India's top carmaker expects exports to leap

NEW DELHI, Sept 26 (Reuters) - India's largest carmaker, Maruti Udyog Ltd, a unit of Japan's Suzuki Motor Corp, forecast on Thursday a more than 150 percent leap in exports this fiscal year due to the success of its Alto compact car in Europe.

The increase in foreign sales would be a boost to Maruti which was forced to slash prices in July on its top-selling model to boost a shrinking local market share.

The New Delhi-based carmaker, held 54.2 percent by Japan's largest minicar maker, said it expected overall vehicle exports to jump to 31,000 in the financial year to March 2003 from 12,232 in the previous year.

It said it expects exports of the 1.1 litre Alto to rise to 24,000, nearly 70 more than the 14,000 it had initially planned. The car was launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March.

Maruti said the Alto had won a good response in Western Europe and its fuel efficiency entitled its owners to a 1,000 euro refund from the Dutch government.

The Alto also sells in Germany, Finland, Greece, Austria, Ireland and Britain.

Maruti exported vehicles to nearly 40 countries in the last financial year including its small car, the Maruti 800, the Omni van, the Zen compact car and the Gypsy utility vehicle. Over 70 percent of its exports are to Europe.

It makes 10 models in India.

The company, in which the Indian government holds a 45.54 percent stake, sold 352,415 vehicles in the last year to March. The government plans to sell 20 percent of Maruti through a public issue as part of its privatisation later this year.

Even though Maruti still has a 47 percent slice of the car market owing to its dominance of the small car segment, this is down from over 80 percent four years ago due to competition from the Indian units of Hyundai and Fiat and domestic firm TELCO.

Slowing sales and higher costs pushed Maruti to a loss of 2.69 billion rupees ($55.6 million) in the year to March 2001 but it rebounded to a 1.045-billion net profit the following year due to sharp cost cutting and big productivity gains. ($1 = 48.395 Indian rupees)