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Mahindra will reveal a low-cost ute at next month's Australian National Field Days in Orange, NSW, while Tata is on schedule to begin selling utes by mid-year before introducing its Indigo and Marina small cars in 2008.
Mahindra has appointed Sydney dealer group Tynan Motors to import its Scorpio Pik Up. Single and dual cab versions of the diesel ute will be shown at the field days to gauge interest.
Tynan Motors dealer principal Michael Tynan said the utes had received Australian Design Rule approval and would be on sale by March. They would be sold in 2WD and 4WD versions with an emphasis on regional, rural and mining markets, he said.
Standard equipment would include airconditioning, electric windows, and a rear limited slip differential.
"They are work vehicles but we think they are good enough to claim their place," Mr Tynan said. He estimated up to 1000 could be sold in the first year, initially in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.
In South Africa, where the Pik Up went on sale in April, prices start at the equivalent of $25,000 for the 2WD single cab, with the double cab model coming in at about $30,000. Four-wheel drive models cost about $32,000 for the single cab and $36,500 for the double cab.
Mr Tynan would not reveal planned Australian prices but said they would be "extremely competitive". "If anything, they could be lower than those figures."
Mahindra began making passenger cars last year with an Indian version of the Logan, an economy car designed by Renault and produced in Europe by Romanian maker Dacia. Mr Tynan said India was the sole world source for right-hand drive versions of the car but said there were no plans to import it. "We should see how the commercial vehicles go first," he said.
The Tynan venture will be Mahindra's second appearance in Australia. The Mahindra Stockman and its upmarket version, the Bushranger, were sold here as recreational vehicles between 1990 and 1993. Their design was based on the original wartime Willys Jeep design used by Mahindra when it began making vehicles in 1947. About 250 were sold here before its WA-based importer collapsed and had to return 100 unsold vehicles to India.
Although simple, the Mahindra Scorpio is a modern design, launched in 2001 as an SUV and upgraded this year when the ute version was revealed as an export-only model. The Scorpio Pik Up will be powered by a 2.5-litre common-rail diesel engine co-developed with Renault. The engine would meet the stringent Euro 4 pollution standard and would produce slightly more than the 80kW and 280Nm the 2.6-litre Euro 3 engine fitted to evaluation models, Mr Tynan said.
At 5.1m long, the Pik Up is comparable with a Toyota Hilux in size, although heavier at 2150kg for the 4WD double cab version. All versions boast carrying capacity of 1000kg. A dual-range five-speed manual with part-time four-wheel drive is the only transmission available. Steering is by power-assisted rack and pinion, and suspension uses a torsion bar independent system for the front wheels and leaf springs on the rear axle.
Meanwhile, dealer sources say Tata remains on track to reappear in Australian showrooms next year, four years after the previous importer brought in the last shipment of Safari utes. Dealers said the company would return with a low-cost ute before offering a range of small cars with petrol and diesel engines.
"Things are moving along, they were hoping to make an announcement in January but that's now more likely to be in March or April," a dealer said. "Homologation is under way and market research is being done. They know their demographic, they know what their pricing has to be and they're working towards that now, he said.
Another dealer said Tata understood how competitive the Australian market was.
"They can see that it's a viable but not wildly beneficial exercise at the sort of prices the local market will bear. But they don't see short-term margins as the be-all and end-all of the exercise," he said.
Hong-Kong based analyst with automotive strategic consultants Autopolis, Graeme Maxton, was pessimistic about the chances of Indian makers, saying they were "getting ahead of themselves" in their urge to take on the Australian market.
"Mahindra and Tata are both enthusiastic about overseas markets but they don't have the product line-up or build quality to establish themselves," he said. "I think rural commercial vehicles are a risky strategy in Australia where reliability in outback use can be a matter of life and death."