Sucheta Dalal :Spare Yourself the Misery
Sucheta Dalal

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Spare Yourself the Misery  

September 18, 2009

One of the least explored and seldom written about aspects about buying and operating a motor vehicle in India has to do with the availability of spare parts and after-sales service—well after the warranty has expired and the specific model has been replaced or upgraded. A valid reason for this could be that until about 15-20 years ago, we simply had no need to worry about a change in models—the Premier/Fiat, Ambassador and Standard Herald cars as well as the Vespa/Bajaj and Lambretta scooters had simply not changed much for nearly four decades. Not only were parts for these cars the same almost half-a-century later, but you could also get full replacement of outer-body shells as well as engines, if required.

And then, to make things even more interesting, there was no dearth of trained personnel, either at the ’authorised’ workshops or simply on the pavement or any point in between, who could revive the complete vehicle if required. Two-wheelers and auto-rickshaws from Bajaj/Vespa and Lambretta, for example, shared multiple common parts and technologies. The bolts used to fix the bumpers on Ambassadors and Fiats to the body could also be used to keep the main drive shaft connecting the engine to the rear differential turning of the car. Taxi drivers in the 1960s and 1970s were known to carry regularly required spare parts with them to help other not-so-fortunate motorists driving the same model. And who did not know, within weeks of owning a scooter, how to change the gear wire in a few minutes without any tools, if required?

Today, when buying a new car or two-wheeler, we try to analyse how we will maintain and operate the vehicle if one is a long-term user. Not only does this impact the whole ownership and operational experience, but this will also determine the resale value when you finally do need to part with what is probably your second-largest investment, after your primary dwelling unit. Also, unlike your primary dwelling unit, a mass-produced motor car will certainly depreciate in value very rapidly.

Till date, there is no enforceable legislation in India on any minimum period guaranteed by manufacturers for provision of spare parts and service, beyond the original warranty. Some foreign companies may have laws in their own home countries for a specific period, usually in the 15-25 years range, where they have to maintain easy availability of spares and services.

But, in India, manufacturers like Fiat, Daewoo and Peugeot simply vanished from the Indian horizon when the going got tough, leaving owners helpless. That these same manufacturers are re-entering the Indian market through different routes without resolving issues for previous owners, speaks volumes about their arrogance as companies and our naïveté. So, here's a brief review of the real situation on the ground regarding availability of spares from car manufacturers. Two-wheelers have been left out for now.

Maruti Udyog (MUL): Top of the line, thanks to the sheer weight of numbers as well as the Maruti Genuine Parts programme. You can even get spares for the earlier model cars, though not so easily for low-volume vehicles. A friend with an old Grand Vitara initially had to hunt for spare parts for his discontinued version, in Chennai. To their credit, MUL had the parts sent to Chennai within a few days, with a request to the owner to wait for an older service engineer to reach Chennai on a scheduled visit. Since the model was discontinued some years ago, the company was keen to have it repaired by an experienced engineer.

Hyundai Motors: Disappointing experience, unless you ’know somebody’. Spare parts and service can only be procured from their authorised outlets and those for older models are often not available. Try getting the unventilated disc brakes on an older Santro repaired, for example, even though this car was sold in very large numbers. For the other cars, like the Elantara and older Sonatas, which never really sold in large numbers, you will have to wait for spares, especially since the dealers have a monopoly. Also, Hyundai has carried out rapid but minor changes to these cars, so several parts would have changed and, when you go to get them fixed, they try to sell you a new car instead.

Tata Motors: Excellent. There is vast commonality in some critical parts across vehicles of different sizes and usages, so parts will be available, literally, forever. On the other hand, their mainstay, the Indica, and now the Nano, are easily repaired anywhere because of the immense success of the Ace micro-mini truck. In addition, they seem to have the best mobile repair options going, especially for non-urban customers, because many of their customers use the same cars as commercial vehicles, where time is money. Tata suppliers also seem to be more pro-active when customers of older cars approach them directly for parts and service.

Ford: The less said about their approach to customers with older cars, the better. The truth is discovered when owners try to sell their Escorts and Ikons.

General Motors: Surprisingly good. Not only do their dealers pro-actively keep parts and provide excellent service for the earlier generation of Opels and Chevrolets, but there is also easy availability of spare parts in the secondary market. One reason for this is that GM is big in China, so a huge volume of spares from that market filters back into the grey-market for spares in India, at very low costs. In addition, the success of their small car ’Spark’ makes for a wider network of dealers, where owners of the older, larger cars seem to get special treatment

Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M): A mixed bag. M&M provides good service for its bread-and-butter utility vehicles. However, the scenario changes drastically for its upper-end SUVs and Renault Logan cars. Somewhere, something has gone wrong and M&M needs to address this issue very soon instead of getting its senior management to make lame excuses in the media.

There are then, of course, the ultra-luxury brands. Here, it is, literally, each buyer for herself. And this truth is reflected in the resale values. If you have that kind of money, be prepared to do some running around, once the warranty runs out.

That brings me to the crux of this article. It would be easy for the industry to follow a single standard. For instance, all manufacturers in India can promise to support the sale of a new car for 15 years with adequate supply of reasonably priced spares. That would truly place the customer first. However, who said the customer comes first? So, it is left to us, as consumers, to decide with our cheque-books on which manufacturer gets our vote. Resale value as well as operating excellence depends heavily on this support. So, the next time you are buying a new motor vehicle, ask the dealer how long he will support that car (or bike). And do let us know what they say.

-- Sucheta Dalal