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The Diesel Dailies
It is no secret that India's journey to becoming a global automotive hotspot owes its success to the piggyback ride it has hitched on hatchbacks. Ever since the Maruti 800 changed the country's perception of the way a car should be, small cars have been on a roll that has never stopped. But while the small-engined petrol cars have been stealing the limelight and driving sales for carmakers, diesel hatchbacks have been making their own little crusade, offering ever more in terms of lugging power, reduced ownership costs and, dare I say, refinement too these days. With ever-longer urban commutes, bootless urban cars powered by diesel engines have begun to make a lot of sense in this practicality-driven segment. Obviously then, manufacturers from all over the world have their best on display in this segment right here in India.
There is a problem though - a problem of excess, in fact. Not stifled by the silly 1. 2-litre engine displacement cap, this is where cars from foreign shores have actually received engines that are more in tune with their original purpose, as opposed to being watered down versions that pledge allegiance to excise benefits. That's great for the segment, but a massive headache for buyers, given that the more competent engines bring the entire segment on a very even keel. Which is where we come in.
We assembled the most popular ensemble of diesel hatches currently on sale in India, and discovered one peculiar characteristic - from Japan to America, the contenders come from right across the globe. Each from a different country, with a different philosophy of car making riding behind it, and each with its own set of 'values'. Yet, each out to impress the Indian masses. The Germans have made their robust entry with the Volkswagen Polo TDI, which the Yankees have countered smartly with the Ford Figo. Then there is the Indian Indica Vista Quadrajet, the Italian Punto Multi-Jet, the Korean i20 CRDi and the Maruti Suzuki Ritz, representing the Land of the Rising Sun. This is almost an oilburner equivalent of the Olympics!
BEAUTY CONTEST: WHO'S GOT THE LOOK?
How else can we begin the pageant but with the Fiat Grande Punto. With aesthetics built into their genes, the Italians have usually held the upper hand, not just in dictating the looks of a car but also the way it makes its occupants feel. Carrying the air of a classic hatchback with just the right shades of modernity, the Punto seemed to be the outright looker. Only in our heads though, as we found out the moment we lined up all our competitors side by side.
The Volkwagen Polo did not fail to impress at all in the looks department. Aided by its low-slung stance and its clean and emphatic lines, the Polo was probably the first to catch our eye in the lineup. It may look like a plain Jane at first glance, but stack it up with its competition and the real beauty of its long-hooded proportions is brought out.
The next eyeball-grabber surprisingly was the Hyundai i20. Despite the entry of 'more novel' offerings, the i20 still probably has the most striking presence - wide, long, and accented in just the right places with those flamboyant flares. Along with the Polo, it is also one of the longest cars in its class, which may not add to its driving ease but certainly gets it eyeballs wherever it goes.
Many may have confused the Figo's looks with the Fusion's in their head as the cars do have similar proportions thanks to their common platform. Apart from that, there is very little reason to humble the Figo's very distinct character by comparisons with any other car. Carrying the most aggressive fascia in its segment, the Figo's stout outsides and its Squeeze green shade make it come across as an understated but handsome car.
And then we have the Tata Indica Vista and the Maruti Suzuki Ritz which are not bad looking cars in any way. The Vista is a fantastic modern interpretation of its predecessor's design genome, while the Ritz is quirky and likeable in its own Japanese sort of way. Confusing to sort out the medallion for this one given that visual appeal is far from being an objective matter, but the reviewers shall take the matters in their own hands and announce the Volkswagen Polo to be the best looking car of this lot - shapely, appealing and palatable to all - narrowly edging out the Fiat Grande Punto and the Hyundai i20 for gold.
ENGINES: WHEN TORQUE TALKS
Speak of diesel power, and it's almost impossible to not get torque into the conversation. After all, one big part that sets the turbocharged powerplants apart from agriculture equipment is the sweet oodles of pull that they managed to churn out. Our focus though leaned towards the more fuel efficient and driveable engines of the lot, given that most of them manage to make about the same power - and that the diesel buyer is always on the lookout for more bang for his buck.
Fiat's 1. 3-litre engine (Multijet/Quadrajet/DDiS - take your pick, depending on the manufacturer using it) has been the reigning champ when it comes to small diesel engines in India. It has powered cars from manufacturers across the globe, thanks to its flexibility, performance and frugality. It also moves three of the six cars in this shootout - but carmakers employing it have ensured that it has a completely different character in each of them! That makes a very strong case for its adaptability, but the new crop of small diesels is certainly hunting this engine down with a vengeance.
