By Hans Greimel, Automotive News
Tokyo -- Automotive engineers around the world are contorting traditional R&D methods to deliver small, cheap cars for India that can compete with low-cost offerings from locals such as Tata Motors Ltd.
And in doing so, they are learning new lessons that are spilling over into models sold globally, even in the United States, and rewriting the rule books on product development. Old practices on both standard equipment and sourcing are being revised.
India puts unique demands on automakers hoping to crack its booming market. When designing those rides, it pays to heed local needs.
Don't forget to build in those flat spaces on the dashboard. That's where drivers mount their ubiquitous Ganesha elephant-headed deity statues to ward off traffic mishaps.
And go overkill on cupholders. Indian buyers demand upwards of seven to cradle the standard 1-litre water bottles. Thirsty riders need to be kept hydrated in India's brutal heat.
Those demands hardly translate into global models. But other innovations, such as single windshield wipers and new global procurement methods, are tracing their roots to India.
Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. are among the pioneers in building cars specifically for India. Toyota launched its Etios small car there in 2010, and Honda offered its Brio hatchback last year. But other carmakers are climbing on the bandwagon, including Ford, with its Figo small car, and General Motors, with the Chevrolet Beat. Volkswagen sells a modified version of its Polo compact.
Toyota and Honda developed their cars from scratch to be built and sold in India. Engineers blew up the usual game plan, questioning the necessity of long-standing internal standards. Just as burgeoning demand in China forced global automakers to accommodate Chinese tastes and demands, such as more spacious rear seats, India is now spurring a rethink.
"Normally development is based on Honda's global requirements, but for this car we came up with newly established standards," said Takahiro Higuchi, Honda Brio chief engineer.
"We asked, 'Do we really need this?' for each and every one of Honda's global requirements," Higuchi said in an interview. "We found some engineering work, from the India project, that we can probably put into the United States or Europe."
Higuchi declined to identify the changes for competitive reasons. But Honda already is adopting them.
"It's being put into use," he said. "The Brio project was very significant because it gave us an opportunity to review that."
The Brio, for example, gets a straight, not bent, steering column that requires fewer brackets. As a result, the instrument panel has half the parts as the panel in the Fit small car.
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