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.]   

   

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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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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

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