March 1, 2011

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Integrated Circuits and Internal Combustion


1996 was a great year. Summer holidays lasted from March till June. The Cricket World Cup was happening, and it was the first World Cup that I was old enough to remember. I remember sneaking off to a neighbour's house to watch an India v Sri Lanka league match, and crying after India lost miserably. I also remember hearing about Jadeja's cameo in the India-Pakistan quarterfinal and the ensuing "Have a nice day" between Aamir Sohail and Venkatesh Prasad. Great memories. It was also the year that we bought our first car. A trusty Maruti Omni that, while being the definition of versatility was also, (luckily for us) extremely low maintenance. Rumour had it that Omnis could and were actually used to provide PG accommodation, as moving restaurants that specialized in 20-rupees-biriyani, as school vans, to transport old aunties home after church, to transport drinks on to the field during cricket matches, to swallow large suitcases that came along with well-meaning relatives from the US and sometimes, very rarely, for driving pleasure.

It was also the first car I learnt to drive, and let me tell you, the Omni was a learner's dream. With no bonnet and with the turning radius of a collapsed compass, it could be driven into gaps meant for household plumbing. Sometimes, I would get carried away with this logic and two massive dents on the left side of the vehicle, one courtesy a stationary auto-rickshaw and the second, the handiwork of a speeding lorry are testament to my occasional complacence. The Omni initially came in 2 variants: 5-seater and 8-seater, although the manufacturers probably overlooked the fact that Malayalis can work wonders with confined spaces; 2 bean bags and a rug at the back could instantly equip the Omni with the seating capacity of a medium-sized multiplex.

So, a couple of months ago, when my parents decided it was time to buy a new car, I took it upon myself to identify a worthy successor, what with all the free time I had at office. What followed was a couple of months of extensive research, market analysis, test drives and brochures. We concluded pretty early on that we were looking for a petrol hatch, since our estimated usage did not warrant a diesel car, and since owning any vehicle larger than a hatch, in Bangalore, would require us to pay property tax and get a Khata Certificate from the BBMP.

The first priceless moment of this exercise was watching the sales guy squirm in his seat as I proclaimed that it would take me some time to get used to the bonnet and power steering on the Chevy Beat, as I took it for a test drive. Not too impressive, it was. Next up, it was time to test-drive the Swift; no need for showrooms, brochures and sales reps here---every middle-class family I know has one. So, the Swift was taken out rather tentatively for a test-drive, since it belonged to my <insert near/distant relative> and suffice it to say that graduating from the Omni to the Swift is sort of like graduating from Russell Peters to George Carlin. The most powerful petrol in this class will have you pinned to your seat in second gear, provides a smooth gearshift, is quite spacious and for the कितना-देती-है? types, offers excellent fuel economy. Trouble is, I was told, that the Swift VXi with ABS comes with a waiting period of about 3 months, within which time a new Swift was to be expected on the market. That, plus Maruti produces more Swifts than Don Bosco Institute of Technology does incompetent engineers. Next came the Fiat Punto. This was really the looker of the group, and although the white Punto bears an eerie resemblance to a ZooZoo, the Punto wins hands down when it comes to the styling and exteriors. The interiors aren't too bad either and you immediately realise that the Punto, like most Fiat cars, is built like a tank. In fact, it wouldn't be a total loss to buy the Punto just for its looks; on the flipside that could sometimes feel like you had married Kareena Kapoor just because she was wearing make-up. Also, since the 1.2 Petrol has the power to weight ratio of a tranquilized Sumo Wrestler and the 1.4 Petrol was out of our budget, we decided against it.

Since Ranbir Kapoor and the button-start together gay-ed up the Nissan Micra, and since the design was not very appealing, we decided against the Micra without bothering to take a test drive. This in keeping with my policy of not buying any product that an incompetent Bollywood actor endorses. Therefore, it will also come as no surprise to you that Hyundai was not too high on our list either, since history has repeatedly shown that Shahrukh Khan will endorse anything from sanitary napkins to lead-based paints, just so long as the price is right. Pretty ironic how Hyundai has to pay a professional actor to tell us that their car is worth buying. Anyway, no i10 or i20 for me; iWOULDRATHERBUYADECENTCAR. With Hyundai and Nissan out of the way, it was time to think local once again.

I soon realized that the Indica Vista is in fact the most powerful hatchback in this segment, with 90 horses on the appropriately named Vista90. Not quite sure how this was overlooked; perhaps because owning a Tata hatch is about as noteworthy as working for TCS. Also, an Indica would probably not guarantee bragging rights among the neighbours. Which brings us next to that rare breed of vehicle manufacturer--Tata's autistic cousin--Mahindra. In an era where every other vehicle manufacturer is trying to shift their focus to the hatchback/sedan segment that caters to a massive middle-class, Mahindra has(with the exception of the Logan) repeatedly tried to shoot itself in the foot, first by acquiring Satyam and then, by managing to keep 3 SUVs in the market, almost simultaneously--the Bolero, Scorpio and most recently, the Xylo. And for those of you that are even remotely considering buying one, please note: SUV stands for Sports Utility Vehicle. Commuting to work is not a sports utility. Also, if you live in Bangalore, and are planning to buy an SUV, I'm guessing you have a lot of evolving to do. For starters, did your mother not tell you that the SUV is not meant for the city? Or are you just hoping that the space it occupies on the road will atone for the space in your pants? Seriously though, if you must drive an SUV, please do not take Hosur Road; make your own road.

