Amit Paranjape’s Blog

Skoda Laura – A Great Driving Experience

Posted in Cars by Amit Paranjape on June 4, 2010

  

Skoda Laura (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Having owned a car from the Volkswagen Group for over 10 years now, I must admit that I am a big fan of their vehicles. They are fun to drive!  

 

In this brief post, I will share my experiences with the Skoda Laura. Will add more experiences in future posts. (Note – The current 2nd generation Skoda Octavia in Europe, is marketed as the Skoda Laura in India. The Skoda Octavia that is sold in India is the first generation Octavia…Branding consistency/simplicity is not VW’s strong point, I guess!)  

 
 

The Skoda Laura got new upgraded engines in 2009 – 1.8 TSI Petrol and the 2.0 Diesel. My experience primarily deals with the Petrol Variant.  Over the past year, I have driven this car on many long highway trips, as well as on the crowded Pune roads.  

 

The Laura 1.8 TSI is a terrific vehicle. It is a driver’s car that provides great comfort for the passengers as well. The Turbo-Charged engine provides amazing power and torque. It generates 160 HP and can do 0 – 100 kmph in under 8 seconds. (The same engine is also available in the heavier Passat, Superb and A4 models, and delivers marginally lower acceleration for them, given their increased weight.) The 6 speed manual gearbox  helps in smoother rides at high speeds. Overall the road handling, braking performance of this car are excellent.  

 

 The 1.8 TSI (Turbo Stratified Injection) engine contains some interesting technology. In simple terms, this engine uses a combination of turbocharging and supercharging. (For more details, click here:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turbocharger http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supercharger  ) This technology reduces the traditional ‘turbo lag’. You can notice the pick up in acceleration at fairly low RPMs (under 1500 RPM), compared to conventional turbo-engines. And the fuel economy remains very good. I won’t bore you with more technical details, but if interested do watch this great video that explains the working of ‘TSI’  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvysuD5MFow and this link.  

 
 

I think it is safe to say that the Skoda Laura 1.8 TSI is the fastest car (best acceleration) available in the Indian market today, in the under 25 Lakhs category (or even under 30 Lakh category). In my view it is the best car in India in the 15 Lakh Sedan Range.  

 Its way ahead of its peers like the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic – especially when it comes to sheer driving pleasure. From a passenger perspective, the ride is very comfortable and quiet, and the rear AC air-vents are a nice feature – not normally seen in this category.  

 My only issue with this model is that it doesn’t sport some of the add-on features, available in its 2.0 Diesel sibling — features like Auto Transmission, 16 inch wheels (the Petrol Variant has 15 inch wheels), and 6 airbags (the Petrol Variant has 2). Though with the addition of these features, the Diesel variant’s pricing is significantly higher (in the 18 Lakh range).   

 [Hope to write my reviews about the new Volkswagen Polo and the recently announced small sedan – Volkswagen Vento in the coming weeks..stay tuned.]   

   

The First Polo Rolls-Off The Volkswagen Pune Plant

Posted in Cars by Amit Paranjape on December 13, 2009

Pune has been at the forefront of automobile industry in India for over half a century. Thus today it quite befitting that Europe’s largest automaker, started production of its most popular small car, from arguably their most advanced manufacturing facility in the world, at Chakan Pune.        

Volkswagen Polo

  

 I was fortunate to visit the Chakan Plant on this important occasion. Got a chance to tour their impressive assembly facility, and also attend the official media briefing by the Volkswagen Management. The Press was there in big numbers, and I am sure there will be a lot of coverage about this event and the new car in the days to come.  The VW Polo, while new to India, has been one of the most popular models for Volkswagen over the years. While the original Beetle was the ‘People’s Car’ many decades back, the ‘Polo’ has been in that league for the past couple of decades in Europe. (Note – The Indian market is familiar with Polo’s sister car, the Skoda Fabia, which is also assembled at the same Plant). The Polo will be formally launched in India at the Delhi Auto Show next month, and is expected to be available to customers by middle of 2010.     

The Polo is quite compact and should fit in quite well in the small car segment in India. The design seems a little conservative compared to some of its other peers in the category such as Honda Jazz, Hyundai i20 and Fiat Punto. The interior feels quite nice and the controls and steering are very comfortable. (VW, like the other large automakers, has standardized many controls (e.g. turning indicator stick,light switches, etc.) across multiple models. Hence for someone like me who has owned other VW cars, these controls feel very familiar). Of course, the real test of a car is when driven – hence its difficult to comment a whole lot at this point of time. But given VW’s legacy, and the reviews I have read from Europe, it would be fair to say that it would be a fun car to drive! A lot also depends on which engine variants VW India finally ends up supporting for this car.         

