Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Fiat: the service is the thing

In 2004 I bought my first car, a 1999 Fiat Uno that had done about 25000 km. I bought it for 1 lakh rupees, about half the price I'd have paid for a comparable used model from Hyundai or Maruti. I've more than doubled its mileage since then and it has served me well. If Tata's "Rs 1 lakh" car serves its customers equally well for five years, they should be happy. [sentence corrected - originally said Maruti's]

But the people who should take credit for its smooth running are not Fiat, but a garage near my house called Kittu Auto Works. I first went to them more or less randomly, but stayed for a while. The service was fast and excellent, which cannot be said of the official Fiat channels. The reason for the low price I originally paid was, in fact, precisely Fiat's terrible reputation for after-sales service (plus the fact that the Uno was no longer being manufactured.) At that time, it was Sundaram motors who were tied up with Fiat for sales and service; based on their reputation, I did not even venture to try them.

As the years went by, Fiat started turning itself around internationally, based on some extremely successful launches like the Fiat 500 and the Grande Punto, and on some aggressive costcutting and optimisation by a new CEO. In India, Fiat continued to struggle, but made changes too, notably scrapping their agreement with Sundaram and tieing up instead with Tata Motors (who were interested in Fiat's technology and overseas reach).

So I tried giving the new official Fiat service centre, Concorde Motors, a try. No luck. The guy told me frankly that the waiting time for Uno parts is typically 3 weeks. I said that my mechanic gets all parts the same day so far. He said "local guys can get it locally, but we have to go through the official channels." Given how many Unos are still on the road (I'd guess that, at least in Chennai, it's the most common car not still in production), I find it inexcusable.

So I stuck with Kittu. But I was growing a bit dissatisfied: the car, as it gets older, was showing more severe problems and it seemed like he was band-aiding them rather than fixing them. Also, every time he returned the car, it seemed a new problem would crop up.

Finally, after a repeated failed attempt to fix a radiator leak (he had fitted a new pipe, but placed it too close to the radiator body, and a sharp edge had cut into the pipe), I lost patience and decided to explore another mechanic. This was a new shop called Ignite, run by a young, articulate man called Raghav who had quit his software-industry job to pursue his first love, fixing cars. After a stint with Hyundai he had decided to set out on his own.

So far I am entirely satisfied with Ignite (and recommend them to anyone in Chennai who may be reading this). I find Raghav responsive, quick to understand the problem, and thorough in fixing it. Two examples: a persistent gearbox oil leak, that Kittu kept claiming was due to the driveshaft seal, was identified by Raghav as coming from deeper inside, and he fixed it. And a cold start problem, that had been around since the time I got the car but had been getting worse, was identified as a carburettor problem; he replaced the idle jet and the car has been as good as new since. He was also upfront in telling me what he did not fix and why not (basically, difficulty in getting parts plus lack of immediate severity of the problem); if it gets worse, he would do it, fabricating parts if necessary.

Thanks first to Kittu and then to Ignite/Raghav, I have been happy with my Uno. As for Fiat India, I am grateful to them for building good cars, but also, in a way, for their horrendous after-sales service that enabled me to buy a used car at a great price.

[UPDATE 05/02/2010: I really must update the above. A little after I wrote all that, the car developed a persistent problem in the ignition system that Raghav, after changing the spark plugs, wires, ignition coil, distributor cap and rotor, and much else -- all of which needed changing, except the ignition coil -- decided he did not know how to fix. I returned to Kittu, who immediately identified the problem as the distributor -- not the cap or rotor, but the timing mechanism -- and fixed it. Moreover, a couple of parts replaced by Raghav developed problems within a few months and had to be replaced again by Kittu. So I am back to Kittu, for the lifetime of this car. The guy knows his stuff and I highly recommend him to anyone who lives in or near Kottivakkam, Chennai. He has a tendency to minimise costs, but usually that's not a bad thing. I notice he even gets lots of Hyundai cars to repair, even though there is an official repair shop about 300 metres away. As for Raghav/Ignite, he's probably good too, but hasn't seen thousands of cars yet: he'll probably get there...]

Though I am not on the market for a new car, I have been following Fiat India's recent doings with interest. They have launched three cars this year. First, the Fiat 500 (Cinquecento), a super-small car (comparable with the Volkswagen Beetle), which is exorbitantly priced partly because, as a fully-imported car, it attracts 100% import duties. I believe sales have been in the low single digits. Second, the Fiat Linea, a very nice looking sedan whose sales have reportedly been very encouraging. I see quite a few of those on the road now. Third and most recently, the Fiat Grande Punto, a hatchback meant to compete with the likes of the Maruti Swift or Ritz, or the Hyundai Getz or i20.

