Carmakers launch SUVs in India despite pollution woes

NEW DELHI • India's flagship auto show has opened its doors in New Delhi with a new batch of diesel-guzzling sports utility vehicles (SUVs) on proud display, despite industry uncertainty over a pollution crackdown targeting motorists in the capital.

More than 80 vehicle launches were expected at the Auto Expo 2016, the biggest edition in the show's 30-year history, with the Fiat Chrysler-owned Jeep making its India debut hoping to capitalise on the popularity of SUVs.

SUVs pouring onto the roads have been partly blamed for the Indian capital's toxic air. The Delhi government and courts have announced a string of measures, including a ban until March 31 on registration of new diesel cars with an engine capacity of two litres or more - typical of large SUVs or luxury cars.

Although the moves have rattled the industry, carmakers pushed ahead at the show's opening yesterday with showing off their new range of SUVs - smaller, cheaper versions of the off-road cars that can more easily navigate chaotic city streets and are aimed at young urban buyers.

Among those unveiling these "compact SUVs" was Maruti Suzuki, the Indian subsidiary of the Japanese carmaker, which was holding the global premiere of its Vitara Brezza. "India's SUV market has been growing at a very fast pace. This is a segment in which we were not present for a long time and we are proud to say in this case the design has been done by an Indian team," said Mr C. V. Raman, executive director of engineering at Maruti Suzuki India.

India's biggest carmaker, Tata Motors, showed off a slew of new models as it seeks to revive its flagging market share, including two forthcoming SUVs and the Zica hatchback, which it plans to rename following the spread of the Zika virus.

"We recognise the need to improve air quality, but when we look at the targets being set, they should be set based on emissions - limits on emissions" rather than restrictions on engine size, said Mr Timothy Leverton, Tata's head of research and development.

Industry insiders say there are fears that the ban on large diesel cars could be extended to other cities also trying to combat air pollution, or extended for a longer term.

With polluting cars in the frame, electric and hybrid vehicles - still a niche market in India - also made a strong showing at the Expo, with Toyota saying inquiries about its Camry hybrid doubled in January.

After two days of press previews, the show will open to the public tomorrow and run until next Tuesday.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2016, with the headline 'Carmakers launch SUVs in India despite pollution woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe