreseeable future, most Asian countries are registering surprising growth and auto sales are bouncing back. India and China are particularly bright spots; the latter has surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s largest car market. Sadly for Ford, Asia accounts for a mere 5% of the company’s total global revenues. In China, it’s ranked fifth-largest in sales . In India, Ford is a distant eighth.

Ford clearly wants to improve its standing. On Sept. 23, CEO Alan Mulally was in New Delhi to unveil a new four-door hatchback called the Figo that is aimed squarely at India and neighboring South Asian countries. Designed by Indian engineers on the Fiesta platform, the new small car “is going to be a game changer,” predicts Michael Boneham, president and managing director of Ford India. When it debuts next year, the Figo will be made in India and powered by either a 1.2-liter gas or 1.5-liter diesel engine. Ford also plans to spend $500 million to double capacity at its Chennai plant in southern India to 200,000 vehicles a year.

The Figo’s sticker price is yet to be disclosed, but sources at Ford say it will cost around $7,000. Although the price is more than triple that of Tata Motor’s Nano city car, “its aggressive pricing from Ford,” says Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of AutoCar India magazine in Mumbai. “It could be the cheapest Ford in the world.” Says Colin Langan, auto-industry analyst for UBS Financial Services: “Ford’s latest moves are all about gaining market share.”

Ford needs to be more aggressive in the India car market, which is expected to grow 10% this year. One of the first foreign car makers to set up shop in the country, Ford in 1996 established a joint venture with domestic vehicle manufacturer Mahindra & Mahindra. But 13 years later, it sells just 2,000 vehicles a month in India in the compact and mid-size car segments, according to the New Delhi-based Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. India’s biggest car company, Suzuki India, sells 57,000 cars a month in the same segments; Hyundai sells 23,232 cars a month.

Jagdish Khattar, former managing director of Suzuki India who now runs Carnation Auto, an independent multibrand auto sales start-up, attributes Ford’s poor showing to a lack of the right mass-market product. Its India models — the Fiesta, Ikon and Fusion — are relatively large and expensive . Small cars — those powered by engines displacing 1.5 liters or less and generally costing no more than $8,000 — drive 70% of auto sales in the country. “Ford was operating in just 30% of the market,” says Khattar. “All the action was happening elsewhere.” The diminutive Figo is Ford’s bid for the sweet spot. “You have to be in the small car segment to be a relevant player in India,” says Rajat Dhawan, who heads McKinsey’s automotive practice in India.

The segment is getting crowded. Toyota, Volkswagen, GM and Nissan are expected to roll out small cars in India over the next two years. Suzuki India, king of the tiny automobile, is investing $2.28 billion in the country over the next five years to upgrade factories and strengthen distribution for a raft of new models. Even GM on Sept. 24 announced an unusual collaboration with Bangalore’s Reva Electric Car, makers of the G-Wiz, to produce small, affordable electric vehicles for India. Mulally said recently that India would play a big role in accelerating Ford’s presence in the Asia-Pacific region — but the company will have to fight off numerous competitors who are all driving toward the same destination.

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