It was, quite literally, end of the road. The highway we were in had successfully gotten itself mired in deep legal wrangles, and halfway through, the contractors had erected a stone wall, which suited us perfectly. Not many can lay claim to have witnessed a standoff between Brahma Bull on steroids and Catwoman on acid. It was a mouthwatering prospect to have them inside one ring and an orgasmic proposition to shoot them in one frame. Pure, simple and white. Sex on wheels.
One was a proper redneck, been bent over years toiling away, developing a massive set of arms and calves. Not satisfied with what she is endowed with, she pumps up on anabolic steroids and works out like a devil possessed. But all that pill popping has it’s effects. She can move in only one direction, straight, but when she does, she goes like a rocket. And when I say rocket, I mean it. She seems destined to teach Newton’s first law of motion to kids and if handled without care, promises to break your neck in two. She is happiest on a straight line, and hates taking corners. Pure American muscle then, ooh yeah!
The other one was a fiery Italian with a slightly quirky sense of style and a pompous nose. She would do powerslides as easily as she would show off those lightning quick reflexes. She would hold her line, and inspire the driver to push her to the brink of her capabilities. And yet, when you shake your head in sheer disbelief at what she is capable of doing, she would pull out new tricks from her sleeve. She is happiest at being thrown around the corners, all of which she handles with élan and then when you step out and look at her, she would exhibit that strange mix of emotions, impassive and snooty. A thoroughbred Italian, then.
Making the dough
It all started when I met Vyshak, the owner of a popular auto service and spare parts station. Vyshak is one of us, an auto enthusiast to the core who is living out his dreams, that of staying and working with machines. A humble chap otherwise, his eyes gleam with immense pride when the conversation drifts around to his own automobiles. There is a 1986 Omni, a chocolate coloured beauty, whose engine has NEVER been opened and whose gearbox has only been overhauled once in the twenty four odd years and the four lakh odd kilometers that she has traversed. There is his 1988 RD 350, painted in a rather curious red body, black chassis combo, gleaming under the hot workshop lights. Then there is the restored Suzuki Shaolin, in a gleaming red colour. When you finish with all of this, there is his Yamaha R6, in the trademark white and blue, gawked at by clients and fawned upon by the loyal troop of technicians dotting his garage.
And amongst all this, stands his 2006 Chevrolet Optra 2.0 LT. Pearl white, beautiful, as pristine as a lamb, not a single scratch on her. There is only one decal, stating in bold red, “TURBO”, on her rear which should give an idea to the beholder of what a beast she can transform into. No jingbangs, no screaming LED stickers, no loud music system. Simple, evocative and powerful.
The Optra, which first started off as the Korean carmaker GM Daewoo’s Lacetti in 2002 has undergone a multiple number of iterations and rebadging, including being sold as Buick Excelles in China and the Suzuki Forenza in other parts of the world to become the Chevrolet Optra as we know it today in India. The sedan had been designed by the legendary Italian design firm Pininfarina (yes, the same guys who gave you Maserati Quattroporte and Ferrari 360 Spider, not to mention countless other breathtaking beauties!).
This one, however, was special. The ECU had been remapped to boost the torque and the power, and if the dynos were to be believed, the car was spewing out, at 3,500 rpm, an astonishing one hundred and seventy horsepower (up roughly forty from stock trim) and a jaw-bending four hundred Nm of torque between 1600 ~ 2000 rpm (up roughly ninety five from stock trim). No clowning matter, this, then, eh?
Garnishing, meat or veggies?
We needed to contrast this Thing (I know not whether there is any other character other than the chap from Fantastic Four whose name and persona can be thrust upon this beast so befittingly) with Twinkle Toes. We needed some sanity to offset the madness, some curve gobbling power to offset the straight line brutality. So we turned (where else) to the Italians. A good friend, Soumya had a Grande Punto, a 1.3 MultiJet version, (incidentally, the first Grande Punto to be delivered in Bangalore), onto which, he had slapped on a Diesel Express box, and which now churned out a healthy ninety six horsepower and two hundred and thirty five Nm of torque.
The Grande Punto is a third generation Fiat supermini to bear the name Punto. The Grande Punto was unveiled at the 2005 Frankfurt Motor Show. Designed by the legendary Giorgetto Giugiaro, (who, incidentally, also styled the Optra Station Wagon), the Grande Punto is based on the Fiat-GM Small platform, and in India, is available in a number of avatars, the 1.2 litre and the 1.4 litre petrol and the 1.3 litre MultiJet engine. The Punto has largely garnered very positive reviews about her superb handling and the frugal yet powerful 1.3 MultiJet engines. Because of her enormous weight, a full 1.2 tonnes, the Punto’s acceleration, especially the earlier ones, were on the sluggish side, but there were very few cars which could hold a candle to it in the ergonomics department.
Would you like some fries with that?
The potential standoff had all the trappings of a redneck pasta, smooth and hot, gut wrenchingly powerful and surprisingly creamy. Which one will be the car of choice then? Read on to find out!
