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.

Dhiyanesh Ravichandran

Dhiyanesh is equally crazy about driving cars and writing about them. This guy loves everything with a steering wheel, so, at someday if self-driving cars take up all driving, he is sure to go nuts! He likes sedans of 90s era, esp W140 S-Class and R34 Skyline GT. Apart from usual motoring stuffs, he maintains a strong appetite for sociological perspectives on cars, their historical and cultural footprints. He owns a 1999 Fiat Siena passionately, and drives a Ford Fiesta.

  • Anant Ramkrishnan

    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??