In the early nineties, large families planning a road trip had very few cars to choose from - the Maruti Suzuki 800 and Omni, the Hindustan Motors Contessa Classic and Ambassador, and the Premier Padmini 118NE. The Willys Jeep-derived Mahindra Jeep MM540 was the only vehicle capable of off-roading as we know. After two attempts, the Ratan Tata-headed Tata Motors came up with the Sumo, which became a runaway success as a multi-utility vehicle (MUV) - a people carrier with high ground clearance and seating.
But Sumo lost the plot at the turn of the century with peppier competition. Tata Motors could not arrest the slide of its oldest model on the road since. But the manufacturer is not giving up on its workhorse, yet.
It launched the fifth generation of the vehicle, Sumo Gold, in July. With Gold, Tata Motors intends to shift focus from the commercial (taxi) segment that had become its default category, to target the personal buyer segment - what MUVs such as Maruti Suzuki's Ertiga have done well.
Tata Motors, an accomplished player in the truck and bus business since the 1950s, wanted to tap into the growing demand for Jeep-like vehicles (the term utility vehicles or UVs gained prominence only in recent years), which would have greater carrying-capacity than hatchbacks or sedans.
By 1992, Tata Motors had launched the Estate, a station wagon and the Sierra, a three-door sports utility vehicle. But they were not priced for the mass market. The Sumo was launched in 1994. It became the fastest-selling product of its time and achieved the milestone of 100,000 units sold in just three years.
Named after Sumant Moolgaonkar (Su-Mo), who was instrumental in revolutionising the then-TELCO (now Tata Motors), Sumo became synonymous with vehicles capable of carrying families. Throughout the 1990s, it remained the king of UVs, with a supply backlog running into thousands of units.
But 2001 onwards, from a near monopoly of the UV segment, the Sumo took a beating as new models such as the Mahindra Bolero, GM Chevrolet Tavera and Toyota Qualis were launched. From a peak of 55,000 units a year in the nineties, it sold just under 30,000 units last year.
The Bolero leads in MUVs since the past six-seven years. Launched in 2001, Bolero, the longest-surviving model in the M&M line-up, sells three times the volumes of Tata Sumo monthly.
Tata Motors introduced different versions over the years but buyers still settled for rival brands. The Grande, launched in 2008, was a longer and more premium model than the regular Sumo, selling for Rs 8.07 lakh. It is sold as distinctly different from the regular Sumo and clocks around 800 units per month.
According to Tata Motors, about 55-60 per cent of buyers of the Sumo are those who run inter-city travel agencies. The balance 40-45 per cent are personal buyers. With the Gold, it intends to hange this skew towards the personal buyer.
M&M repositioned the rugged Bolero as an SUV
with a face-lift in 2011, targeting the personal buyer. It had new bumpers, a larger grille, and new body decals.
Tata Motors hopes to pit the Gold's improvements against the Bolero. For instance, it has roof-mounted dual air-conditioning for the rear passengers, a first-in-segment. In addition, it also offers 20 per cent more space - headroom, shoulder-room and leg-room - than competition.
Its other scoring features over the Bolero include rear fog lamps, rear defogger, side intrusion beams on four doors and fabric door trims. The new Sumo can seat nine occupants compared to seven in the Bolero. It also has a more powerful engine producing 85bhp of peak power compared to 63bhp produced by the Bolero.
Tata Motors has priced the Sumo Gold at Rs 6.5 lakh (LX BS4 variant, ex-showroom Mumbai) whereas the Bolero is priced slightly more at Rs 6.55 lakh (Plus variant AC BS4, ex-showroom Mumbai). Tata Motors hopes that by riding on the superior features of the new Sumo, it can regain the lost crown of being the market leader in the MUV segment.
Ashesh Dhar, national sales head - south and east, passenger vehicle business unit, Tata Motors says, "We have been investing in the product. We believe the brand has a great future. The second half of the year should be strong with its national roll-out. We are expecting sales of the model to at least double from the 2,000-per-month level now. We would like to be a dominant player in this segment."