The Limits of Delivering “Cheaper Value”

Nano vehicle

Tata Nano car on fire
Tata Nano ... Tata "No-No"?
About a year ago, the international press was abuzz about the latest new “value” entry in the automobile business. Amid great fanfare, Tata Motors, part of India’s largest corporate conglomerate, was introducing the “Nano,” a car designed to appeal to India’s mass market.

The Nano, which can seat five people and has a surprisingly roomy interior for its size, carries a base price of only ~$2,200 — lower than any other car in the world — which proved irresistible to families of modest means whose finances had required that they make do with motorcycles or scooters before.

Some 9,000 Nano vehicles were delivered in July, but since then, sales have slowed dramatically – to just around 500 shipments to dealers in November.

How did Nano’s star fall so far, so fast – especially for a vehicle which Tata Motors thought was impressive enough that it planned to introduce it in other developing markets … then Europe … and finally to the United States?

Production delays have something to do with it. But the real problem is the performance of the car. Most alarming are reports that the vehicle can catch on fire, with one widely broadcast incident where a Nano caught on fire and was engulfed by flames on the way home from the auto showroom!

In response, Tata, while denying anything is wrong with the design of the Nano and studiously avoiding any language of “recall,” is offering to retrofit the automobile with extra safety features. It’s also extending the warranty on the car from 18 months to a solid four years.

Will these moves change the impression that the car is more of a “No-No” rather than a “Nano” and move its sales trajectory back into positive territory? Perhaps. But it’s interesting to note that sales of a rival “value” car made by Suzuki – the “Alto” – have now overtaken those of the Nano. The Alto carries a higher base price of $6,200, and yet it posted unit sales of ~30,000 in November, making it India’s best-selling car that month.

[The success of the Suzuki Alto in India is nice news for a company whose cars in the U.S. have been on a downward plunge all this year – with sales off ~42% in 2010 compared to 2009.]

The experience of the Nano and the Alto in India brings up an interesting question: Is it possible to make small, cheap version of products that are significant purchase items and win the confidence of a broad customer base?

To a degree, yes. But there are limits to “how low you can go” in value-engineering a product for performance and safety, below which customers just turn and walk away. (Or, in this case, drive away.)

Moreover, just like the experience of the Yugo or the Trabant, there’s a risk of forming a poor market image that’s impossible to shake off.

And in this particular case, the brand names don’t help at all. It’s just too easy for disgusted consumers to say “Ta-Ta” to Tata Motors and “No-No” to the Nano.

Let’s Revisit the Yugo!

Yugo advertisementThose of us “of a certain age” remember well when the Yugo car was introduced to America with great fanfare. In 1985, the prospect of purchasing a small vehicle with an even smaller price tag (~$3,990) was irresistible to many – even with the high gasoline prices and gas lines of the 1970s looking more distant in the rearview mirror. For those on a budget, who could resist the allure of buying a new car for $99 down and a $99 monthly payment?

Here’s a startling statistic that bears this out: When the Yugo was introduced in the summer of 1985, more than 1,000 of them were sold in one day. In fact, the Yugo was to be the fastest-selling first-year European import ever sold into the U.S. – a record that stands yet today.

But in just a few short years, the Yugo would go from being a star to being a dud … from being the “it” car to being the butt of jokes.

How could this happen? The answers are found in a just-released book “The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History,” written by Jason Vuic (ISBN-13: 978-0809098910). This pithy, irreverent volume takes readers on a merry romp through its 250+ pages … and things never have time to become dull.

One of the earliest signs that the Yugo might not be all it was cracked up to be came when its American investors decided to drive a Yugo car across the country. What better way to test the product? In retrospect, they should have heeded the clear warning signs: the new car broke down not once … not twice … but three times during its ~3,000 mile journey.

Undeterred, they plowed ahead, forming a national dealer network and trumpeting the Yugo as a fresh, affordable European car that came with a small price tag and a big attitude.

But the reviews were scathing from the get-go. The car broke down during a road test by Motor Trend, leading the magazine to conclude that the vehicle was “hard to recommend at any price.” Some customers reported that their new Yugos came off the dealer lot with rust spots already showing in the trunk. That plus noisy brakes … rough-riding clutch … and a few other deficiencies not normally experienced until any other car is years old.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for the magic to wear off. By the time of Saturday Night Live’s famous parody of the Yugo – its fake TV ad for the Adobe clay car (at $179 apiece) – Yugo dealers across America were already closing their doors.

Actually, what’s most surprising to read is that the Yugo actually continued to be manufactured in Europe as late as 2008.

In retrospect, I suppose the Yugo wasn’t a complete waste of time. It helped us realize – once again – that despite the enduring appeal of a low-cost alternative, there’s no substitute for producing a quality product.

It’s also given us 25 years of great jokes.