The Linea and the Punto have been very competitively priced, and both are visually outstanding -- the best-looking in their category on the market, in my opinion. Reviews for both have been excellent, too. But looks and build quality have never been Fiat's problem: it's their after-sales service.

Yesterday I saw a Punto, clearly a demo vehicle, parked in front of my car as I was returning to it from a shop. Seeing my interest, the lady inside smiled at me; I asked if she worked for Fiat, and she said yes.

"Very nice car", I said.

"Thanks," she said.

"But the problem with Fiat is not the car quality: I have a Fiat Uno, parked behind [gesturing], and am happy with it. The problem is the service."

"Yes sir, for Uno and Palio there is problem with parts, but for Linea and Punto there will be no problem".

I had been preparing to argue that it was not nice to dump Uno customers after ceasing manufacture of the Uno, but this took me aback.

"Wait a minute -- the Palio is a current car! Are you saying there are problems with parts for it?"

"For petrol Palio there are problems sir, but no problems for diesel Palio."

"But then why should customers believe that servicing for the Punto is good? Maybe you have it in place now, but will you dump your Punto customers after a few years?"

"No sir, for Punto and Linea there will be no problem."

"See, the problem for Fiat has not been the cars, it has been the after-sales service. If you can't even service the Palio you have a problem. You need to make sure the service set-up for the Punto and Linea are good."

"Yes, sir, I agree. Thank you."

I will watch with interest. Apart from anything else, there seems to be a conflict of interest with Tata: the Palio and Punto compete directly with Tata's Indica, and the Linea competes with Tata's Indigo. One hopes that this does not affect their sales network.

The point is, parts are available even now for the Uno -- just not with Fiat. Due to high localisation, most parts are not actually made by Fiat, and even if Fiat doesn't warehouse them, others do. As the localisation levels of the Linea and Punto increase, I expect that the same will be true of those models too. Even if Fiat leaves customers of those cars in the lurch, third parties will step in.

I don't expect to buy a new Fiat car (or a new car of any sort) any time in the near future. But if they don't improve their after-sales service, a used Fiat could continue to be a very cheap and tempting option.


Szerelem said...

My parents just bought a Linea a couple of months back - their first car in some eighteen years - and I have to say it is very, very nice - totally beautiful, very luxurious, excellent to drive and all the Fiat plus points you mentioned. It's only been a short while but the after sales has been good so far - let's see if that keeps up. I have to say though, that the Tata tie up made my parents kind of tilt in favour of the Linea, over other cars in the same bracket - as they felt they would get good service and they preferred the car looks wise over the others by far.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Nice to know that the Linea feels and drives as good as it looks, and that the service is good so far. Hope it stays that way. I'd like Fiat to succeed: I find all the other manufacturers boring (Maruti, Hyundai), dodgy in quality (Tata) or overpriced (Honda, Skoda).

km said...

Linea, Grande Punto???

Padmini, where are you?

Space Bar said...

completely OT, but have you been reading the new series on Sri Lanka? What with that now?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

sb - you mean, in The Hindu? No, I've been seeing the headlines but not really reading them. This article by Ram perhaps explains what's on his mind.

Since we're OT, here's what I think: I think the SL Tamil issue has been among the messiest problems ever, and even if it started off being the fault of the Sinhalese, I have no sympathy whatever for Prabhakaran or the LTTE. The LTTE became sole representatives of the Tamils basically by assassinating all the other Tamil politicians and leaders: they were more anti-Tamil, in their deeds, than the worst Sinhalese nationalists, and I don't know why Indian Tamil writers don't talk about that. There was horrendous loss of life and human suffering, but, as long as the LTTE was in charge, I think people would have died and suffered no matter what -- and the LTTE bears much of the responsibility for what happened (as do their Indian sponsors).

What is important now is how Sri Lanka rehabilitates the Tamils and re-integrates them into society, and whether they can become first-class citizens. Rajapaksa is making the right noises but his actions remain to be seen.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km - heh. Perhaps the reason Fiat is struggling is partly that people still associate them with the Padmini (which was made by Premier Automobiles, not Fiat!)

(ps - I just looked it up and, it seems, the Uno was made in a joint venture of Fiat and Premier... it was when things soured with that JV that Fiat decided to go it alone, while Premier pretty much folded up.)

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