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RIP: Here once lived a car called Hyundai Santro!

Twice dead but resurrected on both occasions, the 24-year-old is now gone. Though the CNG version may continue to be on sale, it is time to bid goodbye to the workhorse. A look at why Hyundai couldn’t keep alive the once-beloved Santro

May 20, 2022 / 02:58 PM IST
The 2018 Hyundai Santro.

The 2018 Hyundai Santro.

Whether you saw one on the road for the first time in the late 1990s, or had the good fortune of sitting inside one, everyone in the country has a Hyundai Santro (1998 - 2022) memory.

Much like its brand ambassador Shah Rukh Khan, the Santro represented the aspirations of India, post-liberalisation— one that had moved past the bare-bones utility offered by the likes of the Maruti 800, and was within the confines of an affordable family car bracket, ready for a plusher, more exciting offering. The Santro was a major milestone in the Indian car market’s evolutionary journey.

Everything about it was novel. It was unusually proportioned, with a sharper looking exterior than the vanilla Maruti 800. It even had a 1.0-litre engine, which, for a performance-starved market like India, seemed plenty.

For a market as young as India, the Hyundai Atos-based Santro possessed a sort of mystique which allowed it to challenge the monopoly that Maruti Suzuki had over the market.

Not too long after its launch in September 1998, the Santro’s sales began to pick up. If it wasn’t parked in your driveway, odds were that there was one in the neighbourhood or owned by a distant relative.

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It offered headroom, offered easy ingress and egress – particularly suited to the elderly. It undoubtedly prompted Maruti Suzuki to launch the WagonR. It was so popular that, by 2003, Hyundai, a household name by now, was riding high on the Santro wave, with variants like the Zip and Zip Plus, marginally broadening the car’s appeal.

Then it launched the first major upgrade to the Santro, the Santro Xing. It had a peppier 1.1-litre engine, making 62hp and 96Nm of power and continued to be a bestseller for the brand.

By 2005, Hyundai Motor India (HMI) had established itself as one of the largest carmakers in the country. It had already commenced exporting to the UK, had its best sales year since its inception, and, buoyed by the success of the Santro, ventured towards a more expensive territory of the premium hatchback with the Hyundai Getz.

Not willing to be seen simply as a maker of affordable cars, Hyundai had even launched the considerably more premium Sonata in 2001, followed by the Sonata Embera in 2005. But the Santro continued to account for nearly 76 percent of overall sales.

The Santro Xing. The Santro Xing.

The taxi years

In 2009, a decade after its launch, the Santro continued to embed itself deeper into the country’s automotive and cultural fabric, by entering Mumbai’s famed kaali-peeli taxi fleet.

It was a testament to its efficiency, robustness and to its easy-serviceability, as Hyundai, now the country’s second-largest carmaker, had a robust after-sales network and plenty of spare parts floating around outside it.

Yet, it was also something of a voluntary exile for the Santro sub-brand. Once a vehicle makes it to the city’s taxi fleet, its desirability as a private car begins to ebb, and that’s what appeared to be happening with the Santro.

By now, Hyundai Motor India had a full roster of cars, including the i10, i20, Verna, Tucson and the Sonata. Hyundai had dug its teeth in the most competitive segments in the country, with the i10 and the i20 experiencing resounding success.

A dual-tone interior upgrade on the Santro was offered, and while it still continued to sell, the Indian car customer wanted more from their hatchbacks – a requirement the i10 fulfilled perfectly.

By 2014, the Santro just wasn’t cutting it. The market was packed with low-cost rivals like the Maruti Suzuki Alto and hadn’t been properly updated since the Xing was launched. The final nail in the coffin arrived in the form of the tiny Hyundai Eon, which, while wholly unsuccessful at replacing the Santro, managed to prompt Hyundai to discontinue Santro production in 2014.

Hyundai Santro

End of an era

In a recent interview with CNBC TV18, Maruti Suzuki Chairman RC Bhargava said the entry-level car market shrunk by a whopping 28 percent this year. The all-new Santro that was re-launched in 2018, but finally succumbed to lack of demand, prompting Hyundai to pull the plug indefinitely.

Despite being reasonably successful, the new Santro didn’t command the sort of following the original one did because it inherited very different market conditions.

For starters, despite having a factory-fitted CNG option, the Santro was lacking in other areas –like a factory-fitted aircon. Secondly, BS6 emission standards raised the prices of the Santro to a point where it was no longer the budget offering it once was.

And its price-related woes weren’t to end there. Given the recent hike in commodity prices, coupled with the government mandating six airbags as standard in the near future, the price for entry-level cars is likely to go up.

That, and the growing customer preference for Renault Kwid-like compact crossover SUVs, means that the market is finally ready to move on from entry-level hatchbacks.

Hyundai Atos, the car on which Santro was based on. Hyundai Atos, the car on which Santro was based on.

If the World Car of The Year winning, soon-to-be-launched-in-India Hyundai Ioniq EV is anything to go by, the brand is ready for a very different kind of innings, and it is likely to be a major global player in the EV space.

Will the Santro return as a low-cost EV? It’s highly unlikely, as EVs wouldn’t want to piggyback on ICE sub-brands. Although reports suggest that the CNG version will continue to be on sale, at least until stocks last, it is time to bid goodbye to the workhorse that was the Hyundai Santro. And celebrate how far the Indian car market has come along since its launch 23 years ago.
Parth Charan is a Mumbai-based writer who’s written extensively on cars for over seven years.
first published: May 20, 2022 02:58 pm
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