20120228

Driven #12: Renault Pulse

 

Inspite of entering quite a few years back, the French car manufacturer Renault has not had a smooth sailing in the Indian market till date. Logan, the company's first model for India launched in partnership with Mahindra failed miserably and left both the manufacturers with bad tastes. Renault then started its offensive afresh in 2011 with the Fluence and Koleos. Despite being competent, both the models didn't take off owing to their premium pricing strategies. Moreover, Renault didn't have a hatchback in its portfolio which is where all the action lies in the Indian market.

Until now, that is. Nissan, Renault's global alliance partner has the Micra that is made here in Chennai and exported to many other countries. Renault wasn't prepared to waste time, efforts and money and therefore took the easy option of rebadging the Micra and selling it under its own brand name. Thus was born the Pulse. So, is Renault all set to enter the big league finally? We drive the car to find out the answer.

TO LOOK & FEEL:



Other than Renault instructing its engineers not to play around much with the design of the Micra, we just couldn't think of any other reason for the Pulse to look so similar to its cousin from Japan. Seriously, the Pulse is nothing more than a Micra with few styling tweaks here and there and nothing else. But, to be honest, the changes that have been made, though few and far between, have given the car a new-found attitude and character.

Up front, the larger trapezoidal grille and the split air-dam gives the car an aggressive and sporty stance that the Micra doesn't possess. The scoops at the corners of the front and rear bumpers,  the ridge along the sides, the new taillight lenses and the diffuser-like plastic insert in the rear bumper complete the list of changes. The positioning of 'Pulse' badge and the beautifully shaped alloy wheels only add to the overall visual appeal of the car.

Renaults worldwide are known for their quirky designs that grabs eyeballs, not for the right reasons at times. The Pulse comes nowhere close in terms of quirkiness but it looks good nevertheless.



If you were expecting things to be different from the Micra inside, you will be shocked beyond belief. Every single button, knob and switch excepting the logo in the steering wheel are a direct lift from the Micra. What has changed for the better is the color of the plastics. The mid-level RxL variant comes with 'plum and black' interiors while the top-end RxZ comes with 'greige' (mix of grey and beige) interiors. The build quality is good but not in the league of Honda Jazz, which is still the segment benchmark.

Unlike the exteriors where Renault's designers have infused some masculinity to the Pulse, the interiors still look and feel cartoonish. Almost everything that you set your eyes on, like the air vents and climate control system for instance, are circular or oval in shape. The chrome door handles are beautifully shaped though and lends a touch of class to the cabin. Driver Airbag is standard while passenger airbag is optional on both the variants. What is unpardonable though is the lack of ABS, even as an option.

ON THE ROAD:



The Pulse is powered by the same 1.5-liter K9K diesel engine that powers the Micra, Sunny and Logan. With a maximum power of 63 bhp and a torque of 160 Nm on offer, the engine is not the best in terms of refinement, especially in the higher revs. The smooth power delivery with zero turbo lag and eager low-end half-throttle responses make congested city driving a breeze. Mid-range is good but the lack of power becomes increasingly evident as you hit triple digit speeds in the highway.

The ride is good and the Pulse absorbs most bumps and potholes without much of a fuss. The steering that is super-light in the city weighs up nicely as speeds build up, aiding in composed handling at all speeds, both inside the city and out on the open highway. This, combined with the brilliant high-speed stability makes the Pulse a good highway cruiser. Braking is only adequate though, with the spongy brake pedal taking time to respond. Absence of ABS do not help things here and it is high time manufacturers start giving this basic safety feature as standard.

