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Santro, the car that launched Hyundai in India, drives into the sunset. But shed no tears

Indians loved Santro. Proof: Hyundai today stands heads and shoulders above its peers not just in India but across the world.

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When a then unknown Korean carmaker was about to launch its first product in India in 1997, it faced several problems. First, Hyundai’s biggest domestic competitor had already launched in India and was making waves. Second, Hyundai realised that its international name for the vehicle it wanted to produce and sell in India might be hard on the Indian tongue.

Both problems were difficult to solve but many years ago, the first marketing head of that carmaker, B.V.R. Subbu explained to me how the two issues were resolved. The first one might seem simple by today’s marketing standards but in the late 1990s, celebrity marketing was a fairly new concept. Hyundai signed on India’s biggest star of the time, Shah Rukh Khan, following a succession of mega-hits, most notably Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.

The second issue was a bit tougher; so the marketing teams and advertising agencies took an off-site in the French Riviera resort of Saint-Tropez, hoping the Mediterranean sun and bikini-clad models would help them ‘brainstorm’. And brainstorm they did, making a portmanteau of the resort and thus the legend of the Hyundai Santro was born.

The Santro was launched in 1998 in the Indian market, with Shah Rukh Khan beginning a successful career selling everything from cars to pan masala. Hyundai India was the first large-scale car exporter from India, selling a ‘Made In India’ Atos, the global name of the car we knew as the Santro, manufactured at Sriperumbudur outside Chennai. It was the Santro brand that launched them into prominence in India.

Also read: First GM, now Ford — why India is becoming a graveyard for world’s auto giants

All good things must end

After several iterations of the Santro — the ZipPlus, ZipDrive and Xing being some of them — Hyundai stopped production of the original Santro as the car was replaced by the Eon.

For lack of a nicer term, the Eon was a flop. Indians had, in no small part thanks to Hyundai, become quite used to creature comforts. The Eon was small and narrow, unexciting to drive and while Hyundai wanted to take on the success of the best-selling Alto, the Eon just did not click on the market.

Now, while Hyundai was enjoying success in more premium hatchbacks like the i10, which over three generations has become the best-selling badge in Hyundai India’s history, they felt another crack at the entry-level hatchback market was warranted. Once production of the first-generation i10 ended — Hyundai had for a while produced the original i10 and the i10 Grand simultaneously — the Korean carmaker decided to give the segment another try. Keep in mind, this was after the launch of the first-generation Creta whose demand Hyundai India could barely keep up with. But try it did. And Hyundai decided to revive the Santro name.

But the ‘New Santro’ was, well, not quite like the original. It did not have the ‘tall boy’ high-seating position of the original. And while it was undoubtedly better to drive and came with creature comforts such as smartphone connectivity on the higher-specifications, the pricing dynamics of the lower-end of the car market in India almost always push buyers, mostly first-timers, towards slightly bigger models. The existence of the Grand i10 and its successor i10 Nios never helped the new Santro. When I drove the Santro for the first time, it was a perky little car, and driving down near Puri, Odisha, you would have thought that this car should have enjoyed some success in the market, but clearly buyers felt that the Alto was the car they wanted despite a creaking platform.

At the same time, Hyundai India was printing money on every Creta and Venue sold, so the recent report in The Economic Times that the Santro isn’t long for the world was not surprising. A Hyundai India spokesperson denied the news, saying that ‘limited production’ of the Santro was continuing, but this statement is startlingly similar to the announcements they made when the Eon’s production ended.

Also read: Hyundai to offer six EVs in India by 2028, seeks first-mover advantage

An emotional connect

The Santro name will be much missed in India. It launched Hyundai in the Indian market and began the Korean carmaker’s push into the top-tier of global automakers. Hyundai, despite recent challenges by Tata Motors, is sitting pretty behind Maruti-Suzuki as India’s second-largest carmaker. For many people, the first Santro was the first car they drove, including my wife. While I never owned a Hyundai Santro, I had adventures with that car.

A media drive from Bengaluru to Goa through the Western Ghats back in 2003 on then brand-new Santro ZipPlus was one of my most memorable drives as a young automotive writer. Thanks to the age-limits on cars in India, the original Santro is quickly disappearing from the roads of larger Indian cities, but in the mofussil towns of northern India and the coffee estates near Madikeri in Karnataka (one of the best places in India to find well-maintained old cars), you can still see a few around.

The new Santro could never match the appeal, especially emotional, of the original. The Santro was the first ‘real’ affordable car that Indians saw from the rush of automotive manufacturers that came in the 1990s. The other Korean manufacturer Daewoo collapsed a few years later, their Matiz won critical acclaim among automotive writers in India back then, while the Santro was roundly panned not least for its looks and middling driving characteristics.

But Indians loved Santro, and the proof lies in a simple fact. Not only Daewoo but two other giant carmakers who came to India with hope and expectation back in the 1990s — General Motors and Ford — have left India since then. And it is a formerly unknown Korean carmaker that today stands heads and shoulders above both those carmakers not just in India but across the world. And we have a small resort town in France, where the oligarchs and supermodels mingle, a town where the car named for it would stick out like a sore thumb among the supercars on the beachfront, to thank for it.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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