Compact Sedans: A Compromise?

The 2014 Delhi Auto Expo’s succinct remark was – “Hey look, Compact Sedans gonna craze the entry-level henceforth!” 

They are now entry-levels and those large sedans who were earlier are now sold as premium sedans. 

Almost fifteen years back, when I started eying up cars, it was undoubtedly the entry-level mid-size segment that drove me awe. The segment was gradually gaining momentum, with new players dropping in. Sedans like Maruti Esteem, Daewoo Cielo, Ford Escort, and Opel Astra, the guys who pioneered a formal sedan class, were wrapping up to leave way for new comers. Came then the stalwarts of the recent past – Ford Ikon, Hyundai Accent, Maruti Baleno, Fiat Siena, Opel Corsa, and Honda City. Man, I was crazy about sedans. I even imagined a sedan out of Maruti 800 (!!), or a boot added to it! Yes, that was terribly infantile an idea.

My fondness aside, that sedan segment was indeed pretty much influential. Cars were tagged between 4-8 lakhs range, fairly priced for an upper middle class buyer who is tired of hatchbacks. Power steering, power windows, and central locking became standard across the class. They looked solid and muscular, little upmarket comparing to hatches. Built quality was great, suspension better, space, performance and awesome handling. They were practical; families loved them (the boot factor) and comfy enough for long drives. The segment met the ‘big’ dream for a big car. At the time when many new buyers boomed and in a society where size of the car really matters (big car = high prestige & pride!!). So, don’t you think a poor car junkie like me would admire none other than those sedans??

Now, I’m dumbstruck with what’s happening! Where the hell are those entry level sedans?? The 2014 Delhi Auto Expo’s succinct remark was – “Hey look, Compact Sedans gonna craze the entry-level henceforth!” Car makers make it very simply – Either scrap the entry-level sedan; make a compact sedan out of a lower order hatch and fill the void, or move it up the ladder as premium ones. In both the cases, Compact sedans live long. They are now entry-levels and those large sedans who were earlier are now sold as premium sedans – cosmetically chic but essentially old-school. Product differentiation actually sucks!

Tata pioneered into compact sedan long back. No one took note of it. Then Suzuki butchered the Dzire to make a compact sedan. Media said “Wow! Wow!! Long Live”. Other makers mouth-watered, new Dzire’s sales feat stimulated appetite for them. Honda immediately told “I’m on it”. Its Amaze also prospered and every others caught the clue. Hyundai Xcent, Tata Zest is all ready, Ford says Figo sedan (Fiesta Classic zeroed in), Skoda and VW says something, so on and so forth.

TATA ZEST: Unveiled in this year Auto Expo, this Compact sedan from the Manza platform is the next new entrant by August.

Compact sedans are no exciting (not Amaze-ing as well!). Boldness and solid proportions are the bright personae of sedans. These compacts look awfully diminutive. Look at those narrow rubber to a chunky wheel rim. Or the tallness or the upright stance due to the restrictive proportions. And the short wheelbase. All reminds those hatches from which they are derived. For most of the models, for some reasons, the rear design is best to pay no attention! Legroom and boot space are also hit hard, though we can understand depends upon the car and user needs are subjective.

What about drivability then? To me personally, this is the crucial compromise. City driving is listless and so compacts suffices as hatches. Plus, you get punchy engines with good low-end torque. When you take them compacts to highways, the fear psychosis arising out of the fact that the car is carved out of hatch is quite evident. Though they are not so bad in highway handling and stability, they find it hard to match with their full-sized sedan rivals. Suspension is a dead giveaway, ride is bumpy and rear-seat comfort just little better than hatches that’s it. Pleasing handling and road manners, with smooth suspension are quintessential to sedans. Compacts are cuckolds in this regard.

I certainly can’t refute their importance. When Suzuki could boldly scrap its best-selling sedan for a compact one, it simply means that their potentiality is undisputable. Dzire proved this to fact by its whooping sales. As does Amaze. City dwellers like its smallness – stress less traffic manoeuvrability and parking, efficient as hatches, does have a boot unlike hatches, so on. But what is more disturbing is its marketing strategy.

