‘You can have any color Model T you want, as long as it is black’ is a famous Henry Ford quote from a long time ago. Or is it? No, no, it is still a Ford quote, but I am not sure if it is from a long time ago. That’s the way I felt when I was recently at a car dealer’s showroom. It not only felt like a million years away from the 21st century buzz word called ‘mass customization’ but I came back feeling that the company was out to make a sucker of me.

Before I explain how and why, let me state it emphatically that I have always held Toyota Corporation in the highest esteem, largely because of having read the ‘The Toyota Way’ – a beautiful book by Jeffrey K. Liker. I also ‘believe’ that in Innova, the van that they have launched in India, they have a good product, perhaps the best in its class. It is a different matter that there aren’t too many vehicles in the class – a mini van that can seat seven people comfortably.

I have been using my Scorpio (Mahindra & Mahindra) for the last three years and am generally happy with it. But I am not so happy that I’d buy two of them. There are some serious issues with it – for instance, if you have flat front wheel, and you make the mistake of not changing it before it loses all air, you will not be able to use the standard equipment jack to change the wheel. No kidding! An informal chat with the service station mechanic confirmed this. The only way out is to borrow a jack to lift the car high enough to position the second jack in place. Imagine discovering this in the rarified Himalayan air and then searching for a large car that could lend me their jack. But that is not the only reason why I won’t buy a second Scorpio. It has no boot space, it is noisy, the air conditioning is not up to speed, and if you climb hills with air-conditioning on, the pick up suffers. It is another matter that you cannot really keep the air conditioning on while climbing up, because the car heats up too much. To give Mahindra credit I am told that this problem has now been rectified in the new version of the car. In spite of all this, I still think that the Scorpio is decent value for money. It looks good, has a road presence, and is built like a truck. So I’ll retain my existing one but will not buy one more.

The Innova, even though it looks terrible and feels flimsy, takes care of all the shortcomings of the Scorpio – it has decent boot space, the air conditioning works, and pick-up is good, with and without the AC on. So a combination of Scorpio and Innova would work very well for me.

But here is what I have found out about the Innova that makes me cringe. They have three models E, G, and V. The version E gets knocked out of consideration because it doesn’t have power steering – perhaps because it is aimed at the taxi segment. The V has ABS, air-bags, and all sorts of bells and whistles. It is pricy but given our road conditions perhaps worth the extra money. But it has captain seats for the middle row, and the dealer will not change that for a bench seat, even for a price. That captain seats don’t work for me at all – when we travel out of town, we typically leave the city at the crack of dawn and the kids are just transported to the car in their pajamas. The captain seats don’t quite work for sleeping children – quilt and all. So that gets ruled out. Within the G category they have three offerings imaginatively christened 1, 2, and 3! G1 is basically the Taxi version (E) with a power steering and body colored bumpers, G2 has ‘all’ of G1 features plus rear wash and wiper plus front intermittent wipers; yes, can you believe it, intermittent wipers, and they are proud to advertise it. The damn thing must not cost more than 50 bucks at most, (even the dinky Maruti 800 has intermittent wipers!). But Toyota has not put it as standard equipment, perhaps because they want to justify the premium on the model by listing the number of extras. G3 has rear air-conditioning, essentially two sets of additional blowers for the rear seats. That is a necessary requirement for me, because one of the key gripes I have with the Scorpio is the air-conditioning. But I am paying close to hundred thousand rupees for four small blowers that would cost less than 15,000 in the after market. So I check with them if they would plug in the rear blowers, of course for a price, after I buy the G2. The answer is no; moreover they tell me that if I get them plugged in from elsewhere the warranty is void.

So E, G1, G2, and V, get ruled out and that leaves G3 as the only option for me. Even after paying close to a million bucks, I will have to adjust my external rear view mirrors manually, perhaps by walking across – no human driver could possibly reach across to other side and adjust the mirrors manually – they couldn’t even plug in a cheap lever, as many other much cheaper cars do, at no extra cost. I will not get fog lights, side trimmings, or a CD player. G3 has a cassette player as standard equipment. And I cannot plug in an after market CD player because of some technicality with the connectors. Moreover, the replaced cassette player will not fit into any other car except a Toyota. They ‘graciously’ offer to buy it back for 1000 rupees! ‘It is not company policy’, but we are doing it as a favor to you, I am informed. Wow!

I can, for argument sake, go along with the line of thought that a car company cannot really mass customize. Their research team did in-depth interviews with hundreds of potential customers and arrived at the five combinations. But hey, don’t lock the customer down; if you cannot actively help them meet their specific needs at least don’t penalize them if they go out and find someone else who can fulfill their needs.

If you pay six or seven hundred thousand Rupees you are willing to accept lower levels of trimmings but at a million bucks you want a car that looks and feels a million bucks! Perhaps that is why the Innova is not meeting the projected numbers. Perhaps the only reason they are selling anything at all is because there is no real competition in this class. And that is perhaps the reason why, despite a nagging feeling that they think I am a moron, I will end up buying the Innova. Just as people bought the black Fords for years, till…

First published on December 5, 2005