However, yesterday’s star attraction for me was not the Polo Car, but the Plant facility. As I mentioned earlier, this facility is one of the most sophisticated Plants in the world and has been built with an investment of over 800 Million Dollars (580 Million Euros).  Spread over a land expanse of 550 acres in Chakan MIDC, the factory building itself occupies nearly 30 acres. The facility is designed to produce 110,000 cars per year, once it gets to full capacity. The plant can be reconfigured easily to produce different variants/models. The level of automation is impressive. Presently VW plans to manufacture the Skoda Fabia (production started earlier this year), the VW Polo, and a new Salon Car (to be launched in the 2nd half of 2010). This massive facility was built in a record 17 months. This Plant supports the entire manufacturing process from the press shop, through body and paint shops, to final assembly. Many local vendors have been identified for supplying various parts and sub-assemblies. Initially, the Polo manufactured at the Chakan Plant will have around 50% localization. However this is expected to get to 80% eventually.        

Notes –        

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a big VW fan, having owned their vehicles for the better part of this decade!        

Image Credit: Volkswagen Press-Kit   

Volkswagen India Website: http://www.volkswagen.co.in/in/en.html        

Wikipedia Entry of the Polo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen_Polo 

For a terrific collection of photos by Ritesh Madhok, of the VW Polo from this event, take a look at:  http://indianautosblog.com/2009/12/images-and-information-vw-polo-production-commences

Driving In Europe – How It’s Different From U.S.

Posted in Cars, Travel by Amit Paranjape on September 26, 2009
Autobahn

Autobahn

 There are many more differences than just seeing cars cruise-by at 250 km/hr!

On continental Europe, they drive on the same side of the road as the United States. But the similarities really taper off from there! Recently, I had my first opportunity to drive in Europe, and it was a great experience. In this blog, I will highlight the contrasts between the two systems that are separated by much more than the Atlantic Ocean.

Readers who have extensive driving experience on both sides of the pond are welcome to add their own insights. For readers who haven’t driven in Europe, this article will be (hopefully!) an interesting guide, and an invitation to checkout this experience on your next trip. Note – my experiences are based on driving in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.

Unless you are lucky enough to get a ‘company car’ in Europe – renting a car might be your best (and only) option. Car renting in Europe is quite expensive. But you can always look for bargains. Like in the U.S., renting a car in a suburb or a small town is significantly cheaper than renting at an Airport or in city center (‘zentrum’ or ‘centrum’ – as they call ‘downtown’). A manual transmission car is much cheaper than an automatic. A US driving license and a credit-card is typically all you need to rent, but many rental companies will also ask for your Passport as an ID Proof.

1. Where are the Pickup Trucks and SUVs?

The first thing you might notice is the near complete absence of pickup trucks! The SUVs are also significantly fewer in number. You will find a lot of station wagons. Clearly, the ‘drive’ towards reducing demand for oil, starts with vehicle ‘size’!

2. Better Driving Discipline – Fewer crazy drivers!

At first impression, the driving discipline definitely feels like it’s a notch higher than that in the U.S. Drivers seem to be more considerate when allowing lane changes, merge-ins, etc. Similarly, the fast lane is strictly used only for passing.

 3. Smaller cars

You feel like the entire class of automobiles got shrunk down by 1 or 2 sizes. The American compact car is a standard in Europe, an American medium sized car is a large car, and so on. Some of the cars are outright tiny – and smaller in size than the recently launched ‘Tata Nano’. On a related note (and quite interestingly, I may add..) – Toyota Prius was more common on European Roads than other iconic Toyota cars.

4. Better maintained cars

In general the cars seemed better maintained than in the US. Not sure if this is driven by necessity (wintery weather conditions, etc.) or by stricter enforcement (regular certification requirements).

5. Manual Transmission & Diesel Engines

These are again novelties to most American drivers. Both are quite popular given that they deliver better efficiencies (ultimately expressed as a lower cost per km) than the automatic transmission and gasoline counterparts.

6. Sheer variety of cars

My belief of U.S. being the global leader in variety of cars got corrected. The sheer variety of cars in Europe is huge! And the number of configurations available for a given model is also extensive. E.g. – Manual/Automatic, Gasoline (Benzin) / Diesel, etc. In addition to all the major global brands you commonly see in the U.S., there are quite a few other brands as well.