SPECIFICATIONS:


* Engine Type: SOHC, 8-Valves, K9K dCi
* No of Cylinders: 4
* Displacement: 1461 cc
* Maximum Power: 64 PS @ 4000 RPM
* Maximum Torque: 160 Nm @ 2000 RPM
* Transmission Type: 5-speed MT
* Tires: 175/60 R15 (RxZ)
* Brakes: Ventilated Disc (Front), Drum (Rear)

WHAT'S COOL:

* Smooth, powerful and efficient K9K Engine
* Composed Ride and Handling
* Brilliant city-driving characteristics

WHAT'S NOT SO COOL:

* Lack of ABS and spongy brakes
* Thin dealer network
* Limited variants on offer

TO SUM UP:



Look at it as a rebadged Nissan Micra and the Renault Pulse doesn't make sense. But look at it as a similarly-equipped, better-looking and less-pricey variant of the Micra and it suddenly starts making sense. Except for Renault's relatively poor image compared to Nissan and thinner dealer network, we really do not see any genuine reason for the Pulse to sell less than the Micra. And before we forget to answer, yes, Renault finally has a model that is capable of catapulting the brand into the big league.

20120226

Where are the 'hot' hatchbacks in India?

One need not be an expert in the automotive industry to find out that India is a predominantly hatchback market. So much so, that one out of every two cars sold on our soil are still hatchbacks, despite the growing economy and spending power of Indians. Car manufacturers know this fact only too well and that is why we often get to see them tripping over each other to gain a foothold in this all-important segment of the market. If you are a king in this segment, India is all yours. Ask Maruti-Suzuki and Hyundai. If not, you might as well as forget doing business here. Ask Fiat, if you have a doubt.

That being the case, do you think that we Indians are really getting the due that we deserve in the hatchback segment? At Anything On Wheels, we definitely do not think so. Of the thousands of hatchbacks that we keep buying month on month, there are hardly any powerful and sporty variants that are sold. All we get from most manufacturers are the same mundane cars that fail to excite the enthusiast in us one little bit. Yes, the average transaction price for most hatchbacks is only around 5 Lakh Rupees and the margins on these cars are also less. More over, most Indians would happily trade power and sportiness for fuel-efficiency and value-for-money.

But, does that really give manufacturers the right to not give us more powerful and sporty choices? By doing so, aren't they completely ignoring a few passionate souls who might not think twice for plonking a few excess thousands of currency for a genuinely powerful and sporty model? None of the manufacturers barring a couple have given a thought about it. Or, even if they had, they haven't acted on it. Over the past decade and half, we can only think of two cars that could even come close to be called 'sporty'. One was a Limited Edition (Fiat Palio S10) and the other an export surplus order, cleverly launched as Special Editions (Maruti-Suzuki Zen Carbon and Steel).

Indians lapped up every one of those cars despite the fact that they were half-hearted attempts to try and gauge our response. On the contrary, hot and sporty hatchbacks are dime a dozen in the European market. Being small, nimble, practical, powerful and immensely fun-to-drive all at the same time, we understand why. Be it Suzuki, Volkswagen, Skoda or Fiat, every manufacturer with a hatchback in its portfolio has a sporty variant in its lineup that is capable of scorching the roads. Cars like Polo GTI, Punto Abarth and Swift Sport are brands in their own right and special editions like the Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo are sold off as soon as they are launched.  


We are sure that, just like us, merely seeing pictures of these cars would have made you all excited and pumped up. Unfortunately, that is all we Indians can do at the moment. At best, we can go to the extent of parking them as our desktop wallpapers. While our focus was on hatchbacks in this post, the situation is no different in other segments too with the sole exception of ultra-luxury and exotic brands. Yes, there are one-off cases like the Skoda Octavia vRS but we have never got to lay our hands on cars like the Honda Civic Type-R, Ford Fiesta ST and Volkswagen Jetta GLI despite the regular variants of those models succeeding in our market. 

Will this situation ever change? Will the car-makers realize that we Indians are being deprived of power, style and sportiness in a small package? Will they try to do justice to a market that worships hatchbacks after all? It's left for the car-makers to answer.

