In the recent past, I chanced upon test driving few cars in the Indian market and driving couple of my friends vehicles. Four Car Companies - Two Japanese, One Korean, One Italian. Four Cars. All Sedans - Honda City S-MT (3rd Generation), Honda Civic V-MT, Toyota Corolla Altis 2009, Hyndai Verna 1.6 SXI and Fiat Linea. Even as I write this, I admit, there is a bit of personal bias creeping in. But then, I can't help it.
Originally it was to be the Korean Verna for the first test drive on Saturday 3 pm, but the buggers from the Hyundai showroom informed us of their inability only on Monday. Idiots!
The actual test drive started with the Linea on a Sunday Morning. The sales person was known to me from my Palio purchase, he was on time for the test drive. The sales person was very co-operative and patiently explained all the stuff.
Though I have seen a few of Linea's images in the net and couple of them on the road while driving my Dynamite on Wheels, it was for the first time that I saw it so close. The tagline for the ad should be rewritten as "Admiration Definitely Guaranteed". I am not a Sedan man. In fact, I hate those bum boxes. But then other Sedans were not Linea. Damn! I was already in love!
She was gorgeous. The detailings in the tail lamp cluster had left me speechless. The design was seamless and timeless. And she was huge, not your skinny tinny metal box on wheels. At over 4.50 Metres it was longer than the Civic, Corrolla, Laura and the like. She was solid. The doors shut like a vault, the car was built like a tank. This is oft repeated for a fiat, but had to be said once again.
I stepped in and the love became even stronger. I found it to be extremely likeable. The list of features (Blue & Me, being the pick of the lot) were too good to be true for that price bracket (8 Lakhs on road, for the top end Emotion Pack). Seats were plush, and very supportive. I switched it on, and forced down the pedal, and I was a tad disappointed. I knew I will never be the first off the white line at any traffic signal with this beauty. For a car of that weight (1.24 Tonnes), it was terribly under powered. The sprighty feeling which I get in my Palio 1.6 was sorely missing. Though more than adequate for normal use (both city and highway), it certainly would fail you big time, if you are in for a drag race.
It made up more than adequately in the handling department. I thought my Palio had the most precise steering. But my first thought was, Linea's is better simply because it is pricier, and therefore bound to be better made. That was till I drove the other cars in its segment and above. Linea was certainly better, probably the best. The steering feedback was simply magnificent. It eats bumps on the roads like nothing else. Rest assured, I would never get a back ache driving that car. It was a very very delightful driving experience. But for that lack of power, I was completely sold. Should check if the aftermarket mods are possible on the Engine, to increase the power by atleast 50%. Anything less than that, you can't even hold a candle to a bullock cart.
Next came, Hyundai Verna SX 1.6 VTVT (whatever that means). I have seen quite a LOT of Vernas on road. The Diesel Version is known to be stonker, that was capable of eating Civic / Merc for lunch. What we had was a Petrol, whose credentials I was not completely aware of. I didn't want to, for I never liked the Design. Its rear design was probably inspired by the early morning sight one normally comes across in India when thousands answer the natures call. Ugly!
The sales person was a smug. He brought in bottom end of an older variant which had since been stopped. The cars starter motor had a problem, and once in every five attempts, it would start. The remaining 4 times, its hiss would scare off even cobras. Asked the Sales person couple of questions, the sucker had answers to none. He would have failed even selling samosas, and here he was trying to sell a car at 8 Lakhs.
The car had nothing to offer in terms of design, or features. It certainly didn't impress me one bit. In fact, I didn't want to even step into the car. It felt like an insult to even get near that piece of machinery. I started the car, and pressed on the accelerator, the engine responded very very nicely. Far better than Linea. But here comes the catch. The steering was no where near Linea. It simply refused to inspire any degree of confidence. Which means, you are scared to raise the speed. Its handling was deplorable to say the least. Body rolls were pretty heavy. Bumps were happily transferred into the car at a much higher intensity. In fact, the car was acting like a step-up transformer for all those bumps. The audio system was pathetic. Though seats were pretty good, gear shifts a generation ahead of Linea, the entire material quality felt flimsy.
After the ritualistic thirty minutes of test drive, I was extremely happy to see the back of the jerk, who had brought that car.
Next was Honda City 2008 S-MT. Whoever told those Honda guys about futuristic design? The front was damn good - aggressive and stylish, the rear was rank bad - fugly. The side profile looks good - if you are positively drunk. It was a Beemer inspired moron's design at the Honda. Wonder when will these guys stop aping the Bavarians?
The sales man was the most uninformed jerk I had ever seen or met. He was rattling out all wrong statistics. Ask him a question about why Honda is superior to other cars, prompt comes the reply "It is a Honda, sir". He carried the same aura of those scumbags from top business schools, who think you should buy them / hire them simply because of the badge / brand.
Step into the car, it is a different story altogether. The dash design was exquisite. Steering looked stunning. Seats were fabulous. Audio was pretty much okay, but not as good as Linea, which again was only average. Start the Engine, and you have a doubt if the Engine is on. It was the smoothest car I have ever been into. Absolutely zero noice from the Engine. Compared to this Linea felt like some tractor. Then imagine the case with Verna. If an image of harvester flashes in your mind, you wouldn't be far off.
