The engine note was metallic. That was understandable because it was a new engine. I was proud of my new Unicorn. So was my friend, of his. He had got his, one and a half years before mine.
We were on the East Coast Road, fondly called as the ECR by the people of Chennai. The road was famous for its scenic route along the sea coast to Pondicherry, now called as Puducherry. It was late evening. And we were taking my new bike on its first long exercise. The horizon was lighting up every now and then with streaks of lightning. It presented a striking contrast against the backdrop of the setting sun. There was a cool breeze blowing towards us. We realized that it might have been raining somewhere. In short, the setting for the ride was fantastic.
We didn’t plan to drive all the way to Pondy, but we also didn’t plan as to how much farther we should get away from Chennai. The ride was so captivating that we felt like going on forever. My bike was just beginning to finish the run in period. My friend and I decided that we will push the bike to take it near to the three figure mark and see how it does.
My friend had no problems of speeding off in his, as his bike was already in perfectly tuned state. I gingerly began to increase the speed, taking care to see that I do it linearly. As I approached the three figure mark, I made sure that I was not hearing any signs of engine straining. I was prepared to slow down the moment I heard any such signs.
But the bike behaved as if it was much more inclined to do it than I was. The speedo needle kept climbing almost effortlessly and before I knew it, the world was a total blur and I was heading toward 110 km/h. Both of us slowed down and discussed the coming of age of my baby.
Now that it had been done once, we had the feeling that it could be done again. This time we exchanged bikes. We did it again and stopped to discuss how the bike was behaving.
I guess we got a bit carried away by this whole exercise. Because the more we did it, the more we began to look at other riders on the road with our collars pulled up, as if we were dare devils and the others were poor mere mortals.
And then, even as we were riding along at 100 km/h with these thoughts in mind, something happened. We heard a roar and something whizzed right past us. I trained my eyes on the fleeting vehicle and all I could decipher before it disappeared, was the image of a silver horse on its hind legs in yellow background. I froze at the realisation of what had just overtaken us. I stopped and and made myself realise that I had just been passed by a product of one of the most traditional, coveted and prized car manufacturers of all times. I had just been passed by a Ferrari.
Looking back at it now, I believe the purpose of the Ferrari there was to make us keep our feet back on the ground. We were getting carried away by doing a 100 km/h on a bike but what had overtaken us was probably capable of doing three times as such. By whizzing past us, the Ferrari had made a statement. It had said, “Get out of my way, boys” and literally, dismissed us from its presence.
I am not doing a comparison here between a 150 cc bike and a multi cylinder car. What I am trying to project is how we realise how minor or small certain things are, when we understand what exactly is the current world standard.
As I think in these lines, it makes me wonder about the current car market in India and the thinking of the Indian public and how it matches up to the world standard.
What was basically a market with just three main players and minimal consumer considerations a couple of decades ago, is now a fast growing, consumer centric multibillion rupee marketplace. With numerous options to choose from and a variety of trim levels for each model, the Indian car consumer is probably at his best possible position.
But what I would like to discuss here is not the growth of the Indian car industry, but rather a certain aspect of it which has been becoming increasingly visible in the recent times. I am talking about the launch of more and more powerful cars which were not a frequent occurrence till about a couple of years ago.
Car launches in India have been taking place at a brisk pace. Some of them stripped down versions of their foreign counterparts and outdated models from their parent concerns. But one thing was evident in all these launches. The fact is that almost all these cars were built or revamped keeping one thing in mind – economy. This was understandable, as India was a growing market. And lower running cost was the primary parameter in the minds of the buyer. More so, in the small car market, as this segment constitutes for about 70% of India’s total car sales. The rising fuel prices, well, added more fuel to the fire.
Engines were detuned or lesser complex ones were used in an effort to reduce prices. Cars which were sold with the latest engines with more power outside were being sold with basic lesser powerful ones here. The VW Polo is a very good example. If VW wanted to bring the 1.2 TSI engine to India, it would have taken the price of that car through the roof.
When it comes to the need or rather, the lack of need for higher powered cars, the mindset of the market was right. The density of multi lane highways in our country capable of providing high speed travel is very less. I have heard people, who had been to the west, complaining about the lack of power in cars in India. But considering the conditions in India, there was nothing to complain about. The cars in India were the right ones for our roads. There was simply no need for more powerful ones as there were simply no roads to drive them at high speeds.