20120225

BharatBenz LCV seen testing in Chennai with just days left for unveiling

Anything On Wheels' association with BharatBenz is nothing new. If you remember, we were amongst the first to spot the medium heavy-duty haulers from BharatBenz testing on Indian soil followed closely by a light commercial vehicle closely based on the Mitsubishi Fuso Canter. A while later, we spotted both the fleets together in the same Chennai-Bangalore Highway (NH4) and this was in August 2011. After a break of few months, BharatBenz issued a press conference in the beginning of 2012 announcing its plan to unveil the entire truck line-up in the 6-tonne to 49-tonne range on March 02, 2012.

In the same event, BharatBenz also unveiled a few teaser pictures of its heavy-duty truck which are shown here. If you have been reading our blog regularly and had a keen eye for detail, these teaser pictures are nothing as you would have easily made out all these details in the various spy-shots that we captured and uploaded in three posts. With less than a week remaining now for the unveiling assuming things are on schedule at BharatBenz, the company seems to be not content with the rigorous testing that it's trucks have already underwent, as we saw yet another open-bed light commercial vehicle on test last week.

With BharatBenz not relaxing the test schedules inspite of the proven track record of these models in many countries across the world, we are very sure that they are going to make life tougher for home-grown models from Tata and Ashok Leyland. How these companies are going to tackle BharatBenz in the long run remains to be seen.

Ford Fiesta Powershift (Automatic) seen testing again

By now, you would be knowing that Ford will be launching an automatic transmission variant of the all-new Fiesta in India shortly. The company has kept no secrets about it and the car, to be dubbed as Fiesta Powershift, will be launched on 28-Feb-2012 in New Delhi, as per reports circulating in the media. Earlier this month, we posted a couple of snaps of the Fiesta Automatic undergoing testing at Maraimalai Nagar on the outskirts of Chennai, not far from Ford India's factory. Thanks to one of our readers, here are a few more snaps of the same car, seen testing yet again in the same location.

To those who do not know, the Fiesta Powershift will be the first car in the mid-size segment to offer dual-clutch transmission, a technology that was only available in the premium models until now. Technically, a dual-clutch transmission will have two clutches that will be independently working on odd and even gears to ensure smooth and seamless shifts. Being a six-speed automatic, Ford claims that fuel-efficiency is not compromised and the automatic variants will be as efficient as the manual variants. Media friends who have driven the car have not stopped raving about the car's superb handling and fun-to-drive factor.

With the existing variants of the Fiesta not exactly setting the sales charts on fire, Ford should be careful enough in the way it positions and markets the Fiesta Powershift. A further premium from the existing prices will ring the death-knell for the new Fiesta in India. Ford should instead contemplate repositioning the existing variants and launch the Powershift at the existing price levels itself. If not for anything else, we would love the new Fiesta to become a big success in India just for its sheer driving brilliance.

20120217

Yokohama weds Bollywood - Nissan presents 'New Star of India' movie

The importance of online media and marketing can never be ignored these days as there is absolutely nothing that reaches the young, hippy and high-spending target audience as well as internet. Facebook, Twitter and the official websites of the respective companies have started playing such a pivotal role in the decision-making process of Gen Y population, that companies are going all-out to promote their products online. In the automotive industry, no company seems to have understood this fact better than the Japanese manufacturer Nissan.

In India, one thing that might probably beat the popularity of online media is cinema. Combine these two and what you get is nothing short of viral popularity. That is exactly what Nissan is trying to achieve here. You would have seen products of various companies being used in movies starring their brand ambassadors. But have you ever heard of a company producing a movie. Yes, you heard that right. Nissan has did just that. The movie stars none other than Ranbir Kapoor, the company's young and dashing brand ambassador and not one, not two, but one hundred Micras.

On a press note released to the media, here is what the company had to say about its new venture:

"Nissan has created ‘New Star of India’ - the world’s first Bollywood movie auditioned on Facebook. All across India movie enthusiasts auditioned for an opportunity to act alongside Bollywood heart throb Ranbir Kapoor. From well over 2500 hopefuls, 20 were chosen to be in this ground-breaking movie.