On Fiat's own Grande Punto, the Multijet makes more power and torque than its adaptations by Maruti and Tata. The diesel mill completely transforms the Punto when compared with its petrol-fuelled cousins. In this avatar, the car has enough grunt to bring the best out of that phenomenally engineered chassis and suspension that make it such a delightful car to drive. One of the best uses of the engine though in our opinion has been made on the Indica Vista Quadrajet that came to us with its all new DriveTech4 gearbox, which is eminently slick. With only tiny hints of turbo delay accompanied with excellent throttle response, the Indica Vista came out to be our favourite diesel hatch for the city, even if it missed out on outright performance. That being said, on the Maruti Suzuki Ritz, the same engine feels much peppier thanks to its torque peak, which has been shifted further up the rev range. Refinement levels are also much higher and the tuning is such as to not let the fuel efficiency take a big hit, and overall the Suzuki tuning makes it one of the most wellbalanced powerplants of the lot.
The 1. 2-litre engine on the Volkswagen Polo may have one cylinder less than its competition, but remains cutting edge. VW has introduced this engine internationally with the BlueMotion package, which could make it the most fuelefficient engine on a hatchback in the world. The engine itself packs a whole bunch of innovations that brings it to the same level as most of its competition despite a lower cubic capacity. On the road, however, the Polo diesel displays sizeable turbo lag initially in the rev range, which takes some points away from its ease of driving. Work to keep the engine over 2000 rpm though, and the train of torque unleashed should satisfy the choosiest of drivers.
At the other end of the spectrum, not just in terms of modernity but also when it comes to driveability, is the 1. 4-litre Duratorq engine on the Ford Figo. Awkward technical credentials like single overhead cams and two valves feeding each of those four cylinders mean that this engine makes the least power and torque of the bunch, despite its higher engine capacity. It is not ultra-refined either, and does feel a tad noisy. Cancelling all that though is its fantastic driveability, with very little turbo lag and well spread out gear ratios that make it great to drive in the city. It is very frugal as well, and wins the bout when it comes to fuel efficiency, running over 14 kilometres on a litre of diesel.
The undisputed winner of the engine battle, however, is the Hyundai i20 CRDi. The modern four pot, 16-valve engine has the technology and a larger displacement of 1, 396 cc, making it the most powerful and the torquiest engine of the lot. The performance is nothing short of mind-blowing - it is the quickest from 0-100 kmph by a large margin - but what's special is that the i20's diesel plant also returns in excess of 13 kmpl thanks to all the propulsion accessible at the slightest movement of the accelerator. That's good news for the speed crazy as well as the economy minded. Here's Korea destroying the myth that the Germans and the Italians have it all when it comes to diesel engines!
HANDLING AND COMFORT: ON THE MOVE
Handling is where the real twin-advantage of the diesel hatchback segment begins to appear. The frugality and cheaper running costs of diesel engines put it bang in the territory of practical runarounds, but the performance and sharp handling displayed by most of our competitors also give them some serious potential for driving enthusiasts. Our aim in the steeplechase tests was to find which of the cars managed the best balance between an easy ride quality and sprightly handling.
Let's start with the Hyundai i20 CRDi. Boy were we surprised at how sharp and focused the car was compared to its refined, silent and pliant petrol cousin. In fact, the i20 diesel's power and torque combined with the road holding offered by the stiff suspension could make it quite a star on race tracks. In the real world though, the i20 returns a bumpy ride quality and unless you are going to ply only on butter smooth roads, it may not offer a fantastic drive experience.
The Tata Indica Vista Quadrajet, on the other hand, is an out-and-out family comfort car. While it soaks up most bumps with ease, its tall dimensions give it enough body roll for a tentative feel around corners. While the Maruti Suzuki Ritz solves this problem to an extent and offers a good ride quality, it does not quite match the almost phenomenal balance between a bump-free ride and road-holding capability that the top three cars in the segment offer.
At number three in the steeplechase is the Ford Figo. It all begins with a very competent chassis from the last gen international Fiesta. This was one of the most acclaimed chassis of its time, and has not lost its functionality and flexibility despite its age. With a suspension set up exceedingly well for Indian conditions, the Figo exhibits enough cornering abilities to keep the enthusiasts satisfied at a good clip, while keeping the rear seat occupants unruffled.
The Fiat Punto shows similar characteristics, only amplified to a higher level. It is clearly more relaxed with the 1. 3-litre engine when rushed through corners. The shocks are set up just right for whatever sort of bumps Indian roads may throw at it. In fact, if it was not for the bit of tentativeness from the steering feel, this would have been our pick in the handling department.
The most stellar display in the handling department though comes from the Volskwagen Polo. There is no denying the feeling of security that the car gives under cornering, one that is so typical of German engineered cars. Like the Punto, the Polo's chassis is also built to handle much larger engines but what sets it apart is the minimal amounts of body roll and wondrously balanced suspension. The ride is slightly stiff, but nothing that the occupants will feel as a measure of discomfort. On the road and in corners, there are few that can challenge the composed nature of the Polo.
