It certainly seems like good news - Tata Motors is to base its new SUV on the Freelander 2 platform. Not the new Freelander which will be part of the New Discovery family to be launched later this year, but the one that's on sale right now. The current Freelander 2 platform is almost a decade old, but obviously, Tata feels it's still current for its purpose. And, we don't disagree. The Freelander 2 is a monocoque, uses a 2.2-litre Diesel engine and comes with an automatic transmission.
Tata Motors will adopt this platform. All the hard points will remain intact, and the new Tata SUV will borrow the Freelander's on-road dynamics and off-roading ability. The engine will be Tata Motors own 2.2-litre diesel and it will come mated to a manual and an automatic gearbox; both developed by Tata Motors.
So far things look good. But, according to reports, this new Tata SUV will cost over Rs 20 lakh. And this to us, doesn't seem like the route Tata Motors would like to go down, not after its experience with the Aria. The Tata Aria is Tata Motors' most expensive product yet. It is also their best engineered product. And though it comes with a lot of features and even all wheel drive, it's not a vehicle the Indian consumer lapped up. And understandably so. Brand, you see, plays an important role in how a consumer perceives a product.
And it's not just Tata that has suffered at the pricier end of the market on account of being perceived as a mass market brand. Maruti and Hyundai too have had similar experiences. Tata Motors realises this, and has now therefore priced the Aria at under Rs 10 lakh for the base version and its expectations for its crossover have also changed. It doesn't expect the Aria to be bought by personal buyers anymore (or at least, not in big numbers). The focus for the Aria now are the fleet operators; operators who don't much care about the all wheel drive or high-end features. They'd be more than happy to settle in for the base version, especially with the base version, the Pure LX, being more than just bare basic. It gets power steering, air-con vents in two rows, power windows all round, central locking and puddle lamps even.
Back to the new Freelander 2 based Tata SUV. Having seen what Tata Motors could (or couldn't) achieve with the Aria, we believe a price tag of Rs 20 lakh for the new SUV seems highly unlikely. We understand the Freelander 2 platform isn't cheap; not in the current form that it is now. But, Tata Motors and JLR having been working closely on latter's various platforms to bring down their costs. This might not transfer to lower pricing for the consumers, but it certainly helps improve JLR's profitability. Moreover, the current Freelander 2 is almost a decade old, and Tata Motors will build this SUV based on the Freelander 2 platform completely in India; everything from wheels and tyres to engines and gearboxes to plastics and seats, everything will be sourced from India, and both these aspects will certainly amount to huge cost savings.
So, Rs 20 lakh isn't what the new Tata SUV will cost. It will start where the current top the line Aria stops, at Rs 15 lakh.
Now, the crucial question - will this new premium Tata SUV succeed? Here's why we think, it will. Read on...
One of the biggest reasons for the Aria to fail was the perception around it. It was high-tech, feature-rich and nice to drive. But, for that price, it failed to deliver on the aspirational co-efficient. In a market obsessed with SUVs, the Aria was seen as an MPV; and a very expensive MPV, at that. It also wasn't built to the standard its price commanded. Most customers just saw it as too expensive. The plastics, the operability and overall look and feel of the interiors, even the ergonomics, were nowhere near what the similarly priced cars offered.
So, for the new Tata SUV to succeed, Tata Motors must first get the styling of the Freelander 2 based SUV right. And, we believe it will. The new SUV will have a towering stance (a must), but it would be less slab-sided as well (like the Safari), which should make the new SUV look current and stylish. Next, the quality. Tata Motors, we know, has been working on improving the quality of its products. And the first wave of that change can be seen on the Bolt and the Zest. But, for the new SUV, the quality - interiors, fit and finish, shut lines and the operability all round will have to be much better. Soft grain plastic (and of good quality, mind) will be necessary too. If the new Tata SUV is going to cost around Rs 15 lakh it must at least look and feel like it costs Rs 25 lakh, else shaking the perception of Tata Motors being a budget brand will be near impossible. Equipment levels must be best in class as well.
Now down to the driving. The current Tata's 2.2-litre common rail engine has a reasonably healthy power and torque figure on paper, but compared to the likes of the Mahindra, it doesn't bode as well in the real world. Tata Motors must work on this to give the SUV better driveability and low end performance. The shift quality for the transmission must improve; it needs to be less vague and more effortless. As for the dynamics, given that only the top hat of the SUV will be different from the Freelander 2 while the underpinnings will be carried over (and hopefully in the same state of tune, or improved), it should work well for the new Tata SUV. NVH needs to be best in class too.
Now, the positioning. Unless Tata Motors is able to convince the Indian buyer that the new SUV is in fact extremely premium, almost as good as the Freelander 2, but at a throw away price for what it delivers, chances of the new Tata SUV succeeding will be slim. The communication must centre around the new SUV being extremely aspirational. We would even go to the extent of saying that Tata Motors should just market the SUV under its new name, downplaying the Tata tag; at least initially. And, should go overboard in communicating the new SUV's roots; using Land Rover in its communication can only help, especially in the segment the new SUV will operate in.
The new Freelander 2 based Tata SUV will hit markets in 2017 with the first test mules seeing light of day in less than six months time from now.