The campaign started off in October on Facebook, and has gathered over 4,60,000 fans. Participants were given the opportunity to show off their dancing skills by recording a short video and uploading it to www.facebook.com/nissanindia. Winners were decided on the basis of public votes and finally expert opinion from Ranbir Kapoor and director/choreographer Ahmed Khan.

The filming for this ambitious project was carried out at Ramoji film city at Hyderabad with several Nissan Micras and a cast and crew of over 600 people – one of the largest productions seen in Ramoji.

The excitement did not end here. Nissan ensured that all those who participated and did not win, were not disappointed. Some were given surprise cameo roles and fans were able to participate in the film production process at www.facebook.com/nissanindia

The film is now ready for a red carpet release at Mumbai very soon. Nissan is also giving away a Micra signed by Ranbir to any one lucky fan who has booked a test drive through their facebook app."

The official trailer of the movie is released and you can check it out below.

video

Nissan has also released a few official teaser images that, to the eyes of auto enthusiasts like us, seems to be focusing more on Micras than on Ranbir Kapoor.


By doing this, the company has taken the word 'endorsement' to a new level with its brand ambassador Ranbir Kapoor at the helm of the affairs.

video
 
Check out another video that shows the colorful Micras in action.
video

Now, that explains the title of this post to you. 'Yokohama' is to Nissan like what Detroit is to GM and Ford. It is where Nissan's Global Head-Quarters is located. Posting about anything and everything on wheels, we just couldn't miss out on this innovative idea by Nissan to promote its brand and the Micra hatchback. Way to go Nissan! You might have entered India late, but you are taking the right route ("Bollywood") to popularity and success.

20120213

MAN FE Bus seen testing in Pune, yet again

Our regular readers would remember the earlier spy shot of the front-engined bus from MAN that we spotted in Pune way back in July last year. Thanks to our regular reader Guru, here is yet another one, which is probably the closest shot yet of the bus that is expected to take on Tata and Ashok Leyland head-on. Let us not forget the fact here that Tata and Ashok Leyland are still the dominant players in the front-engined intercity bus segment while Volvo and Mercedes-Benz are fighting it out in the high-end rear-engine segment. MAN has decided that the only way to gain volumes and market share in India is to take on the local players directly and hit them where it hurts.

MAN's foray into buses therefore would be with a front-engined, air-conditioned bus based on the Explorer coach that will be competing for glory with Tata's LP series and Ashok Leyland's 12M chassis. The advantage that MAN will be having is that its bus will be fully-built while most of the competition has bodies built over bare chassis. MAN is trying to play smart here as it knows that competing with Volvo and Mercedes-Benz in the rear-engine segment would be tough as those brands command a very high image. With the joint-venture between MAN and Force Motors coming to a premature end with the latter selling its stake in the company recently, MAN would be hoping that this bus will help the company gain a strong foothold in India.

New variant of Force One seen testing in Pune

Force Motors, the erstwhile Bajaj Tempo Limited, which manufactures and sells the popular Traveller range of light commercial vehicles, recently entered the passenger car segment with Force One. This huge SUV was launched late last year to compete with the likes of Tata Safari, Tata Aria and Mahindra XUV500. With loads of passenger space and Mercedes-sourced 2.2 liter common-rail diesel engine as its trump-cards, the Force One has met with considerable success. The sales figures might suggest otherwise, but if our sources are to be believed, Force Motors is not able to make enough of them (on a relative scale) to meet the existing demand.

One major negative aspect of the Force One apart from its dated looks and questionable fit and finish is the absence of any sort of safety features in the vehicle. Remember, the Force One is priced upwards of 10 Lac Rupees and for that, you don't even get ABS and Airbags, leave alone advanced features like Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Traction Control System that some of its competitors have on offer. Competing in the SUV segment, the Force One does not even have a 4WD option despite the company displaying one at the Auto Expo and during the launch event. Those are some serious omissions by Force Motors.

