Amit Paranjape’s Blog

Chevy Cruze – First Impressions

Posted in Cars by Amit Paranjape on February 1, 2010

Chevy Cruze (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

  

I recently test drove the new Chevy Cruze. There has been eager anticipation about this new Sedan (not just in India, but globally as well…) and I too was keen to see a launch from the ‘New GM’. Over the past 2 decades, I haven’t been a huge fan of American Cars, compared to their German and Japanese counterparts. I was hoping that this new generation vehicle would change it. However, I was disappointed. The current Cruze model was originally developed by General Motors with its Korean counterpart/division (Daewoo).  Note – given the price and feature range, I am comparing this vehicle with Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Skoda Laura.       

As you get in the car, the interiors strike you as pretty unappealing. The leather upholstery is definitely not up to the mark. Even leather seats fitted in after-market shops can look and feel better. The ergonomics are not ideal as well. Yes, the car does boast a tilting Sun Roof. The Electronics Multi-Function Control Display is pretty decent. Climate Control is also provided. And the car has a ‘Button Start’ instead of your regular ignition key. But other than these add-ons, the car’s interior comfort and styling still leaves a lot to be desired.
 
Probably the best technical feature of the Cruze is its 2.0 liter 150 BHP Turbo-Charged Common Rail Diesel Engine. This powerful machine provides a nice acceleration ( comparable with the Skoda Laura’s Diesel Engine 2.0 liter 140 BHP). The claimed fuel economy is also quite good. The 16 inch wheels provide good traction and ride. A slight lag is noticed when you accelerate, but that is typical of Diesel Turbo-Charged Engines. Presently, only a manual transmission power-train is available in India, however an Auto-Transmission version is planned for later this year. The handling and maneuverability of the Cruze is not as great as compared to its German/Japanese counterparts in the same category. Same goes with the overall ride feel.
 
I think one of the other big things going for the Cruze is its price – quite aggressively positioned under 15 Lakhs (1.5 Million). I think this and the fact that it has a Diesel Engine (not available in Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic) will be a plus. The Indian Consumer somehow has a huge fascination for Diesel Engines, and how they seemingly cost less. The simple logic being that Diesel gives a better mileage and is cheaper (by about 20%) than Petrol. However, very few do any real math to figure out how much they really drive and how much the real difference would work out to be, as far as the ‘Total Cost Of Ownership’ for a Petrol and a Diesel Engine! For cars that are greater than 10 Lakhs in Price, the savings with Diesel (if at  all) workout to less than 1 Lakh (or 10%) of the price of the car in most cases (Driving about 100,000 km in 6-7 years).
 
To summarize, I think the Cruze might do reasonably well in India given its engine power, price point and perceived diesel economics, but will definitely not rank up there when it comes to handling, smoothness and driving comfort.
 
 

 

Toyota Fortuner – First Impressions

Posted in Cars by Amit Paranjape on January 5, 2010

Toyota Fortuner (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

  

This morning, I was at the Toyota Dealership for my car servicing. The prospect of a boring wait lay ahead. I picked up a brochure of the new Fortuner and casually enquired about the possibility of a Test-Drive, fully knowing that the SUV may not even be available at this location. Ever since the much anticipated launch in 2009, the Fortuner is in great demand and even the waiting lists have been closed down. Toyota is sitting pretty on a big backlog.      

To my surprise, the SUV was available and the dealer representative promptly arranged for a Test Drive. Note that Pune City Traffic is pretty bad for any Test Drive! Nevertheless, I was able to drive the SUV around for 20 min, and did manage to find a brief stretch of open road. Note, in a strict sense I won’t call this blog a true Test Drive Report. As the title suggests, these are first impressions.      

The first thing that strikes you about the Fortuner is the huge ground clearance. The Toyota representative quickly highlighted that it was 220 mm. This is ideal for rough off-road/rural road driving conditions. The 17 inch wheels are also a welcome feature.  The exterior shape looks a little bit like the Lexus RX 300 SUV (though the Fortuner is smaller), and is pretty nice. Unfortunately, the similarities between the Lexus SUV end quickly! From the inside, the Fortuner looks quite simple, with little hint of any luxury. In fact, the interiors are very close to that of the top-end Innova (that costs almost half…). The cabin space, consisting of 3 rows of seats, is at best comparable with that of the Innova. The features list of the Fortuner also runs very close: 2 Airbags, Climate Control being the primary highlights.      

However, the similarities between the Innova start fading away as you start the Fortuner. The 3.0L Turbocharged Diesel Engine is bigger and significantly more powerful. It delivers 126 KW (171 PS) of Power @ 3600 RPM, with a Max Torque of 343 Nm (1400 – 3400 rpm). The 5-Speed Manual Transmission drives the full-time 4WD system. It also has special gear for driving  in extreme high gradients (often referred to as the ‘Jump’ gear in the old Land Rovers and Jongas…).      

The Fortuner definitely has enough power at hand – However, a noticeable turbo-charger delay is felt when accelerating. Having recently test driven the 2.0 Liter Diesel Skoda Laura, I felt that the Fortuner delay was longer and more pronounced.      

One area where Toyota excels the most in my opinion is the suspension and the comfort of the ride. The Fortuner doesn’t disappoint here at all. The comfort for the driver and passenger is great, and will be a big plus on the rough roads in India.      

On the downside, I still think that Toyota Diesel Engines are not as smooth and refined as that of their German Counterparts. Agreed, fuel economy is a big factor, but a Petrol Fortuner would not be a bad idea at some point in the future. The Toyota Petrol Engines are truly great.      

Maybe it was the specific SUV that I was driving (The representative mentioned that this one had been out on long Test Drives for a few weeks…), but I felt that the braking could have been a bit better. Note, the Fortuner has front disc and rear drum brakes.      

Overall I thought that Fortuner is a good vehicle; simply not a great one. At the price point of Rs 20 – 22 Lakhs, I would have expected a bit more refinements and features on the interiors. Hope Toyota considers a Petrol Engine variant (or does some serious improvements to the Diesel Engine). Also at the +20 Lakhs price range, an Automatic Transmission Option should be made available.

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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)

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