In 2013-14, the most ubiquitous car on Indian roads–Maruti Alto–completed a full decade of dominance in the market. It first reached the pole position in 2004-05 when it ended the more than two decade rule of its predecessor Maruti 800. It is not a mere coincidence that as it celebrates 10 years of leadership in the year that also marks the end of the road for the M800. Read more

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Globally, vehicle recalls are a part and parcel of automotive business. Every responsible manufacturer does so for reasons as grave as potential brake failures or airbag malfunctions to seemingly trivial stuff like a defect in the power window switch.

An estimated over 40 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide in the last 10 years (see table). Most of these are in developed countries like US, Canada, Mexico and Europe where there are stringent checks and balances on non reportage of defects in a vehicle.

In the last 5 years for example, recalls have become a major flashpoint in the US. In 2009, Toyota Motor Corp, which had just become the largest car maker in the world, faced a Congressional probe for delayed response to problems with brakes and floor mats in vehicles that could cause the accelerator to become unstuck. It subsequently recalled 10 million vehicles in what remains the largest such exercise till date.

Toyota Innova

In a mirror image of the Toyota conundrum, General Motors is facing much flak from US for delayed response to an ignition problem on its Chevrolet, Pontiac and Saturn vehicles that could prevent the airbags from getting deployed. The company apparently knew about the problem back in 2007 but dilly-dallied on its response. At least 30 accidents and 13 fatalities have been reported due to this in the last 10 years. GM now faces embarrassment and a potential million dollar penalty. A speedy response could have saved some lives.

What these instances prove, more than anything else, is that for all the technological prowess car companies harness, mistakes happen. From a Porsche in Germany to a Proton in Malaysia or Geely in China, everybody has to recall cars at some point of time or the other. No manufacturer can claim to make zero defect, perfect cars. And there is no shame in recalling a bad apple. It only shows you are responsible.

Nissan Sunny

But for long, recall was considered a bad word in India. Till 2010, there are very few instances of manufacturers voluntarily recalling their cars here. The absence of mandatory recall laws meant there was no compulsion either. It created a vicious cycle. If some company went out of their way to recall a car out of transparency, it was seen as a sign of poor quality, bad practices and faced the ire of consumers. It made manufacturers cagey about recalling cars.

Nobody can claim we have perfect cars in India. In terms of quality we are perhaps not even half way there as US or Europe. And not all of it can be brushed under the carpet on price. We live with fewer features and lower safety and emission standards that bring down the price of vehicles anyway. If sophisticated factories in Germany or Detroit cannot make defect free vehicles, there is no reason to believe a factory in India can do the same. Sounds condescending, but so be it.

Chevrolet Tavera

In the past, manufacturers would also identify defects and some would even replace the parts quietly when the cars came to the service stations for periodic maintenance. It served their purpose (a clear conscience perhaps) and to some extent that of consumers as well. But not all cars go to authorised service stations in India and so that discreet way was not foolproof. The need for a mandatory recall provision has been felt for long. And for long, it never materialised.

Thankfully though, there has been a marked change in stance in the last 4 years. Largely due to the deluge of recalls in the US and the explosion of media in India, manufacturers have become more confident about recalling cars here. The consumers today are more aware about recalls happening in other parts of the world and more willing to accept it as a goodwill gesture when it happens in India.

Honda City

A decade ago, the recall of 972 units of the Ford EcoSport barely a week after its launch would have meant hara-kiri. Today, there has been absolutely no impact as consumers are emboldened by the fact that they are taking home a safe vehicle and that the manufacturer would still be working to find out if there are any belated defects even after it has exchanged hands.

Since 2010, almost 800,000 cars have been recalled in India. Last year was a watershed year of sorts with at least 11 instances of recalls. A lot of ground then, has been made. And as the Ford EcoSport’s example clearly suggests–recall isn’t a bad word anymore.

Yet a lot more ground still needs to be made. Our cars may not be as sophisticated as the ones in US and Europe and as consumers we may not be as paranoid as in US either, but there are still a lot of issues that need attention. Home grown car makers like Mahindra and Tata are still averse to calling their service campaigns as recalls. Famously, Tata never called its exercise to retrofit more safety elements on the Nano as a recall even when prima facie, it was one. Similarly, Mahindra vehicles are notorious for inconsistent braking. Yet, there has been only one instance when it has actually offered to replace them carte blanche.

Even on Wednesday, when Toyota recalled 6.58 million vehicles globally, its Indian subsidiary shied away from using the R word. And it happened a day after Maruti remained tight lipped about a problem in its compact sedan Dzire that merits a recall.

After four years of progression, this new found fear of the R word is not only regressive but also perplexing. I just hope it is not the start of anything more sinister.

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Early morning on Sunday, a 25 year old youth, high on alcohol and a misplaced sense of power, rammed his speeding car into an auto driver and then into a road side tea stall. By the time the Chevrolet Cruze came to a stop, two people were dead and three others grievously injured. Read more

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The government’s decision on Monday to reduce excise duties on cars, SUVs and MPVs across the board was so unprecedented that it has created a peculiar problem for the industry.

