20150323

Here's how Bajaj can regain lost sales and market-share

Bajaj Auto, the Pune-based two-wheeler manufacturer that once threatened to usurp Hero Honda's dominance, is going through a lean phase. Sales have been on a freefall for several months now, exports aren't compensating and, as a result, share prices have come crashing down we hear. But, we think we know how Bajaj can arrest this fall and come back on track. Of course, some of our suggestions are tough, long-term strategic calls to be taken by the top honchos at Bajaj. But hey, some wrong choices at the top is why Bajaj is where it is right now.

Bring back scooters


It was towards the end of 2009 when Bajaj took the shock decision to quit the scooter segment altogether, one that it dominated for decades with the legendary 'Chetak'. It was a shock, a real rude one at that. It seemed to work for a while but now, a little more than five years later, Bajaj seems to have realized their folly. Whoever in Bajaj concluded that Indians were moving away from scooters sure have got their analysis terribly wrong. The gearless scooter segment witnessed an explosive growth in these five years and Honda rose to the top just on the back of its strong-selling Activa. From Hero to Mahindra, every two-wheeler manufacturer augmented their portfolio with automatic scooters. 

If only Bajaj had worked on an all-new gearless scooter with a 'retro yet modern' styling and named it Chetak, things would have been different. All hope is not lost though. There are reports Bajaj is planning a comeback in scooters and that has to happen soon.

Stop killing nameplates


We knew Bajaj is into this nasty practice of launching and discontinuing new models, variants and nameplates at will. But, we didn't quite see this coming. When we started typing down the nameplates Bajaj brought and withdrew from the market, the list just wouldn't stop. Think we're exaggerating? Nope, not a least bit. Aspire, Bravo, Caliber, CT 100, Eliminator, Kristal, Legend, Rave, Saffire, Sunny, XCD, Wave and Wind were all victims to this strategy. Of course, we have discounted the relaunch of CT 100 here. Launching a new nameplate is no child's play and, by discontinuing so many of them, Bajaj must have lost chunks of time, money and resources. Think of those customers who bought these nameplates, they might have been furious at Bajaj.

There is a reason why Yamaha India, despite having modern entrants like R15, FZ and Fazer in its portfolio, still retains the Crux nameplate. It instills immense confidence in customer's minds, the very factor that Bajaj is fighting against now.

Differentiate individual models with clear positioning


At one point in time, Pulsar was holding close to 70% market share in bikes with displacement of above 150 cc and Discover was regularly challenging the mighty Splendour for the title of world's largest-selling motorcycle. The positioning was perfect. Pulsars ruled the premium segment while Discovers tackled the commuter segment. Alas, that clear demarcation and positioning didn't last long. Bajaj botched up the strategy completely. Discover treaded into Pulsar territory with the 135 and 150 cc variants while Pulsar returned the favour with the 135 LS. Bajaj thought doing so would increase sales of both models but all it did was create chaos, confusion and cannibalization of sales.

If the recent Discover fiasco is any indication, Bajaj hasn't learnt its lessons yet. Between 2012 to 2014, six new Discover variants were launched and three of them discontinued. It is no wonder then that scores of Discover customers have lost faith in the brand completely.

Launch all-new models


No doubt, the Platina, Discover and Pulsar are pulling in thousands of customers every month but that doesn't mean Bajaj has to devote all their time and energy only on them. Ignoring the motorcycles launched under KTM and Kawasaki brands, we don't remember Bajaj launching an all-new model for quite some years now. That's startling, more so when you consider the growing Indian market. New variants and refreshes can only do so much in terms of increasing sales and market-share. New models are what brings in in fresh customers and helps sustain interest in the brand. That doesn't mean we aren't looking forward for the upcoming Pulsar RS 200 and SS 400 though.

It is high time Bajaj ignores the Platina, Discover and Pulsar range. Those motorcycles are doing just fine. All-new models are the need of the hour.

Doing these might not add to the sales tally immediately but would bring in much-needed stability and freshness in Bajaj's portfolio. Customer trust, sales and revenue will slowly follow.

20150322

Let's get, set, Bolt Sport! Shall we?

It might be an Indian brand head-quartered in Pune, but Geneva in Switzerland is where Tata Motors actually comes to life. Famous for its cool, funky and, at times, ugly concepts displayed at the annual automotive event, Tata Motors is also notorious for never letting us see many of those concepts ever again, let alone turning them into production models. Despite that, one concept that Tata had at the 2015 edition of the Geneva Auto Salon continue to stir our collective brains. And that, folks, is this Bolt Sport Concept.

