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If the mounting user review on any online car forum is used as a pulse, locally assembled cars in Pakistan are criminally poor in quality, sub-par in providing adequate features and are not good value for money. Choice words are oft used for Pakistani cars in comparison with the used Japanese Domestic Models (JDM) imported into the country, the latter considered far superior. The market for cars in Pakistan as a result is dismally small and in times of austerity, reduced buying power, higher taxes and greater cost of borrowing; ever-shrinking. In 1HFY20, sales have slashed by half. It is surprising then that the new Alto is still selling!

The Alto660cc is the 8th generation Suzuki car introduced internationally; its 4th generation launched in Pakistan last year with much fanfare. Suzuki is the only car maker which has introduced top-telling small cars in Pakistan-- (though there was Hyundai Santro, Daihatsu Cuore and a few recent Chinese offerings such as FAW’s V2, Road Prince and United Bravo are slowly creating their space, the emphasis is on top-selling). There was the Suzuki FX until 1989 after which Mehran was introduced and was sold in the market for nearly three decades until only a few months ago. Ironically, though Mehran is the most sold car in the country—second only to the unrivalled Corolla—it is also perhaps the biggest recipient of the aforementioned indictment by Pakistani car buyers.

This dichotomy is certainly interesting to watch, despite it being entirely devoid of charm. Because of its size and cost of ownership, it was the first choice for families moving up the income ladder, exchanging their motorcycle for the first car they could afford. Mind you, though Mehran was the cheapest locally assembled car, it was only cheap by comparison with other cars, including the league of 3- year old or less used imported vehicles such as Daihatsu Mira, Move or Nissan Dayz. But it had another thing going for it — extremely cheap maintenance costs. Having run for three decades, Mehran’s parts can be found anywhere. There is no substitute for a ready affordable and accessible parts market.

Though Mehran remained on top, Suzuki Cultus (that has seen several facelifts since its launch) and Wagon-R (introduced in 2014) fast gained popularity. Neither of them were cheap, but they were affordable enough with similar benefits accrued as Mehran buyers. After the multiple price hikes over the last two years, Mehran was last priced north of Rs900,000, the lowest variant of Cultus (VXR) at Rs1.7 million, and Wagon-R at 1.6 million. When Alto came out, its upper lock was Rs1.29 million, just below Wagon-R (VXL)’s Rs1.34 million.

Today Alto costs Rs 1.39 million, and every month, over 4000 units on average are being sold. Meanwhile, Wagon-R and Cultus together are selling 2600 units less this year. Also consider, that between 2007 until Nov-18 when Mehran was announced to be phased out, its average sales stood at about 2700 units. Not only is Alto comfortably taking Mehran’s space, it may also be cannibalizing the market share of other Suzuki variants.

The reason is simple. In prevailing conditions and given existing choices, it is Pakistan’s best buy right now, though whether it is the best small car is still up for debate. Though it has good fuel efficiency, it lacks many features that exist in the imported JDM Alto.  One could argue that there is United Bravo and Prince Pearl (of Road Prince) both priced lower than Alto, but there is no doubt the two are fighting a perception battle as well. They don’t just have to be more affordable and equipped with better technology and features, they also have to spend considerable time on the roads to be tested. Both these carmakers need to build brand equity, which Suzuki already has in spades. If resale is important to car buyers, better a higher priced Alto than a new brand with the Chinese tag on it.

For better or for worse, Suzuki Alto is offering the only counter-trend to the current slowdown the industry is experiencing, surpassing its own mediocrity in a market starved for choices.