| OYAMA-CHO, Japan/MUMBA
OYAMA-CHO, Japan/MUMBA Toyota Motor said orders for the made-for-India Etios model were easily outpacing its targets so far, providing momentum in the fast-emerging market where the dominance of Maruti Suzuki India remains largely unchallenged.
In the first seven months of sales for the Etios sedan, the world's biggest automaker received 37,000 orders, compared with a target for that period of 30,000, Toshihiro Takeda, manager of Toyota's India product planning group, said on Tuesday.
The Etios Liva hatchback racked up 1,400 orders in the first four days since its debut on June 27, versus an expected 1,000, he told reporters at a test-drive event for journalists and analysts in eastern Japan.
Starting at 390,000 rupees ($8,770) for the lowest-grade Liva model, the Etios is the cheapest offering in Toyota's global line-up but serves as a crucial test for taking on Brazil and other emerging markets key to future growth for global automakers.
Rivals such as Volkswagen , General Motors and Nissan Motor are all lining up entry-level cars for Brazil and India, now the world's fourth- and sixth-biggest car markets.
"We started with India because it's the most competitive market, with the cheapest cars," Etios chief engineer Yoshinori Noritake said. "We figured that if we could make it here, we could make it in other emerging markets."
Toyota is scheduled to begin producing a compact car with Etios' underpinnings in Brazil from the second half of 2012.
The Etios was developed over four years by more than 2,000 engineers in India and Japan, through the untested method of drawing up a blueprint based on what materials were available locally to get the most out of every rupee.
Studying the unique requirements of local customers, engineers equipped the Etios with seven 1-litre-bottle holders, and a glove compartment that can keep water bottles cool by letting in air from the air-conditioner duct.
Still, analysts said Toyota had a long way to go to nip at the heels of Maruti, a unit of Japan's Suzuki Motor with about half of the Indian market.
"As far as Etios Liva is concerned, if you compare against Maruti Suzuki, the pricing is still expensive," said Vineet Hetamasaria, an auto analyst at PINC Research in Mumbai.
"Maruti provides you with power steering and Liva does not (for the lowest-grade version). The price point for the Liva is lower, but the competition is offering superior quality in a similar price range," he said.
The Etios Liva hatchback is priced from 390,000 to 590,000 rupees ($8,770-$13,260), while Maruti's Swift costs 409,000 to 556,000 rupees.
Takeda conceded that Maruti was a formidable competitor with more than 40 percent of the market -- a presence much like Toyota's in Japan.
"Maruti has many, many devotees," he said. "One thing we need to make sure of is that the quality of our service keeps up with the volume growth. That could be one way we can differentiate ourselves."
Toyota plans to add 42 dealerships by the end of 2012 for a total of 200, while raising brand awareness through heavy advertising with Oscar-winning Indian composer A.R. Rahman as its "brand ambassador".
Car sales in India topped 3 million vehicles for the first time last year and are expected to exceed 4 million by 2015.
The rise in overall sales has slowed from last year's 30 percent, to as little as 1.6 percent in June, but Toyota's sales nearly doubled thanks to the Etios sedan.
Toyota is aiming to boost its overall sales in India to more than 130,000 vehicles this year, compared with 75,000 in 2010.
($1 = 44.485 Rupees)
(Editing by Joseph Radford)