7. Speed limits

Contrary to prevailing belief amongst many – they do have strict speed limits on European highways. Even in Germany – 120 kmph (roughly equal-to 75 mph) is common on most highways, but they change to 100 kmph, 80 kmph, etc. based on road/traffic conditions. Many speed limits are ‘dynamic’ – they are indicated by electronic signs and change depending on the external conditions and time of the day. The adherence to the speed limits is fairly decent. There are only certain sections of Autobahns (away from urban centers) in Germany that have no speed limits.

8. Where are the cops?

In my 4 days of extensive driving, I swear I just saw one police car on the highway! That too was at a site of an accident. And yet, the speed limits enforcement and compliance is quite high. I guess they use cameras and technology a lot more in Europe, for traffic rules enforcement. If you are caught speeding, the ticket is mailed to you – complete with your picture driving the car, as proof.

9. 18 Wheelers

The 18 Wheelers are similar to what you would see in the US. Though, you see significantly fewer on the road. I guess there could be two primary reasons: 1. Europeans consume less stuff. Less stuff = Less Volume & Weight to ship! 2. They use a lot of rail transportation.

10. ‘Seamless Borders’

Crossing from one country to the other in the Schengen Region  is as seamless as crossing state boundaries in the U.S. or in India. Typically, there are just 1 or 2 signs welcoming you to that country and some changes in speed limits. That’s pretty much it – Plus the roads signs change from one language you cannot understand to a different one that you cannot understand either 🙂 But the graphical signs are self-explanatory.

11. Round-Abouts/Yield

When driving on city roads – a ’round-about’ circle is something that might confuse an American driver! It’s a different system of yielding – instead of a 4 way stop-sign.

12. Various kinds of ‘entities’ on the city roads

I can understand why Americans sometime dread driving in European cities!  In addition to the tiny roads – you have bicycles, pedestrians and trams to deal with! Amsterdam also has a few human powered bicycle taxis (And I thought Kolkatta was the only big city in the world to have them!).

For me personally (and others who regularly drive on Indian roads) I guess this ‘diverse traffic’ is not that bad 🙂

13. Bicycles lanes

Bicycles are omnipresent in Holland. They are also quite popular in other countries as well. On most city roads, bicycles have separate dedicated lanes. It’s quite interesting to see a few folks ‘bike’ from their home to a rail station – ‘fold’ their bikes (yes, some bikes literally fold in half – and can be stowed away easily..) board the train to the city, disembark and again ride to their office building!

Motorcycles are also more common, and they ‘optimize’ lane usage at traffic lights or in traffic jams by moving forward by the side of stuck 4 wheelers (the way they always do in India 🙂  ) . Initially I thought they were breaking the rules – but then it seemed like it was a ‘standard’ procedure.  

14. Gas Stations

The first time you pull into a Gas Station – be prepared for a sticker shock! Gasoline is currently priced around 1.40 Euros/liter. At the present exchange rate, that roughly translates to USD 7.60/Gallon. Diesel is a little cheaper at around 1.05 Euros/liter (USD 5.80/Gallon).  Add to this the price of a comparable car is approximately twice as much in the U.S. – and you will understand why driving is so expensive in Europe!

At Gas Stations in Europe you can literally fill ‘Gas’ ..LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas), that is 🙂 . Note in Germany and the Netherlands, they refer to Gasoline as ‘Benzin’. Instead of 3 varieties of gasoline and 1 variety of diesel – at European filling stations, you will typically find 2 varieties of gasoline, 2 varieties of diesel and LPG. Initially, I was confused to note the significantly higher octane rating numbers in Europe. However, that is apparently because of slightly different standards. (For more information, checkout: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Octane_rating )

Reliance on Diesel and LPG is part of the drive towards reducing cost / km. LPG is significantly cheaper than Gasoline. Diesel typically yields a much better fuel efficieny in terms of km / liter.

15. Use of GPS and other electronic gadgets

The use of GPS based navigation has increased significantly over the past few years (as it has, in the U.S.) and old fashioned ‘paper’ map based navigation is a dying art. I however had to use this ‘old’ and tried and tested art form – since my cheap rental didn’t have a GPS.

Similarly, I understand that hands-free mobiles are mandatory – hence most cars have an integrated Bluetooth mobile integration with the car’s sound system.