SPACE AND PRACTICALITY: CHOOSE TO USE
Having a fantastic hatchback that has performance and practicality, but not enough space to accommodate a family doesn't quite make sense.
The Ford Figo comes out on top when it comes to space on the inside. The cabin is airy and the well-made seats at the front and rear contribute largely to the feeling of wellbeing inside the Figo. The i20 has similar characteristics, and its classily turned out interiors add to the plushness that the cabin exudes. A stiff ride quality takes some points away from the real-world practicality of the i20, but lots of cubby holes and smart packaging more than make up for it on our measuring scale. This is one car that occupants would love to spend time in.
The Tata Indica Vista comes in next, with a longer wheelbase than most of its competition and an almost Nano-like efficient use of interior space to dish out seriously massive innards. In fact, it could well have been at the top of the charts had it not been for the treatment of its interiors that lack in aesthetics when compared to the rest.
The Fiat Grande Punto provides decent interiors and a good balance between plushness and space, but given that outright space gets more weightage in our comparison as opposed to the treatment, it narrowly misses out on the bronze. The Volkswagen Polo suffers a similar fate. It probably has the most feel-good interiors, but with a cramped rear as compared to the competition, it only manages fifth place. The Ritz comes in last, punching over its weight in the company of these longer cars, but still makes plenty of sense for a smaller, more urban family.
VALUE FOR MONEY: OH DEAR !
In our opinion, it is not difficult to make a well-engineered machine these days - it's almost a default if a carmaker has to survive in this cut-throat scenario. The real test of a good car lies in what sort of penetration of the market it manages with its pricing and positioning since ultimately these are the automobiles that not only keep the customers and carmakers happy, but also dictate the path of automotive evolution on a more macro level.
Value for money is the largest point where the Volkswagen Polo loses out to the competition. On a car-per-car basis, it manages everything it sets out to do much better than its rivals, but the competition seems to have a better finger on the pulse of the market, understanding what is vital and delivering only in those areas, thereby saving on cost. The Hyundai i20 is almost in a different league when it comes to pricing too, aiming for the elite niche. It provides a whole lot of goodies like six-speed manual transmission, but thanks to excesses like these from the market's point of view, even the base version of the car is more costly than most fully-loaded versions of the competition.
The Fiat Grande Punto also demands a small premium for its styling as compared to its fellow Multijet powered rivals, which puts it further away in the value-for-money charts. The Maruti Suzuki Ritz is a well-priced car for its features, but its lack of interior space forced us to give it only a bronze medal. Picking up the silver in this category is the Indica Vista, now with the much-improved gearbox and refreshed gadgetry - the car now even has a Bluetooth phone connectivity option - all at the standard cut-throat Tata way of pricing.
The outright winner in the VFM competition, by a large margin at that, is the Ford Figo. In fact, it is somewhat hard to believe everything that the car manages to do at its price point. A smart rehashing of platforms and engines and adapting them into a package that delivers something to every sort of buyer, we expect the Figo, especially in its diesel form, to perform very well in its segment.
FINAL VERDICT: ONE HORSE FOR THE COURSE!
This has clearly been one of the most difficult squabbles to sort out for us yet, but someone had to do it! The dilemma shows through not just with us, but also with the Indian buyer, whose brand loyalty and will to experiment seems much more spread out in the diesel segment. The decision becomes that much more difficult when it comes to this bunch because each of these cars does at least one thing phenomenally well. There are only two cars that are able to rise above the highly competent field, which we shall come to shortly.
Tha Maruti Suzuki Ritz, the Hyundai i20 CRDi, the Fiat Grande Punto and the Indica Vista Quadrajet all remain very well-matched cars, and curiously end up with the exact same overall rating. Don't let that confuse you though, since each car comes with its own set of desirable qualities, which should make the choice easier for buyers. Check out the final verdicts on each car (see boxes below) to delve deeper into the matter.
In second place, thanks to its looks and the ridehandling balance, the Volkswagen Polo shows its international pedigree. On a car-per-car basis, the Polo could well be the most well put-together car in every engineering aspect. With a better understanding of Indian conditions though, the Germans could have tailored the car in an even more user-friendly manner, certainly in terms of driveability. And if only they had read the Indian market as well as Ford could and priced the product even more competitively.
The Ford Figo gets our final winner award - by a narrow margin. But what it really wins on account of is the smartness with which it has been turned out. It does everything exactly as much as your average diesel hatch buyer would expect his car to. Ford has not fallen prey to overdoing the jig when it came to making the Figo, and in the process it has come up with an almost irresistible pricing proposition for the diesel version too. In a battle of diesel brawn, it is the brain at its maker's strategy department that has earned the Figo our top spot in a very tight compression ignition field.
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