When probed, Force Motors announced that a feature-loaded version of Force One equipped with 4WD option and safety features like ABS and Airbags would be launched in 2012. We are well into 2012 now and Force Motors seems to be working towards adhering to their commitment. These shots taken today in Pune by Biswajit, one of our regular reader's pals, shows a Force One SUV with test plates sans the logo and badges. So, can we assume that this is indeed the 4WD variant or the top-end variant with features like ABS and Airbags being tested before being put into the market? We are definitely not going to bet against that.

Though the Force One is not a great looker in the first place, we have to admit that this particular test vehicle with its all-black treatment does look sinfully macho.

20120211

Driven #11: 1984 Maruti 800

All of us who call ourselves auto enthusiasts are perceived as brainless nuts by many. Some stare, some glare, some gawk and some wink but nobody misses to notice the things that we do while driving, testing, shooting and reviewing the various cars and bikes. But, things were very different this time. Ladies flashed their pearlies, gentlemen gave us a thumbs up and whoever we encountered gave us sweet gestures. If you thought that we were doing some social welfare activity, you got it completely wrong. All we were doing was preparing ourselves to review this car. Oops, we shouldn't be calling it a review, 'nostalgia' would be the right term as driving this car took us way back in time with many associated memories.

It's not an exotic sports-car nor is it insanely expensive. On the contrary, it is one of the most affordable cars of all time and a common sight on Indian roads. For people in their sixties' whose choice when buying their first car was limited to Hindustan Ambassador and Premier Padmini, this came in as a whiff of fresh air. For people in forties', this was their first set of wheels. Guys and girls in their twenties' and thirties' learnt driving and literally grew up in this car. To cut a long story short, this car put India on wheels like what Ford Model T did to America and Volkswagen Beetle did to Germany. If you have still not guessed it right which is highly unlikely, oh yes, we are talking about the Maruti 800.


This particular example was manufactured in 1984 when the 800 did not have many localized components. As a result, the quality was much better than the later models that had high local content. This car has passed through 4 owners and has covered a total of 122,845 km till date. So, how does a car which redefined the way Indians traveled in the 1980's look and feel now? Does it make any real sense now when cars have moved forward? Or is it just fit for rekindling fond memories associated with it? Be prepared to be surprised, just like we did.

TO LOOK & FEEL:
 

30 years is a very long time, more so for something as fashionable and ever-changing as an automotive design. But, the Suzuki SS80 has lived the test of times with the existing 800 still using the same basic shape and theme of the original, albeit with a few facelifts. A casual glance at the 800 would reveal its clean and uncomplicated design. It comes across as a car that is small yet purposeful, boxy yet sexy and eternally cute yet practical. The rectangular headlamps, indicators with integrated parking lights and the slab-like tail lamps are typical '800' stuff that makes it instantly recongnizable. The ground clearance seems to be on the higher side keeping in mind the Indian road conditions at that time. The bumpers are big enough to absorb the impact in the event of an accident. Like the Honda Brio hatchback which has brought this concept back recently, the 800's boot can be accessed only through the rear windscreen.


Compared to its prime competitors during those days, the Hindustan Ambassador and Premier Padmini, the 800 was smaller, shorter, narrower and consequently, had less passenger space. Though the space available is at a premium, the way in which it has been put to use can teach modern small cars a thing or two in practicality. The jack to lift the car up for instance, has been smartly placed under the hood in the top left corner. Following the trend of exteriors, the interiors are also simple and neatly laid out. Features like ABS, Airbags, Climate Control and Power Windows were unheard of in those days in India and the 800 came with slider controls for the air-conditioner. Reliability was top notch as the car had absolutely no gizmos that are prone to failure. Every single button, knob and latch still works perfectly and the interiors have been durable to this day.


