The four-meter curse: How the compact sedan segment evolved

Has the forced four-meter rule pushed carmakers to evolve their products in such a way that the user gets the best of both worlds – boot space of a saloon/sedan and the practicality of a hatchback? Here’s how the segment has improved.

The sub-4 meter rule

Ford Figo Aspire Compact Sedan 18

Thanks to a varying tax structure, a car smaller than four meters in length, powered by an engine smaller than 1500cc (in case of diesel) or 1200cc (in case of petrol) is entitled for more than 50% tax benefit, in comparison to a ‘full size’ vehicle. So in the end, if a car maker, produces a vehicle that fits the above criteria, your vehicle will be eligible for a low 12% tax. On the other hand, if the vehicle is longer than 4 meters, customers would have to pay the full tax on it. Sounds good for the buyer who wants to save as much as possible, but from the manufacturer’s perspective, it brings along a huge task – the task of cutting the vehicle short.
And if it were as simple as it sounds, we would not have been subjected to badly designed backsides of the Dzires and the Zests. But slowly, it appears, that designers are getting a hang of it, which brings us to your first point:

1. Design

2015 Maruti Suzuki Dzire Front Three Quarters
I remember a friend of mine jokingly referring to Tata Indigo CS as Tata Indigo Cut Short. The disproportionate boot of the Maruti Suzuki Dzire that followed ensured that the said friend kept laughing for another year or so. That was until Honda launched the Amaze, which looked more than just a Brio with a boot added to it. Okay, the rest of the body followed the same (almost) design, but the boot didn’t appear to be an incomplete job. The Hyundai Xcent wasn’t too bad, either, but the Zest couldn’t do justice to its otherwise good-looking appearance.
Most importantly, the yet to be launched Ford Figo Aspire is going to be an interesting sight, because while the flat boot might not be to everyone’s liking,  the proportions AREN’T all over the place. Thankfully!

2. Features

A tax benefit means the vehicle is cheaper than a full-size sedan, and to ensure that the customer base becomes wider, it might not be wrong to assume that the sub 4-meter versions are short on features. Well, unfortunately, both you and I are wrong. While climate control and infotainment systems might have become features in hatchbacks these sedans are based on, but rear AC vent (Hyundai Xcent) and six airbags (in the upcoming Ford Aspire) are things even some of the full size cars don’t get.

3. Powerful engines

2014 Ford EcoSport Limited Edition
Not only does the rule limit the car’s dimensions, it also means that there’s a constraint on the engine displacement as well. A 1.2-litre petrol engine and a 1.5-litre diesel unit might not do wonders, but with advent of turbocharging in petrol engines – Tata offers a 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol ‘Revotron’ engine in the Zest – and the possibility of using a better mapped diesel is good enough to keep the excitement high. Think about what Ford could do with a 1-litre EcoBoost inside the engine bay of the Figo Aspire, or Maruti Suzuki with a 90hp version of the 1.5-litre diesel unit in the Dzire!
But on the downside, this India-specific rule precludes these products becoming global successes as they could have been if there was no such rule. This sentiment was recently expressed by Toyota Kirloskar MD, Naomi Ishii, who said that these unique regulations need to be dropped for a more global approach supporting the central government’s Make in India campaign.
The market has been very kind to most of the products, which have found use in both personal and taxi segments, and there’s no looking back. Carmakers like Toyota, on the other hand, offer a larger (not sub 4-meter) products like the Etios for a little extra. Toyota , but in turn, transfers to the those benefits to the user in terms of  better leg space and luggage capacity.
And as you must know already, the rule isn’t limited to cars alone. Compact SUVs and crossovers are also trying to fit inside the 4-meter mould. The one successful example here is the popular Ford EcoSport. Future sub-4 meter compact SUVs include the Mahindra TUV300, the S101 and the Maruti YBA (both codenames).
It appears that it might be too late to drop the rule, not because there are a lot of products in the segment, but because it seems to be heading in the right direction, don’t you think?