International Business : Demand for Cars Rides a Boom in India's Growing Economy : Asia: Manufacturers can't keep up with consumers' appetites. Foreign firms are scrambling to get in on the action.

From Bloomberg Business News

If you want to buy a car in India, you'll have to wait as long as six months.

Auto makers can't turn out cars fast enough to keep up with a huge demand fueled by lower taxes, an expansion of credit and, more significantly, a growing Indian economy.

India's economy grew 3.8% last year and is expected to grow as much as 5.5% this year. The boom has boosted income and given people the confidence to make big purchases, such as autos, trucks and motor scooters.

"Income levels have increased in the last year," said Sangeeta Mehta, an analyst with brokerage SSKI Group in Bombay. "Just look around. People are willing to spend more."

Compared to industrialized nations--and even some other developing Asian countries--the number of private cars in India is minuscule. Only one person in 279 has a car here, compared to one in 22 in Thailand and one in 10 in Malaysia.

But the excitement here is the potential for growth in a country of 900 million people.

A total of 117,000 cars were sold in India over the last five months--since April 1, the beginning of the fiscal year for most Indian companies--but the figure represents a 17% increase over the same period last year. Deepak Verma, an analyst at Industrial Credit Investment Corp. of India, said he expects sales to rise 25% to 240,000 for the full fiscal year, up 25% over last year.

That market growth has boosted the share price of Indian auto makers and also has more foreign firms looking at the Indian market, which until recently was closed.

By the end of next year, everyone from General Motors to Mercedes-Benz to Peugeot will be banging together cars on Indian assembly lines.

Japan's Suzuki Motors has teamed up with the Indian government-owned Maruti Udyog Ltd. auto firm in a joint venture that has an astonishing three-quarters of the auto market. Its sales have leaped 22% over the last five months.

The entry of other foreign firms should be good for Indian auto makers because most of the foreigners are teaming up with Indian companies instead of going it alone. The Opel division of General Motors, for example, has joined Hindustan Motors. Hindustan makes the large, gas-guzzling Ambassador, designed like a chubby, bubble-shaped 1950s British car. It has only about 8% of the market and is one of the few Indian car companies whose sales are declining--7% over the last five months.

But hope springs eternal: "With GM as a partner," said Pankaj Talwar, senior analyst with the brokerage W.I. Carr, "Hindustan Motors can do good things."

Indians began putting their money into new wheels after the government lowered excise taxes on cars from 55% to 40% last year.

Another reason for the boom: Car financing has become not just more available but more acceptable.

Indians, traditionally averse to credit, are now turning to financing. And if you don't want to commit to buying a car, companies such as GE Capital and Citibank will lease you one.

"If you wanted to buy a car before, you had to put down all the cash up-front," said Ashwini Suri, managing director of Ganga Automobiles Ltd., a car and scooter dealership. "Now, with financing, lots of people can afford a car."

The first five months of the fiscal year saw higher sales for every type of vehicle.

Sales in India's most popular forms of transportation--motorcycles and scooters--jumped 23% to 821,600 in the period.

Truck sales are also up as older models are being traded in, analysts say. From April through August, heavy- and light-truck sales were up 35% to 62,500.

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