But things are slowly changing.
The government has been making plans and implementing the development of four to six lane highways at many places in the country. Even though these works are taking place at a painstakingly slow rate, the signs of the times to come are definite. One drive on any of these new highways and the realisation is immediate. We are going to be able to drive much faster, at least between cities.
I remember the days when I had heard complaints from a friend of mine who found it difficult to overtake a bus in front of him when he was cruising in the top gear of his Tata Indica diesel on a new national highway. He was bad mouthed by an oncoming truck driver as he was only moving parallel with the bus and not able to overtake it in spite of his feet being firmly planted on the accelerator. He had to frantically downshift and rev hard before being able to pass the bus. The same is the story with other small cars. They are apt for city cruising, but if you take them on a highway, you will not be able to sustain high speeds in them. And the car will clearly let you know that it is not happy doing what you are forcing it to. There will be wails, shudders and groans. Try taking an Alto to 120 kmph and you will know what I mean. The drives on these new highways demand cars which can not only cruise anywhere between 100 – 150 kmph, but also have the ability to overtake at these speeds. And hence, we have the need for cars with more power. In my opinion, at least 100 bhp under the hood.
The signs have been evident for the past few years. Fiesta 1.6 petrol and the SX4 came out with 100+ BHP engines. The advertising campaign for the SX4 itself gives us a hint. With captions like ‘Men Are Back’, the emphasis was laid on the more powerful engine. The Optra Magnum followed suit with a 121 PS diesel engine which was new for a mid range car.
This trend has trickled down to cars in the lower segments as well. If we compare two cars from Maruti’s stable, the Zen and the Swift (both from different generations), we can see that these two cars essentially served the same segment for Maruti – the premium hatchback category. But look at the engines used in these cars. One had a 60 HP engine whereas the latest one has an 85HP engine. Fiat started off by offering the 1.6 on the Palio and even though it was not very successful, VW and Skoda have started offering big engine counterparts to their hatches. And we are now hearing rumours that Ford might bring out a Figo 1.6. And their to-be-launched new Fiesta is supposed to be more powerful and efficient than the current generation. The Hyundai RB is also supposed to have more powerful engine options.
All these clearly indicate that the market is slowly but steadily understanding the changing needs of the consumer. Of course, there have been people like me who have been shouting for eternity regarding the need for more powerful cars. But that was the “car freak” in me. And it was understandable that the car companies did not want to experiment for just a handful of people like me. But now, the situation is different. There is a shift in the driving pattern and a car manufacturer that does not understand this and does not serve it, is likely to be left behind.
The slow but definite willingness to make latest technical advances available in India in a cost effective manner, is also helping in this direction. Because these advances mean more efficiency. Which leads to more kilometers per litre without compromising on the power output. The 1.2 K Series engine from Maruti, is a classic example.
Currently, the number of cars in the Indian market with more than a 100 HP on tap and which is accessible for a majority of the car buying public is not very high. But this for sure is going to change. In fact, it has to change. It is a very pleasing sign for car buffs like me.
As I come to the end of these ponderings of mine, I am wondering how ‘being passed by a Ferrari’ made me think in these lines. Maybe, it’s because Ferrari is considered as the epitome by many, when it comes to sheer driving pleasure, which is a result of the power, handling and design.
The cars in India are not heading towards the Ferrari power range. It would be criminal to even think in those terms. But, the point is that cars in India are becoming more powerful. Because, the highways are growing. And, in these highways, the roads are wider. There is lesser congestion. There are more straight lines. And, when there are more straight lines, there is the basic human instinct to move faster. And, when you want to move faster, you stomp the accelerator. And, when you stomp the accelerator, you expect the car to lurch forward. Not hear the sound of engine shuddering and feel that bits and pieces of the car are going to fall off. Which brings us back to the primary need. The need for power.
Maybe, in the near future, most of us can expect to be in cars which can cruise effortlessly at speeds in excess of the three figure mark. Which can overtake at the slightest pressure on the accelerator and do it with a definitive hum and elegance. Which can inspire confidence and put a smile on the face of people like me and you.
‘Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’, goes the famous phrase. It had corrupted my mind long ago. In fact, power and the need for it is the one of the reasons this magazine exists in the first place. And, I am sure it is going to corrupt the minds of millions of others in this country too.