Manufactured in 1984, this 800 belongs to the initial lot of cars which had all components except the tires and battery imported from Japan. If ever proof was needed how the Japanese manufacturers have gained confidence worldwide, you have to just look at this 800. Most of the original fittings are still intact, and working too. The Stanley sealed-beam headlights and Tokai Denso taillights and indicators look and work great and have not faded 28 years into its life. Most of the components under the hood are still original too, manufactured by companies lie Nippon Denso and Mikuni. Even the original 'Suzuki' and SS80 scripts in the valve cover are intact. The car is devoid of any rust around the joints and hinges but the repaint has not quite brought out the magic of the original 'Sky Blue' color that the car came with.

ON THE ROAD:


Turn the ignition on and the car shows its first signs of age. The starter motor takes some time and effort to crank the engine on. Once done, the engine is pretty refined compared to the shaky and noisy competition this car had in those days. Press the accelerator pedal and that's when the real surprise hits you. The car moves forward swiftly with the light kerb weight helping things here. Except in parking speeds, the absence of power steering is never felt as the steering weighs up nicely as speeds build up. The car willingly turns and remains composed around corners though very sharp directional changes tends to unsettle it a bit. To hell with the Stability Control, this car knows nothing about those gizmos. It is just uncomplicated mechanical bits at its reliable best.

To be brutally honest, we knew that driving the car would be fun but we never thought that it would be so much fun. It just goes to show that there is nothing that can bring as big a smile in your face as a small, light and nimble car sans the electronic gizmos. To make things better, so much fun comes ridiculously cheap too with 800's negligible maintenance costs and amazing fuel-efficiency endearing it to owners who still swear by the 800. Having said that, the brakes are pretty scary as the car failed to react on nudging the brake pedal. Finally, we stood hard on the brakes to bring the car to a stop, the absence of a brake booster making its presence felt here.

SPECIFICATIONS:
 

* Engine Displacement: 796 cc
* Maximum Power: 39.5 bhp @ 5500 rpm

WHAT'S COOL:
* Simple and clean design
* Nimble handling and fun-to-drive factor
* Rock-solid reliability
* A modern classic in the making

WHAT'S NOT SO COOL:

* Scary brakes
* Restricted passenger space

TO SUM UP:
 

We have never seen a it before but if transporting us to a by-gone era is what a 'time machine' does, then the 800 gets as close to being one as possible. In just a couple of hours that we spent in this car, it took us back in time and brought back memories when there were no gizmos that instructed us how to drive or intervened to change what we intended to do. If you love driving and intend to have fun doing so, we suggest you go for a spin in the 800. Not the recent ones, but the earlier models like the one featured in this post, mind you. It is so much fun driving it considering the money that we would be spending on it. If Maruti-Suzuki ever gets to read this post, there is just one request from our side - "We all love this car to no end and please make us fall in love again".

20120206

Ford Fiesta Automatic undergoing final rounds of testing

Ford always has this habit of unveiling their new models to the media and the public well ahead of their actual launch. And in the interim period between the unveiling and the launch, they go about with their road-test rigors without bothering to camouflage the vehicles, given the comfort factor of already revealing them to the masses. They have done this in the past for the Figo and for the all-new Fiesta and we at Anything On Wheels have been earnest enough to bring you the pictures of both those fleets then and there. Now, the Ford Fiesta Automatic is in that stage, it seems. The Indian media were invited to drive the Fiesta Automatic last November and it was announced that the car would be launched in the first quarter of 2012.

Ford, being Ford, is doing its usual job of testing the car for its road worthiness before launching it in the market and one of our readers spotted this car on the outskirts of Chennai, not far from the Ford factory. Coming with segment's first Dual Clutch Technology wherein two clutches work on the odd and even gears separately to ensure seamless shifts, the media is already impressed by the car and the public surely will be too. Will it be a big success then? It all boils down to how Ford decides to price the automatic variant. If they repeat the mistake they did with the manual variants, the Fiesta may never take off in the Indian market. We hope Ford is listening to this and we wish that they don't let a brilliant driver's car like the new Fiesta become a market dud.