Next, it was time for some German engineering. And although the VW Polo impressed in terms of ride and build quality, contemporary styling and interiors, the slightly underpowered 1.2-litre 3-cylinder engine, lack of features such as ABS, airbags, music system on the Comfortline(mid-segment), along with the alarming cost of the Highline, had us convinced that value-for-money on the Polo was pretty low and that a large chunk of the cost could be attributed solely to the legendary brand that is VW. However, the Polo does come with an adjustable tilt-steering that no driver could argue against and a brilliantly smooth gearshift that is way ahead of the competition, as is evident from a very unique mechanism to engage the reverse gear. For a brief while this swayed our opinions in favour of the Polo, but eventually, common sense prevailed.

Italian, German, Korean, Japanese and American cars had been tested by now and somewhere, in the middle of the lot, I had managed to get my hands on the Figo. The Figo Petrol is underpowered, and this is evident immediately. But it is a neat package that screams value-for-money. The Titanium(high-end) comes loaded with every imaginable feature--ABS, airbags, music system, rear defogger, rear wipers and so on. It is probably the most spacious car of the lot, with an incredible boot-space that would continue to "swallow large suitcases that came along with well-meaning relatives from the US." Also, the horsepower of an engine isn't really an overriding factor when you are coasting to Church on a Sunday morning. So, without complicating things any further, we booked the Figo. However, that's not what got me writing this post. The fact that we got 70,000 bucks for a 15-year-old battered Omni was the real shocker. Let me try and put that in perspective.

The Omni was bought for roughly 2.5 lakhs. 15 years on, we still managed to get roughly a quarter of the price we originally paid. Co-incidentally, I also happened to dispose of the Amco battery on my Pulsar a few weeks ago. It had gone dead after about 3 years. 2500 bucks it cost for a new one; I got 300 bucks in exchange for the old. Contrast this to a Pentium4 PC that we bought sometime around '96, for close to 25,000. The P4 is now badly battered, and crashes more often than a low cost carrier in near-zero visibility on a short, wet runway. I recently put up an ad, offering to sell it for 4000 bucks. No takers. Why? Because you can wash your car when its dirty, change the engine oil every 5000 kilometres, replace the clutch plates when they start to slip, replace your tyres when they go bald, top-up your battery when its dead, but what do you do when your remote control/cellphone/electronic gadget is not working as expected?

Take out the batteries. Blow the dust out. Hit it a couple of times. Try again. If all else fails, call customer care and ask for a replacement.

So, in a world where ICs are constantly growing smaller and embedded systems are becoming the norm, it isn't altogether unfortunate that the IC engine and the automobile remain just as reliable, but perhaps more relevant than ever.

3 comments:

  1. Really nice article.. recommended by Rajiv as I'm currently in the process of buying my second car! Am mostly looking at Polo after a few months of test drives, brochures, salesmen, the whole 9 yards. It's been tiresome. But the VW engine purred like a kitty and felt so glorious! I agree with you, its gears are magnificent and don't "stick" like other cars.

    I wanted the Brio in Nov, but its production has now been suspended due to non-availability of parts 'cause of the floods in Thailand, with an expected waiting period of 6 months to a year, if it comes here at all. That's too long, I want it now.

    Polo is a tad expensive, I agree, but I felt that kinda quality is worth paying for. Also because this will be my second car.. need some "level" in life now.. hehe :) I still haven't driven Micra and Figo. Planning to. How's your car, after owning it for a while? Is it amazing?

    Lastly, since you've just bought yours, any advice or things I need to keep in mind, etc? Let me know :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm guessing you're looking for a petrol car? I'd say Bugatti Veyron, Honda Jazz and Honda Brio, in that order...the price of the Jazz has been slashed big time, so for around 6 lakhs, its full paisa-vasool...

    among diesels, definitely the Ford Figo diesel or the Swift, again, in that order...the Figo is a superb package with every imaginable feature, but the petrol variant is not very powerful/fuel-efficient(around 11 kmpl in the city)

    the Micra is decent, if you like cutesy design and catchy colours...

    advice: if you know someone in a government job, try booking it in their name, you'll save around 50k in road tax...also, if you're planning to damage the car, do it before the first service, so they'll fix it for free :D

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  3. I just googled Bugatti Veyron, and the page didn't load for an hour 'cause the price had so many zeroes.

    Jazz is really that less now? 'Cause the VW version I'm looking at is 6 lakhs, with Dec discounts! I shall go check out Jazz then, since I love it too, but always thought it was too expensive. You have any idea if the rear-window leakage issue has been fixed?

    Not looking at diesel since I drive maybe once or twice a week. Don't drive to work. Also, Polo isn't that fuel-efficient either, I think. Some sites say 14, some 17. Not sure.

    Micra is gorgeous I think! Will drive it this week and see how it feels. Unfortunately, I dunno anyone in the govt. Not even at the RTO. So I actually had to give my driving test, and passed on the second attempt :D

    And, not *all* women damage cars. Hmph.

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