In 2004, when Habib Motors launched Sitara, Pakistan's Rs 1 lakh car, the headlines inevitably read, ‘Pakistan beats India'. That nation's expats rejoiced in online chat rooms saying things like, ‘‘Today, I'm proud to be a Pakistani''. And Indians with unlimited broadband responded by saying that Sitara was not a car but a cart.
What makes a car a car is a philosophical issue and to be fair, Habib Motors has officially referred to Sitara only as a four-wheeler, an indisputable fact.
It is a self-propelled vehicle with a steering wheel and seat belts too. Till recently the roof was optional. It weighs 350 kg and can reach a maximum speed of 60 kmph on the power of its 200cc Chinese four-stroke engine. It is 2800mm long and 1820 mm high.
And, according to a company executive, ‘‘if driven properly'', it can get a mileage of over 25 kmpl. Since its launch, Habib Motors has sold about 60 pieces to individuals. ‘‘It is designed to help the poor man upgrade from the dangerous motorcycle,'' says Karachi-based Amjad Mehmud, chief executive of Habib Maritime which owns Habib Motors. He drives a Toyota Corrolla but finds Sitara, “good fun, really”.
Mehmud says that he is impressed with the Nano. ‘‘I've not seen the launch on TV today but I've seen pictures of the Nano a few months ago,'' he says. But that's improbable considering how secretive the Tatas were about every aspect of the car. ‘‘I saw pictures of the car a long time ago,'' Mehmud insists. He even remembers the colour of the car in the images ‘‘light blue''.
Needless to say, he recognises that Nano and Sitara are in vastly different technological leagues. ‘‘The Tatas could accomplish this feat because of the economics of scale that is available in India. We don't have that in Pakistan,'' he says.
The reason why Sitara has fared so poorly, he says, ‘‘is that the middleclass Pakistani is sophisticated and image conscious. And at the price of Sitara (which has now escalated to 1.59 lakh Pakistani rupees), one can get a second hand version of Suzuki's 800 cc model that you call, Maruti 800.''
The way forward for Sitara is by metamorphosing into a taxi. Habib Motors is expecting government approval to finally come through by the end of this month. And when it does, Sitara hopes to change the complexion of Pakistani streets by replacing the thrilling autorickshaws and weather beaten taxis. In anticipation of the government approval, the company has been building a plant in Hub, Balochistan, which will have the capability to manufacture 12,000 units every year.
The Sitara project was first inspired by routine bike accidents in Pakistan. An enduring image in Mehmud's head is that of five men going somewhere on a motorcycle. ‘‘We wanted the poor Pakistani to have a safer mode of transport,'' says a top executive of the Habib Group, the banking major that funds the car project.
But the government, he says, has been throttling the venture right from the very beginning. Sitara has painfully procured countless clearances and a few more are still pending.
‘‘You can draw a border between India and Pakistan,'' the executive says, ‘‘but the mindset of bureaucracy is the same.''