In general, I also observed that for a similar model – an European car would typically have many other smaller gizmos – tire pressure monitoring, range calculators, etc.

Helpful links

Description of Autobahns from Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autobahns

A good site with lot of information (speed-limits, restrictions, etc.) about various Autobahns http://www.autobahnatlas-online.de/index_e.html

(Image credits: Wikipedia)

An Indian Road Trip in the 1980s – We sure have come a long way!

Posted in Cars, Travel by Amit Paranjape on May 24, 2009

I recently made a long road trip from Pune to Goa, a distance of nearly 500 km (320 miles) in around 7 hours. The scenic route has a combination of nice 4 laned highways and beautiful winding mountain roads that descend down to the sea coast. The average highway speeds were comparable with the US average 60mph. I was driving a nice car – with ABS, multiple airbags, climate control, powerful engine, and great suspension & handling.

So what’s so great and special about this? Young readers in India, as well as the readers in the US will not understand my sheer joy in driving in these conditions with these ‘basic’ features! You folks have been taking the roads and the car features for guaranteed, for way to long. To appreciate my experience, you will have to step back to India in the early 1980s. (A rough analogy might the pre-freeways US roads in the 1950s…).

To bring you upto speed, let me sketch a typical driving trip in India, a quarter century back.  Sit back and enjoy the ride…if you can 🙂

Our family’s car of choice (not that there was any choice during those days…only Fiats and Ambassadors were available. The new phenomenon ‘Maruti’ was just around the corner) was the Fiat 1100, sporting a ‘powerful’ 47 HP engine with a 4 speed (non-synchromesh) gearbox. It was made by Premier Automobiles; but was rarely referred to by its official name, ‘Premier Padmini’. Visitors might still see a few of these cars upon landing at Mumbai Airport – some of these vehicles still serve as the ‘yellow & black’ taxis.

In those days, a Fiat was the standard car…the Ambassador, a big ‘luxury’ car! Note – any ‘car’ in general was not for the masses, and there was no talk about a Nano. The real ‘people’s car’ was the bicycle! Even a 2 wheeler in those days was expensive and tough to buy. (Some people might remember those times when it took 10 years to get a Bajaj Scooter..).

A road trip was an ‘event’…an adventure. Someone has said ‘It is the journey that is more important than the destination’. How true! I will not bore with you all the details; rather let me just highlight the ‘high-points’ of a typical road trip from that ‘era’. In my preferred style, I will highlight 10 points:

1. Before  you set-off, there were a series of ‘checks’ that may have rivalled a ‘pre-flight’ checklist of an aircraft. There was the car radiator that needed constant filling up. Same with the car batteries water level. And the engine oil level check. Infact, opening the front hood was an extremely common occurence.

2. Talking about car batteries – they were as reliable as the cars in those days…needless to say ‘Dhakka Start’ (people pushing the car to get it started) was common.

3. Refueling in the city was a must – there were no guarantees about any highway side fuel stops.

Once you were off, the only positive thing compared to the present, was the traffic – It was orders of magnitude lower than you would encounter today.

4. 6 people would be comfortably seated in the car: 3 in the front, and 3 in the back. Yes, this car had ‘bench’ seats in the front. The carrier on the roof of the car was packed with all kinds of stuff. (I vividly remember a Kokan trip where we had sets of those ‘old style’ Mango Crates tied down on the top..!)

5. Flat tires were extremely common…cannot remember a single long trip where we didn’t have a tire ‘puncture’. We all were quite adept at changing the spare tire (‘stepney’ as it was called in those days..). This was followed by a stop at a small town ‘tire-walla’ to get the tire fixed. Oh..in those days, tires had tubes in them. (I am assuming that the reader knows that majority of the cars today have tubeless tires…if you are not one of them, then ignore this para all together 🙂  )

6. Frequent mechanical breakdowns were common as well…and these too for ‘new’ and ‘well maintained’ cars. You were lucky if it was a case of a simple over-heating … in this case you simply poured more water into the radiator, let it ‘blow some steam and cool down’, and then drive on. If it was more serious, then the only option in most cases was to hitch a ride with a passing-by truck/bus to the nearest town…find a mechanic, and bring him back to the car. The saving grace was that these cars were ‘easy’ to repair and after a few hours – you could move on! Oh..and the only ‘phone’ we knew those days was that big black box like device with a round dial on top of it, that made an irritating ringing sound (when it used to work). Today’s cellphone would have looked straight out of Star Trek in those days.