When we go back to the earlier period I was talking about, the genera in the car market was sharp. There were hatches, entry-level sedans, full-sized premium sedans, and luxury saloons in the order. (My definition of a true ‘Sedan’ or a ‘Saloon’, while considering the global standards especially the European and American markets, would be those cars above 4.5 metres in length, 1.7 metres above in width, 1.6 litres plus engine, and so on – typically of the size of our country’s executive saloons like the Cruze, Laura or Elantra, etc. Naturally, cars like Accent, Fiesta and City become entry-level sedans. I also leave out SUVs and MUVs in this discussion.) Hatches were sold in Rs. 2 -5 lakh range, sedans from Rs. 4-8 lakhs, and the executives above 10 lakhs mark. Class differentiation was so distinct, in terms of features as well as technology.

Now, one could find different segmental patterns all together in terms of product line-up in the market. Base prices for every segments have escalated (even if you discount inflation trend, prices have shot up exponentially in spite of increased mass production, product sharing and localisation) and you have numerous new products and cross-overs, making the picture more complex. Classes now go as entry-level hatches, full-sized hatches, compact sedans, sedans, premium sedans, and luxury saloons and beyond.

Among sedans, which are of our concern, there is something fishy happening. Some of the old sedans of a decade back have their successors at present times – like Ford Ikon evolved as Fiesta and older generation sold as Classic, Hyundai Accent as Verna, Fiat Siena as Linea (older version sold as Classic), Suzuki Esteem (called as Swift Sedan in other markets) as Dzire and Baleno as SX4, and Honda holding on to “City” from the beginning. Both the former and the latter of the above list are essentially the same cars under the skin, sharing same platform and even engines, consistently derived over these years with certain improvements and developments. Facelifts in the body panels and bumpers and wheel upsizing may make them look bigger. Power and performance of the driveline are much improved and even a leap ahead of its predecessor. But the chassis, construction, suspension setup, and even technologies used as one and the same. We have got some new entrants as well - Toyota Etios, Chevy Sail, Sunny and Scala, Vento and Rapid – nevertheless, they are no superior in any terms and strictly fit the general standards of the existing segment.

Now if you observe closely, those sedans which entered the market as entry-levels which later evolved with time have moved up the ladder crossing Rs. 10 lakh mark. The transition of a mediocre segment into the premium stage is quite evident here. Look at their pricing – new City and Verna is now priced between 9-14 lakhs, Fiesta, Sunny, Linea and Vento between 8-12 lakhs, and Verito, Manza, Etios and Sail a little lower between 6-10 lakhs. With every facelifts, prices are hiked. They are no more entry levels now and are portrayed as bigger and premium ones. Option packaging, one of the most annoying thing in the car industry, is quite endemic to this segment and the trim levels are so cunningly formulated to trick customers and differentiate pricing.

To fill the void created by this transition, a new sub-segment called “compact sedans” is crafted. This, to me, is grossly unfair because of two reasons. Firstly, full-sized sedans that are made costly have nothing great in them to be called as premium sedans. Though one could find dozens of improvements and fancy features now added up, there is hardly any technological innovation trickling down after all these years. Take the case of flagship models of the segment, Honda City and VW Vento. Do they offer anything more than ABS and two Airbags (which are offered since long time) for safety? Not even rear disc brakes. Little rejoicing is that at least some makers have made them as standard across all trims.

Secondly, this sort of product differentiation between compacts and premium sedans is merely out of price differentiation. As we saw above, there is no healthy differentiation in terms of quality and technology. Customers are made deprived of necessary features and techs that the segment has to offer typically, with respect to price and current trends of the market.

Product variety and diversity is the clear sign of a growing car market. New forms like compact sedans and SUVs, crossovers, MPVs, etc. make the product line-up in the market more colourful. This means a plethora of options of for consumers. Wide array of products also means competition and better deals for consumers. Thus the birth of compacts in itself isn’t an issue. But in a bid to differentiate their products, car manufacturers play with product manipulation and pricing, without going for technological and quality investments with respect to changing times. Such skewed manufacturing and marketing strategies serve short-term goals, but result in overall stagnancy of the product standards in the industry. End outcome is a widening divide in the quality and tech standards of domestic and global markets. With such scenario prevailing, all Compact sedans are nothing but a mere compromise.

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  1. All that car companies want is to maximise their profits in all possible ways. Consumer exploitation is common these days. In cars, why mass production & platform sharing do not bring down costs at all??


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