Push your right leg, the car zips forward eagerly! I was all smiles immediately. This car begs to be revved. Linea and Verna would be butchered mercilessly in a race. That was till the first bend. I steered it to the left side, and the feedback was numb. Just imagine you are sitting non stop on the floor for ten hours. Then you stand up and put your foot forward. What happens? You have a doubt if you have really put your foot forward properly, for the legs have gone numb. There is no feedback to the brain on the depth before you / your leg. Your brains gets incorrect / incomplete information for you to go forward. Same was the response from the Hondas steering. Only later did I know that those crazy japanese to cut the cost had since stopped using Hydraulic Power Steering, and instead opted Electric Power Steering.
If the Gen One Honda City Vtec, was a legend, this latest iteration was its dropping in terms of driving pleasure. Gear shifts were super smooth and fantabulous with short throws. With the Linea the hands moved like a manual water pump one sees at many villages. With the City it was more like a Iphone touch screen sized hand movement. Bumps were eaten comfortably, but certainly not in the league of Linea. Honda had the best space management inside, and it felt a size larger than its competitors in the internal space. This is despite, its wheelbase being shorter than that of Linea.
Now to the features - with a list of goodies that was comparatively lighter than the Linea, but slightly more than the Verna, with No Alloy Wheels (a must off-late, atleast for people like me), the car was insanely priced at Rs.9.50 Lakhs! Sneeze hard, you can make a dent on its body! For this designer tin box, 9.50 Lakhs. That was crazy. The reverse gear had no protection (Linea and Verna had it), which means while going on the highway, you may make a mistake of applying the reverse gear instead of the 4th Gear or 5th Gear. That would be a straight way to hell.
On top of every thing there is this sales person, "It is a Honda Sir". Arrogant prick, whose level of confusion is comparable to a person not knowing difference between a Gol Gappa and a Pastry.
But its high reliability, in terms of after sales service support, next only to the Koreans, and general niggle free ownership, is definitely unmatched by either the Italian or the Korean. If only it had a Hydraulic Power Steering, if only its design been a tad better, if only its price was a lot less, if only wishes were horses....
Next in line was the Honda Civic. I have always had hots for this piece of gem. Very rarely have I been bored of its styling. It was certainly among the best looking cars in the country - menacingly beautiful. Styling was perfect on all fronts. Tail lights were brilliantly designed (but still not comparable to the detailing in Linea). Its taut looks was always a pleasure to watch.
Now to the sore point. This Honda Sales guy was as well informed as the previous one. In case of a IQ Test between these guys, the Computer will spit in your face and crash down for lack of a number below zero for such tests.
The inside of the car was brilliant. Far better than Linea and City. Design was definitely futuristic. The cockpit styled treatment of the dash would be a racer's delight. Engine was typical Honda. Silent and smooth, packing enormous power from its four cylinders. Steering feedback was a welcome relief from Honda City. Civic had a far far better steering, thanks to the Hydraulic Model, as against the City's Electric Assisted Power Steering.
Damn! It felt awesome driving that car. Great feedback, greater pick up, fabulous braking, superb AC. The experience inside the car was like a poetry out of profanities, and which wouldn't make you angry. You simply can't think straight after driving this car! Its a proper head over heels kind of story. I wanted to kiss the car on all sides. But this beauty wanted the pleasure of being on top.
It kissed anything more than 5 inches on the ground. With insanely low ground clearance, this beauty was literally begging to be rubbed by the filth on road. Small bumps were tasted by the underbody more often. And with four members in the car, I wouldn't be surprised if the car's suspension is cursed by every person traveling in it. But, throw out the passengers, spend a lakh on tweaking the suspension, you have a gem on your hands. For that sheer driving pleasure!
Next came, the world's dullest designer of cars. Toyota. Corolla Altis was the model. Top end. First impressions, the new Corolla (with the Altis name tag), was a vast improvement over the sleepy design of its predecessor. I had an instant liking for its mild mannered, conservative, yet neat design. The car I did test drive was a golden coloured one. Black would have looked sleekly menacing. Not as much as Civic though.
The sales person who had accompanied the car was the best I have ever met any car dealership. Having answers for all the questions you throw at, and also for questions you are not able to throw. Explanations offered for each of the features and the comparo with the competition was excellent. And it was a lady. I was eating my own words. Women aren't informed about cars.
She was also honest, highlighting what is good about the competition. What are the areas in which Corolla shines, and where the rivals beat it hands down.
The car was loaded to the brim with all possible features one would expect at that price point. Except the sunroof, may be. The interiors were spec for spec the same as Civic. The design is decidedly different. Droopy and sleepy. Quality is exceptional. Good chunky steering was nice to hold.
The drive was, well, again sleepy. It doesn't raise your pulse. It isn't a sloth mind you. It is fast. As fast as the Civic. But the trouble is, you don't feel it. When you hold the steering of Civic or Linea, your nerves establish a connection with the car. There's this fusing of the body and the machine. With the Corolla Altis, it wasn't that way. Pick up was good. Stability was good. Steering was good. Still, that connection was missing. The fact is, I loved to be in that car. But I loved driving Civic better.
Corolla scores massively on the pricing front i.e. when compared with Civic, and even further on the servicing front. But fails miserably on the 'soul' part.
At the end of four days, and test driving five cars, across a price range of 8 to 14 Lakhs, one thing was clear. We like every car for a particular feature / quality. And give a chance (choice is ruled out anyway), would like to have three of them. Fiat Linea for that "Five Star" Class stability and handling. Civic for that adrenaline rush. Corolla for that no-nonsense approach. Or any car, with me behind the wheels.