7. Ofcourse the cars were luxurious…well relatively speaking 🙂 Airconditioning was unheard off. The standard cooling solution consisted of those innovative ‘triangular split’ windows that diverted wind into the passenger cabin. And there was no music-system either. Music (if any) was (as they say in the web 2.0 world today) ‘user-generated’. The background score was typically provided by the cacophony of the engine and suspension rattling.

Did I mention that the Fiat 1100 had no power steering, no power-brakes? But driving with all those aids is for wimps… right 🙂

8. The lack of airconditioning created interesting problems during rainy weather. The front wind shield glass used to get fogged rightaway, with the condensate. The only option to get rid of that moisture was to have the ‘co-pilot’ constantly and skillfully wipe-off the wind shield, without distracting the driver.

9. There were no highway side McDonalds or Food Malls in those days. There were some good restaurants or more appropriately ‘food shacks’ (Tapris) along the way. Some people will vividly remember that Khopoli favorite on the old Mumbai-Pune Highway, ‘Ramakant’ – famous for their ‘Batata Vadas’.

10. If you were driving off the highway on the country roads, the experience used to be even more interesting. A car was a rare sight in rural India in those days. We felt ‘important’ 🙂 Like a VIP motorcade driving by! Proper tar roads were often times non-existent. The car used to leave a huge storm of dust..literally throwing it into the onlookers’ eyes. I am sure those villagers must have been cursing us ‘city folks’.

After all this adventure when you finally made it to your destination, there was this immense satisfaction about a ‘big achievement’. The driver used to really earn his ‘stripes’ those days…and so did the car… Since for all its short comings and problems it was a great way to travel!

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Pune – The Birthplace of Nano & The Automotive Capital of India

Posted in Pune, Science & Technology by Amit Paranjape on March 23, 2009

Today, India and possibly the entire automotive world commemorate the customer launch of the ‘Nano’ – the world’s cheapest car. The brainchild of the Indian corporate legend Ratan Tata is finally available to the Indian consumer. I am sure that the Nano will raise a whole bunch of debates around urban traffic-management issues; but today is not the time for those. Today is a time for celebration!

 

Pune too celebrates this historic occasion; but I am not sure how many Punekars realize the significance of Pune’s role in creating this and other automotive history in India.

 

The Nano was completely designed and developed at the Tata Motors facility in Pimpri-Chinchwad Pune. The initial manufacturing will also be carried out here.

 

Here’s a brief list of Pune’s key automotive achievement over the decades. (In each of these milestones, Pune has played a pivotal role)

 

  • 1950s-60s: One of India’s earliest and most iconic automotive brands – Bajaj Scooter.
  • 1970s: India’s first moped (quite literally a motorized, pedal-based cycle that ran on a tiny 50cc engine) Luna.
  • 1970s: One of the first (and most successful) Auto Rickshaws: Bajaj Auto-Rickshaw.
  • 1980s: Manufacturing of India’s first automatic (non-geared) scooter: Kinetic Honda.
  • 1990s: India’s first fully indigenous car: Tata Indica.
  • 2008-09: Launch of world’s cheapest car: Tata Nano.

 

You can also add the development of India’s most popular Truck-Line to this list. Pune also leads the nation in various automotive suppliers, ancillary units and industrial equipment.

 

  • India’s biggest, one of the most innovative and world’s 2nd largest forging company – Bharat Forge has been at the forefront of this pack.
  • India’s largest Diesel Engines & Generator Manufacturer – Cummins has been active in Pune’s industrial landscape since the 1960s.

 

Research and Software for Automotive Engineering also have strong presence in Pune.

 

  • It’s no coincidence that all major global CAD/CAM software and services companies have significant presence in Pune: Ansys, AutoDesk, Catia, Geometric, PTC and UGS-Siemens. I doubt if there’s any city in the world that has the presence of all these entities!
  • ARAI (Automotive Research Association of India) based in Pune, is the premier automotive research institute in India, that is responsible for research and testing & certification of every vehicle model on Indian roads.

I am confident that in the coming decades, Pune will continue to innovate and be at the forefront of automotive engineering in India, and the world.

 

So now remember – next time you see a Nano on Pune Streets (traffic jams not withstanding  J ), it is as ‘Puneri’ as the ‘Puneri Pagdi’ or ‘Chitale Bakarwadi’!

 

 

NOTE –

              Checkout other Pune related blog posts: Click Here.

              This article is also reproduced on PuneTech.Com.

 

 

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