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.]   

   

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.
 
 

 

Demise Of The Big 3: How Detroit Icons Lost Their Way Over The Past 3 Decades

Posted in Current Affairs, Financial Markets/Economics by Amit Paranjape on December 15, 2008

 A lot has been written about the Big 3 bailout. Majority of the articles published thus far talk about all the current problems that are faced by Detroit. Relatively few have discussed how they got here in the first place. I thought I will add my 2 cents to this angle.

 

“You bailed out the Financial Institutions to the tune of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars! All we are asking for is a fraction!” This seems to be general line of lobbying (pleading is probably a more appropriate word…) that the Big-3 automakers are taking to the Congress. This, coupled with the specter of 3 Million direct and indirect job losses, is creating an apparently ‘strong’ case for them. Yet, I am glad to see that there is still some opposition left in the Congress. The opposition might still be a moot point though, since the White House looks all set to bail the Big 3 out in any case.

 

It is worth looking at the ‘If for them…then why not us!’ argument. The big financial institutions had catastrophic failures/near failures, primarily due to the housing bubble collapse and risky investments over the past few years. In some sense, this once in a hundred year event had its origin in fairly recent past. The housing bubble began at the turn of this decade. [For a more comprehensive discussion regarding the 2008 Financial Crisis, please take a look at my earlier articles on the same topic: US Financial Crisis: Who Is To Be Blamed? and US Financial Crisis: The Role Of The Consumer ]

 

Comparatively, the Big 3 automakers have been in their slow death spiral for decades. In fact one can trace the beginning of the end for them, at the 1974 oil shock. Until then, they had a dream scenario of virtually no competition and extremely cheap oil. Hence it didn’t matter what you built; there was demand for it. Engine efficiency was the farthest on anyone’s mind. Those massive 6 Liter V8 vehicles of the 60s and early 70s, often resembling a small aircraft (with those fins!), would make today’s Hummer look like a compact vehicle!

 

The oil shock was a big wake up call, and the Big 3 scrambled to make smaller and efficient cars. But somehow design and quality took a backseat. It took the large scale arrival of the Japanese imports in the1980s that shook up the market again. Initially, the Big 3 probably didn’t even notice those ‘tiny’ Toyotas and Hondas. But soon as their loyal customers started to defect, due in no small part because of the persisting ‘defects’ in the American cars (no pun intended!), Detroit began to take serious notice.

 

Lean Production Systems, Total Quality Management seminars started filling up in the Midwest. Consultants started making money of these Japanese ‘best practices’. It was ironic that the person that the Japanese first learnt Total Quality Management Principles from in post WW II era, Edward Deming, was an American. Apparently in that time period, no American industry cared to listen to him.

 

As the Big-3 started improving their designs and efficiencies in the 1990s, they were perpetually in a catch-up mode. Japanese automakers had taken over a significant lead and they kept widening the gap. At this stage, it is worth mentioning that the legacy labor contracts of the Big 3 started becoming a drag on these companies, while they were trying to be agile and nimble. On a personal note, I can relate to this design gap through first hand experience. In 1994, as a new graduate student arriving in America, I had a chance to rent two different cars in the first couple of months. One was the General Motors Buick Skylark and the other one, the Toyota Corolla. The differences between the two completely startled me. 

 

Just when it seemed that Big 3 was narrowing the gap towards the end of the last decade; they made another short-sighted cardinal error! The 1997-98 Asian financial crisis drove oil to a low of near 10 Dollars. Suddenly, it seemed Detroit again got into fond memories of the 1960s and threw fuel efficiency out of the window. Instead of trying harder to close the gap on the automobile portfolio; they thought they had discovered a new winning strategy, to once and for all defeat the Japanese! The Big 3 always had a bigger portfolio in the light truck segment. These gas guzzlers were the mainstay of utility workers, farmers and other small business owners. With oil hitting new lows, the marketing geniuses of Detroit spun campaigns that made these trucks, an essential for a common white collar worker as well! Soccer moms were also in their target sight. By simply slapping on a mini-bus like body on top of the truck chassis, Detroit created something called a ‘SUV’. Soccer moms who till the mid 90s were confined to station wagons and ugly looking small minivans, now had a great option. Not sure, if the sheer size of these things made the white collar workers and the soccer moms more comfortable or safer?!

 

In the short run, these gas guzzling vehicles got handsome profits to the Big 3 and it appeared that they were finally back on track. Yet the foundation was extremely shaky. Japanese automakers also moved into this space in the late 1990s and once again showed Detroit how those same gas guzzlers could be made more reliable and comfortable. The final death sentence came when the oil prices began a steady rise this decade. SUVs and gas guzzlers were again out of favor and smaller, fuel efficient cars were back in vogue. And the Japanese were not sitting idle either with their R&D; even better fuel efficiency was now available from the newer revolutionary breakthroughs such as the Hybrid Technology. Detroit simply didn’t have any answer for this!

 

The 2008 financial crisis and resulting recession & downturn was the last straw. But, I think attributing this demise to this crisis is extremely short sighted. As described in this article, the demise was around the corner in any case. The present recession was just the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’!

 

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