Hyundai Motor Co. introduced its smallest car ever on Thursday, a three-cylinder, four-door, five-seat hatchback to be built and sold in India and compete squarely against the biggest-selling model of the country’s top car maker, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd.
The car, called the Eon, is a few inches shorter than Hyundai’s i10, which for several years has been its smallest car and is made in India and sold there and in parts of Europe. It’s the exact length of Maruti’s Alto, the top-selling car in India by units, and slightly longer than Tata Motor Ltd.’s Nano, one of the world’s smallest cars.
For Hyundai, the Eon represents an effort to reach younger customers and those making their first purchase in one of the world’s fastest-growing car markets.
“We will be able to catch the consumer more at the entry level and then gradually move up with them,” said Arvind Saxena, Hyundai’s director for marketing and sales in India. “It allows us to complete our offerings in the India market.”
The Eon has a 814-cubic centimeter gasoline engine and the company claims the car will run 21.1 kilometers to one liter of gasoline.
Hyundai will sell the Eon in six versions. The base model that doesn’t have air-conditioning and power steering costs 269,999 rupees ($5,487) at showrooms in New Delhi, while the top-end model costs 371,869 rupees. The top-end model has features such as power steering, central locking, driver airbag, power windows as well as an audio system.
In an interview before the roll out, Mr. Saxena said Hyundai aims to sell about 150,000 units a year. That would be a sharp boost to the company’s sales volume, which amounted to 356,000 cars in India last year.
Maruti, a unit of Suzuki Motor Corp., sells about 25,000 units of the Alto car each month, whose prices start at 232,248 rupees at showrooms in New Delhi.
Hyundai will start producing 670,000 cars annually at its two factories in 2012, up from 630,000 cars currently, H.W. Park, managing director and chief executive for Hyundai in India said at the launch.
The company and its vendors have jointly spent 9 billion rupees to develop the Eon, which is the lowest investment ever made by the company to develop a car model, Mr. Saxena said separately at the launch.
Mr. Saxena said Hyundai hopes that the Eon’s design will help it stand out in a market niche known chiefly for boxy, unsexy-looking models.
“We are not fighting the price warriors,” he said. “We are trying to offer a good value proposition for the segment.”
Advances in steel fabrication allowed the company to add delicate changes in shape in the relatively small panels, giving the Eon’s exterior curves that are similar to the larger sedans it sells in the U.S. and other countries, a look that Hyundai calls “fluidic sculpture.”
“The overall form and surface design is something you don’t really get in a car of this segment and at this price,” said Casey Hyun, the Eon’s lead designer ahead of the launch.
Mr. Hyun said the car’s interior took several cues from research the company did on Indian art and culture. Seat fabric, with patterns of curving lines, was influenced by designs from Indian silk. The center console’s vase-like shape was influenced by Indian iconography.
Some of the hardest work went into giving the ultra-small car the appearance of something bigger. The car’s surfaces are stretched to the corners more than they are in larger vehicles, for instance. And inside, a high ceiling, long back doors and storage spaces and water bottle holders help give the car a more open feeling.
“The main point of design is making people feel like they’re in an interior space that is larger than the actual dimensions indicate,” Mr. Hyun said.
To get the dimensions of the car’s bottle holders just right, Hyundai shipped dozens of empty water and soda bottles from India to its South Korea design center. Designers determined that Indian consumers tend to drink water from larger bottles than those in Korea, the U.S. and other countries, not too surprising given India’s hot climate.
“We felt the bottle holder was one of the crucial parts to do well,” Mr. Hyun said.
Hyundai started taking customer orders for the Eon from Oct. 1. Company executives, however, didn’t disclose the number of the orders it has received so far.