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The err in Sierra

Lessons from Tata Motors' first ride in the passenger car market

Shweta Jain  |  Mumbai 

Rajiv Dube
Every company dreams of breaking new ground in a market and garnering the first-mover advantage. But what does this entail? And what are the risks involved? Tata Motors' (nee Telco's) decade-old experience with the Tata Sierra provides a case in point.

The car was launched in 1991 and was phased out a decade later. Even so, the foray can't be called a failure. In many ways, the Sierra was a front-runner.

For one, it introduced several features long before they became standard in passenger cars: power windows, power steering and tilt steering, central air conditioning and so on. None of the cars in the segment at the time "" Maruti 800, Maruti 1000, Premier Padmini, the 118NE and Hindustan Motors' Ambassador "" had these features.

There were several unique features as well "" a two-door body that had more to do with lifestyle appeal than a staid, passenger car look.

As Rajiv Dube, vice-president (commercial), Tata Motors, puts it, "It was not a conventional-looking passenger car. Sierra was designed more on the lines of a sports utility vehicle (SUV). It was seen more as a lifestyle vehicle." Incidentally, Sierra was also the first diesel vehicle to be accepted as a personal car in India.

Despite these innovations, the Sierra ran out of gas very soon. Telco sold about 667 vehicles in the first year of launch (1991). The car hit its peak in 1994-95, selling 3,910 units. But it was downhill thereafter. By 2000-01, sales were down to 238 units and the company decided to phase out the vehicle.

Where did Sierra go wrong? Dube has a theory. "It was ahead of its time, both in terms of technology and looks," he says.

That's a lesson in itself for anyone planning to enter a greenfield business: don't be too radical. But there are other lessons also to be learnt.

Know your market

With a price tag of Rs 5 lakh and upward, the Tata Sierra was the most expensive offering in the passenger car segment in 1991. Four years later, when Sierra experienced its highest volumes, the market opened up to other cars.

New mid-sized and more stylish cars came at about the same price as the Sierra. The Maruti 1000, which gained a 1,300 CC engine and was re-tagged Esteem, was one such example.

It was followed by cars such as the DCM-Daewoo Cielo, Mahindra Ford Escort and the HM-GM Opel Astra over the next couple of years "" all in the price range of Rs 5 lakh and above.

And since the Sierra's size had allowed it to compete in the SUV segment, the opening up of that market in 1995 meant an onslaught of competition from that side as well. What had been an advantage turned against the company.

Product design needs to win customers, not awards

No, the Tata Sierra didn't win any awards for its innovative design, but it did come in for a lot of flak. The biggest hurdle was the car's two-door concept. As auto experts would tell you, the Indian market is still not ready for a car with just two doors unless it's a small, compact two-seater. And the two-door Sierra (classified as a five-seater) was launched 10 years ago.

Company sources admit that the Sierra may have been a tad too futuristic for Indian consumers. "The Sierra was too advanced for its time. It was, thus, taken that it won't do too well, especially with families," says a senior Tata Motors executive.

Dube, on the other hand, maintains that a two-door version is any day more attractive to look at, because it's considered stylish designing. "Sierra was largely a driver's or an individual's car that had a one-to-one relationship with the owner," he says.

But the Sierra was meant to be a passenger car. Families did not take to the two-door concept: the dual door design made both entry and exit awkward for those travelling in the Sierra.

For instance, if a passenger had to sit in the rear seat, he would need to bend the front seat and then roll it forward before climbing in.

Worse, some passengers would rather sit with the driver in the front passenger seat than go through the trouble of clambering into the back. For those who were used to chauffeur-driven vehicles, these indignities were not easily overlooked.

Yet another blooper was the lack of windows in the rear area.

The back of the Sierra was almost entirely made of glass, which meant passengers at the back could not let in the breeze (or spit out paan, as some observed).

Dube defends the design. "The Sierra was aimed at those who love to drive out of the city limits and enjoy the surroundings. Therefore, we decided to make the huge glass area for uninterrupted viewing."

Uninterrupted viewing also meant uninterrupted sunshine in the Indian summers. Telco tried to correct this by tinting the glass as far as possible; but government regulations ruled out fully-tinted glass. Thus, the passengers at the back had no choice but to depend on the air-conditioner.

And that was a problem in itself. Although the Sierra was the first car to introduce air-conditioning for the rear seat, the small capacity diesel engine was not powerful enough to provide a good air-conditioning system for the large glass-house.

The air-conditioning and the glass sides apart, even the interiors of the Sierra didn't find favour with customers. The interiors were boring: the box-shaped dashboard, for instance, was from another generation.

And the sheet metal extruded from manually-cut dies (as against computer aided design) meant the overall finish was not up to the mark.

It didn't help that customers' demands that the Sierra be upgraded were ignored. The loudest voices were for a five-door version of the Sierra. (An interesting comparison here would be the Maruti 800, which has had just two face-lifts in the past couple of decades.)

But from Telco's point of view, that just didn't make sense. Converting the Sierra into a five-door version would have meant a complete re-engineering of the car, an expensive proposition.

To be sure, any car today needs periodic investments in order to remain relevant to the customers. But, as a competitor points out, "It would not have made sense for Tata Motors to invest heavily in re-engineering a vehicle that hadn't taken off from the start."

However, the company did introduce a turbo-charged version of the engine, borrowed from the Safari, in what was rather-unimaginatively called Sierra Turbo in 1997 "" perhaps a tad too late.

Stay true to your product

The cost factor aside, another reason for Telco's decision to not tinker with the Sierra design was the change in its agenda. All the company's resources were being shifted to the Indica, an all-new passenger car to be produced from an all-new assembly line.

"This was a more promising product that was perceived to have put us back into the mainstream business," Dube explains. The Tata Indica was launched in 1998. The same year, the company also launched another SUV, the Tata Safari.

Says Dube, "Obviously, it made more sense to focus on bringing out a classy-looking, four-door Safari rather than resurrect a model that never really had a passenger car appeal."

Know when to call it quits

Re-engineering was a closed option, the focus had shifted to the Safari, but Telco wasn't yet ready to give up on the Sierra.

The company kept trying its luck by refreshing its communication strategy and changing the positioning in order to enhance its image and add that extra appeal.

Consider this. The company launched the Sierra with the tag line "Takes the rough with the smooth", targeted at young, upwardly mobile and high net-worth individuals. In 1998-99, the tag line changed to "It's not owned. It's possessed."

Finally, in 2001-02, the Sierra was placed on an all-new platform with the tag line "18 till I die". Nothing helped. Even a last-ditch attempt of launching a limited, petrol version failed to resuscitate the Sierra.

There's always a silver lining

The Sierra wasn't a complete disaster. Because of its SUV appeal, the vehicle took a comfortable place in the export market.

In fact, at one point (1995-96) exports sales for the Sierra were higher than its domestic sales. One reason for the Sierra's success in Europe was the greater acceptance there for lifestyle vehicles.

In the UK, the Sierra was called the Gurkha and local dealers aggressively pitted it against established brands with advertisements that read "Brand new Tata Gurkha, cheaper than a used Land Rover". In Europe, the main markets for the car were France and Spain, where it sold under the Sport brand name.

The Sierra is a classic example of a good idea gone wrong, but Dube has no regrets. "In a way, the Sierra allowed us to lay the foundations of our passenger car business and thus led us to the right road. It was a lesson that we used in successfully bringing out our other cars later, like the Indica, the Sumo and the Safari."

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First Published: Tue, April 06 2004. 00:00 IST