While the reduction in taxes was much needed and the industry had been lobbying hard for it over the last 6 months, the inventories piled up at with the dealers that were charged at the higher rate of duty is a headache for the manufacturers. And as the sales have been underwhelming over the last 7-8 months, unsold stocks are high both with the dealers as well as the companies’ own supply chain.

On an average, any car maker carries with itself an inventory of 2 weeks and in an ideal situation–10 days. But estimates suggest that currently the inventory level is at least 6 weeks and in some cases stretches to over 10 weeks. In effect, there are some companies where stocks dating back to 2013 are still unsold with the dealer.

On any given day, these cars are a problem and could be very difficult to liquidate. And in cases like this one, when taxes go down, it assumes significant financial implications. While the company and the dealer has paid a higher duty for the car as excise duty is charged at the factory gate, when it actually gets to the intended customer for delivery, the prices would change and customer would be obliged to pay the lower value. It is a situation that results in a windfall when excise duties go up but it turns into a loss to be absorbed when they go down.

Considering that around 150,000 cars are stuck as inventory across the country and the average ex-factory sticker price of a car is Rs 6 lakh (mind you it would include the marquee super cars as well), the entire industry is sitting at a potential loss of Rs 360 crore. This amount would either have to be absorbed by manufacturers entirely on their own, or in conjunction with their dealers. Or, some manufacturers could be inclined to pass on only part of the excise duty reduction to the consumers to account for the loss in inventory.

The peculiar problem is the reason most of the companies have gone into a huddle and were not able to decide by how much prices ought to be reduced. As a car buyer, if you were waiting for the budget you may now laugh your way to the bank at the expense of your manufacturer.

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With an estimated 70 new models and concept cars set to be unveiled – 15 of them for the first time globally – this year’s Auto Expo, which opens to public on February 7, couldn’t have come at a better time for the Indian auto industry. Read more

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For a market that is one of the largest and fastest growing in the world, the performance of European car makers in India has been appalling. Read more

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The Amaze maybe the best thing to have happened to Honda in the last 5 years and in the coming years there would be other more significant products to hit the roads but the City will always hold an important emotional position. Almost like first love. Read more

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1100 kilometres of asphalt – some welcoming, others not so forgiving – across three states, four cars, two scheduled night halts reduced to one and nearly 30 hours of relentless driving. In short, a perfect test for a car that is emerging as the winner of 2013.

The best way to really get under the skin of a car, unearth its hidden vices and put to test its obvious virtues is a road trip. One that is exhaustive on the human body as also the machine and which offers a variety of terrain – from carpeted tarmac to craters on the moon.

Along with six other motor heads, we decided to submit the Honda Amaze through the gas chamber. Why the Amaze? Because it is a Honda, a company that never tires itself of proclaiming its credentials as a quality car manufacturer. Also, because Amaze has its first diesel engine, something that is not quite its forte.

Driving on the usual western ghat sections between Delhi and Goa, or the boring stretches up north around Delhi or even the narrow roads in the South was a passé. Everybody has done that numerous times over. We decided to head to the East and experience some sections where we thought we will find roads untouched by modernity.

Day 1

After a night’s stay at Vizag, the second largest city in Andhra Pradesh and one that has India’s oldest ship yard, we headed out northwards early morning towards Puri, the best known beach destination on the Eastern Coast. A journey of nearly 500 kilometres running parallel to the coast, it ordinarily takes 7 hours to get there. There were an awful lot of surprises though.

For one, getting out of Vizag was a painful exercise that cost us a good hour and a half. On leaving the city, the highway opens up and you get some of the cleanest stretches of road you can get in India. Which exposed almost entirely, the one big problem that the Amaze has… noise.

With endless stretches of glitch free road ahead of us, we throttled the vehicle mercilessly. At various points of time, all four cars were going bumper to bumper at speeds touching 140kmph, the maximum that Honda allows the Amaze to run. One wonders why a car that has a 1.5 litre engine underneath its hood and 100 horses pushing it ahead should have a top speed that is so low. The answer lies ahead.

Every time, the accelerator was floored, the engine noise seeped into the cabin. No amount of careful or careless wheeling around changed that opinion.

Judgment One: This car is indeed noisy.

But at the same time, the stability at high speeds and the confidence that it inspires there is unmatched. Which is why we could go bumper to bumper without a care in the world.

We also realised how deserted the NH5 or as the navigation device would constantly say, the Asian Highway 45, really is. For miles on end at least inside Andhra Pradesh there are no good eateries to be found. An indication of how rarely people travel on these roads.