The Optra, as expected, could pull away with such command on the straights, it would be a feat to outrun her even with a Mondeo. Yes, she is THAT fast. The turbo kicks in around the 1500 ~ 1600 mark, and between that and the 4500 rpm that it redlines at, the curve is sharp uphill, no breaks in between. I saw her doing a 210 flat out, with the curve showing the first signs of tapering off. When Vyshak floored the accelerator at a 140, in the fourth gear, my butt slid into the seat, the neck snapped back and I could feel my cheeks being pulled back. It was that oh-sh!t moment when the scenes become a blur, when cars doing upwards of 150 appear to be at standstill and when you can see nothing else other than the lane dividers and the road melting into the horizon. A proper take off machine, this was.
The Punto was surprisingly quick on the straights as well. It was nowhere near the gut wrenching, butt-sliding-off feeling that the Optra was capable of, but you could feel the perceptible difference that the tuning box had made. There was a healthy and smooth torque spread available at all gears, the lowdown torque was available by the truckloads, and the point and shoot capabilities of the car had improved by a considerable deal. She would comfortably cruise at a 160 all day long. Given the bulk of the car, it was no surprise that the 100 came up real fast and the power went flat out after the 165 mark. On the straights, there was no comparison. The Optra was a much faster car.
When it came to the curves, however, it was a completely different story. The Optra in a stock trim had a very soft suspension, owing to this being used primarily as a city sedan, and as such, is completely useless for high speed corner-carving. For a car capable of doing upwards of 220 kmph, the Optra was easily unsettled when a sharp curve was thrown at her above the 130 mark. It is a scary feeling, yes? The opposite suspensions bottomed out, the rear spinning like Abhimanyu himself had some role to play in it, you can literally feel the control on the car diminishing, and you know that if you brake and for some reason the ABS does not kick in, it could result in a spectacular powerslide which would result in you flying over that hedge and in all probability, landing butterside down. So, you do the sane thing and understeer, all the while gently touching the brakes to allow the ABS to do their work and steer you clear off the greenery and keep the rubber side down. Whew, that was a close one!
The Punto, on the other hand, was born to take the curves on. She took them on with such ferocity and a sure, planted feel that much before I could get out of one, I found that she was in line and ready for the next one, much ahead of my preparation. Not once, not even at a 150, did I find the Punto not towing the line that I had asked her to. She threw me around inside the car, sure, but she had a surefootedness about her which was extremely comforting. Even when I was taking curves while accelerating, I could feel the tyres groaning in protest, but never going off the intended route. Most of all, the ability to transmit all of what the car was going through when taking a corner back to the driver through the responsive steering had a very reassuring effect. We did not actually time the cars, or race them across the block, but had we done that, I am sure that the Punto would have actually held it’s own against the bigger, powerful Optra, because of the sheer delight that it takes in gobbling up the curved tarmac.
Our verdict on the speeds? On a highway, there is no question. The Optra would be the pick anyday, especially with long straight roads and when you have those minimal curves, you can always slow down and take them at a pace the car is comfortable with. Our recommendation is to change the shockers pronto, and get a stiffer set slapped on. It would make a world of difference to the handling.
Inside a city, especially overburdened cities like Bangalore, the Optra does not stand a chance, however. The Punto, because of it’s size and quick and agile engine and a shorter footprint, would be able to get in between the gaps far quicker and overtaking other cars and motorcycles would be an absolute breeze. The Optra, with it’s bulk and footprint, would be a labour to drive inside the city, and I have a hunch you would end up drumming your fingers out of frustration more often than not.
Now to some of us, a pasta is a pasta is a pasta. But then there are some who love the excitement which fine dining provides. Making a dough into a butterfly shaped pasta involves some amount of work and making it look even more beautiful when cooked involves a certain amount of dedication. So then, who will the fine diner please?
The Optra interiors are plush and feel premium, both to touch and visually. The seats have good lumbar support and a decent thigh support. The pedals were easy to reach, and visibility over the long bonnet was very good. The large windows and well placed mirrors provide excellent overall visibility. The backseat looks pretty cramped, but it is only an illusion, helped on generally by the recessed honeycomb-like structure of the seats. The knees had a good amount of travel before touching the back of the front seats and there was a general feel of wellness when you sat inside because of the premium feel.
The Punto, on the other hand, has a relatively demure interior. Which is kind of surprising, given her Italian heritage and the flair which Italians have for style. The dashboard is bright and reading the information off it was quite easy. What was once fun and premium gadgets, Bluetooth and steering mounted volume controls and message reading capabilities have become commonplace now. When you are paying almost eight lakhs for the top-end trim, you may as well expect a hot hatch with premium feel. This is where we think the Punto in the present crop of hatches, loses a bit of the sheen. We recommend getting some quality interior work, (nice handcrafted seat-covers, perhaps some leather for the ceilings and a dash of hazelnut wood for the dashboard, or would that be asking too much) done for the Punto right out of the showroom to match the go that the car is capable of.
Ready in 2?
You must be joking, Sir. Modifying a car such as these take perseverance, patience, dedication, knowledge and deep pockets. Maintenance of these cars take even more time. The wear and tear is much faster and checkups need to be more and with lesser space in between each.
So, do we recommend either? YES! We recommend both, in fact. Both cars are found relatively cheap in the second hand market, and both have brilliant mills which are capable of being tinkered around with to a reasonable extent. You need to be careful to find a decent quality piece, tune it well and then run her around like nobody’s watching.
Just remember to give us some credit when you execute said idea. After all, where would the plant be if the seeds did not germinate?
Photography: Soumya Paul, Ayan Ray