It has all the trappings of the "Hummer", the wide-body go-anywhere US army jeep that has caught the fancy of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and author Tom Clancy among 140,000 others since 1984.
Called the Jonga, it has a four-wheel-drive, seating for eight, power steering, power brakes, fuel efficiency of 16.5 km per litre of diesel -- and the ability to take the rough with the smooth.And it's made in India.
The defence ministry's Vehicle Factory in Jabalpur (VFJ), in Madhya Pradesh, has been making all-terrain Jonga jeeps and small and medium-sized trucks for the exclusive use of the Indian Army for more than 30 years. Estimates put the number of vehicles made by VFJ in service for the army at over 20,000. Now, as army orders dwindle and the car market booms, the VFJ is betting on the Jonga to bring home the bacon to keep its production line humming.
"We have a capacity to make about 9,000 vehicles, ranging from Jongas to trucks," P S Sodhi, VFJ's general manager said. "Until a few years ago, all our production went to the Indian Army. Now their requirement is falling, so we are looking at the commercial market." He said the army used to buy between 8,000 and 9,000 vehicles per year until the late 1980s, of which about 1,200 were Jongas. Demand has fallen to between 3,000 and 4,000 a year. "They have stopped buying small trucks, and Jonga demand is on the wane. The only orders we have are for medium-size trucks," he said.
Changing colours: To get buyers interested in a vehicle that has long been associated with military olive green, VFJ has extensively modified the Jonga, and added a range of colours and features.
VFJ started making Jongas in 1970 in collaboration with Nissan Motor Co of Japan. It totally localised the vehicle by 1981, but continued to produce it without any major changes from the original design. This time around, the factory has given it a complete overhaul, though more on the inside than the outside, and has added another model. "We have developed two versions, a hardtop and a re-engineered version called the RE. We have moved to a 4,000-cc diesel engine, sourced from Ashok Leyland Ltd, which gives 16.5 km to a litre compared with the earlier petrol version that gave less than five km to a litre," Sodhi said. VFJ has also increased the seating capacity to eight from six, and has added power steering and power brakes. Good timing, hot competition: The Jonga could not have entered the market at a better time. Jeeps are categorised by the Association of Indian Automobile Manufacturers as multi-utility vehicles, which analysts say is the fastest-growing segment in the car market.
While the market is expected to grow at below 10 per cent in 1997-98, growth in the multi-utility vehicle segment is expected to top 20 per cent. The multi-utility vehicle segment grew to about 90,000 in 1996-97 from about 80,000 in 1995-96 according to industry figures. In 1997-98, it is expected to cross 110,000 units. Little wonder, then, that competition is heating up. Several Indian companies such as Telco, Mahindra and Mahindra and Maruti are already slugging it out. And Toyota's is expected to step into the fray next year with a jeep designed especially for this country. (Reuters)
Given the competition, VFJ is touting the Jonga's versatility, roominess and low-maintenance requirements. "What we offer is a highly dependable vehicle, that has proven itself in the hands of the Indian army in the desert, mountains and rain forests," said A.M. Mathur, regional marketing director at the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB).
A small start: VFJ has already made a small start in selling Jongas to non-military buyers. Over the past three years, it has sold a few thousand to several state governments. "We have sold about 2,000 Jongas in the last three years to the state governments of Kerala, and Jammu and Kashmir," said VFJ's works engineer, K L Chopra.
Individual buyers are starting to show an interest as well, though -- at Rs 4.9 lakh for the RE version and Rs 3.97 lakh for the hard top version -- it doesn't come cheap.
"We have received several inquiries for the Jonga, and there seems to be a little bit of a craze for it," Mathur said. "We are targeting sales of about 3,000 Jongas a year. We are taking steps to reduce prices, and can step up production if needed," Sodhi said.
VFJ has done its bit. Now all it needs is for some Indian screen and media personalities to be seen driving Jongas and turn it into a phenomenon.