And there are speed breakers too the kinds one would find only in this part of the country. Willy nilly in the middle of nowhere and in traffic so sparse, you would encounter a jam. A jam that would clear out just as inconspicuously. After encountering such mysteries that may cost you between 15 to an hour of your life’s precious time, a couple of times we finally realised the cause. Whenever political parties need to honour or felicitate somebody in small villages or hamlets in Andhra Pradesh, they encroach the highway, set up chairs, pull up banners and carry on with their festivities. After a good show, the gathering disperses matter of factly in double quick time. As if the traffic chaos around, does not matter at all.

The surroundings change somewhat the moment you enter Odisha. There is more traffic on the road and there are quite a few eateries for the starving. The best part of that is all of them serve and cook very good fish and mutton. The chicken is untrustworthy though as one of the members in our gang realised.

The road stays more or less as faultless. Even though we had heard there were a few stretches in Odisha where work on the Golden Quadrilateral was incomplete, we never encountered any such patch. The most exciting section is when you hit Chilka Lake before turning right for Puri. As the world’s largest fresh water lake, it is a sight not to be missed. Too bad we reached while the sun was setting which restricted the time we could spend there.

Heading out of Chilka, we committed hara kiri. Instead of following NH5 and taking a longer detour via Pipli, we followed the navigation map that gave us the shortest route. Only, that it wasn’t quite the shortest in the real world. Turning right from Bagheiput towards Nua Jagannath Sadak we immediately felt like we had reached moon. The road deteriorated with every passing kilometer to the point that maintaining a speed of even 15kmph was a task.

However, it was a test of the vehicle in conditions that can be found only in India. Through the large craters and over the nonexistent roads, only sporadically did we scrape the floor of the vehicle. And even at the end of the 2 hour ordeal, only the drivers were more relieved. The car remained unfazed.

Judgment Two: The suspension of the car has been well and truly tuned for Indian road conditions.

Day 2

Whatever little time we had to rest our battered bones after 9 hours of driving on day 1, we had to be ready to resume our journey in the morning the next day. Our destination this time was to head to Digha, a fast emerging coastal weekend destination just across the Bengal border.

The distance was a mere 350 kilometers but it was a dark continent for us as we had no prior information on what road conditions await us. To make matters worse, half of the group wanted to visit the Sun temple, which meant a detour of around 70 kilometers. Coming so close to the world heritage site, there was no way we could have given that a miss.

The road from Puri to Konark and then onwards to Cuttack was the most challenging of the whole trip. We had to leave the national highway after just a few kilometeres and let the two lane state highway assault us. The road was narrow with the oncoming traffic on your face but it was very well paved and allowed us to maintain a pretty high speed. It was surprising because nobody had expected such well made state highways in a state that is one of the poorest in the country.

After a brief stop and a hearty meal at Konark we headed towards Cuttack, the second largest city in Odisha. It took us almost the entire day to get there and while we were lucky to bypass Bhubaneshwar, Cuttack was unforgiving. We got stuck for another two hours meddling with the chaotic stop go traffic of the city. As always, the car did not flinch.

On the outskirts of Cuttack, we had to stop for our first refuelling. We had done nearly 665 kilometers in one full tank of 35 litres. Considering the conditions and when the air conditioning was working full time, we got an astounding mileage of 19kmpl. And that is the reason why the top speed of the car is not 170 or 180 kmph though I would presume it is more than capable of it. Higher speed is directly proportional to lower fuel economy. Where would you drive faster than 140 kmph anyway?

Judgment Three: The Amaze diesel gives you an economy that is as good as you can get. Driven sensibly, 20 plus is a given.

By the time we left Cuttack behind, it was early evening and with over 200 kilometers still to go, we were destined to spend the night driving. The road though was kind on us and thin traffic ensured that we were cruising along. We reached Balasore in a jiffy and with the clock striking 10, we stopped over for dinner and a grand idea emerged – of subjecting the car to the extreme test and driving through the night directly to the City of Joy. That meant another 250 kilometers and 5 hours of driving.

With a full stomach and the lure of Kolkata, we took the plunge. What followed was a race with just one pit stop at Kharagpur. We were hell bent to test both our capabilities as driver and the durability of the vehicle. By the time we reached Kolkata it was 4:30 in the morning. The car had been on the road nonstop for over 19 hours. And it never did give us a problem. Not even a niggle.

Final Score:

Distance: 1153 kilometers

Fuel consumed: 64 litres

Fuel economy: 18.01 kmpl

Top speed: 143 kmph

Engine : 1.5 litre IDtec diesel

Max power: 100 PS@3600 rpm

Max torque: 200 NM@1750 rpm

Verdict : Honda passes the diesel test.

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Its lack of sophistication, pedigree and power notwithstanding, the Maruti Gypsy was always a special vehicle. Launched in India back in December 1985 when there were more cows than cars on the road–especially the ones the Gypsy made its own– initially it had a 1 litre 4 cylinder petrol engine. And, was an automatic favourite with rallyists and off road aficionados. Read more

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It has, or if I daresay, had all the markings of a winner. Decent to look at, a capable engine, loads of features and an aggressive price tag. And with the backing of a network as wide as Hyundai’s, the success of the Grand i10 was perhaps a given. Read more

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