As the name indicates, the Bolt Sport is a more powerful and sportier variant of the Bolt hatchback that was launched in India earlier this year. And boy, does it look hot!


Wearing what Tata calls a 'Fire Engine Red' paint and embellished with a host of visual add-ons, the Bolt Sport looks incredibly sporty. Setting it apart from the regular Bolt are sharper bumpers, a large air dam, side skirts, roof rails, 17-inch six split-spoke alloy wheels, rear diffuser, spoiler and dual chrome-tipped exhaust tips. Overall, the Bolt Sport looks a proper 'hot hatch', one that wouldn't look out of place standing next to cars like Polo GTI, Fiesta RS and Swift Sport in an European parking lot. An all-black interior with red highlights, black upholstery with contrasting red stitching and sporty pedals are the changes inside. There is even a sunroof for added appeal!

Changes are not just skin deep, mind you. Tata Motors is serious about the performance credentials of the Bolt Sport and the car gets a larger turbocharger, a remapped ECU and a high-flow exhaust system that allows the 1.2-liter REVOTRON petrol engine to generate more power and torque. With a maximum power output of 120 horsepower at 5500 rpm and a peak torque of 170 Nm between 2000 to 3500 rpm, the Bolt Sport sure has the go to match the show. With three driving modes to choose from, the car should be a hoot to drive around! Altered gear ratios aiding better throttle responses, a sport-tuned suspension system, lower ride height and front and rear disc brakes with high-performance brake pads complete the technical makeover.

What makes it all the more interesting for us is the news circulating in the media that Tata Motors is looking to launch a performance sub-brand to change its image and positioning. If that's indeed the case, the Bolt Sport would be a perfect fit to spearhead the launch of the new sub-brand. Having seen the strides made by Tata with the Zest and Bolt, we just can't wait to lay our hands on this hot hatch. Now, please Tata, don't make us wait for ages to get, set, Bolt Sport!

20150314

Driven #29: Mercedes-Benz GLA200 CDI


That Indians have a strong affinity towards crossovers and Sports Utility Vehicles is a well-known fact now. But, not all manufacturers could realize this and react on time. Mercedes-Benz, for various reasons, was one of them. While Audi and BMW were able to capitalize on this trend with their X1 and Q3 respectively, Mercedes-Benz didn’t have a crossover to snatch a share of this growing pie. Despite a lot of practical similarities, there's only so much the B-Class hatchback could do. That situation finally changed with the launch of GLA, a grounds-up crossover that could stand on an equal footing against its fellow German rivals.

We drove the GLA 200 CDI in its base 'Style' trim level on and off the road to find out what it has on offer for the crossover clientele.

TO LOOK AT:


Spun off the same Modular Front Architecture (MFA) that underpinned the A-Class, B-Class and CLA, the GLA looks instantly familiar and recognizable. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it is viewed head-on, where the same basic layout shared with the rest of the clan could trick you into mistaking the GLA for something else. But, look closely and you will find a lot of distinct elements that not just serves the purpose of differentiating the GLA but also brings in the much-needed aggression to go with its crossover image.


Up front, the biggest differentiator is the grille. Gone are the studded diamond pins, replaced by relatively-ordinary dual slats with chrome garnishing. As usual, a big three-pointed star logo takes pride of place in the middle. Flanking the grille on either sides are beautifully-shaped headlights that are rounded at the outer edges but steps down mid-way to transform into sharper units as they approach the grille. Projectors and LEDs are standard fare and look appealing. What really sets the ball rolling though is the muscular bumper replete with multiple creases and a brushed-aluminium skid plate. The hood with four prominent slashes gets added brownie points. The profile is all about those beefy shoulders and two distinct character lines. While the first line starts from the headlights and gains prominence as it cuts through the doors, the other one starts from just above the rocker panel and goes upward. The design gets a lot more subtle at the rear with the thick chrome strip connecting the taillights and the twin trapezoidal tailpipes being the highlights.


To justify its crossover tag, the GLA gets the ubiquitous plastic cladding all around. What's refreshing though is, unlike many other crossovers that are victims of "cladding overdose", the GLA gets it in just the right amount. Add to that brushed-aluminium bumper inserts and roof rails and the GLA is one attractive crossover from the outside. Parked next to its competitors - the BMW X1 and Audi Q3, the GLA is sure to attract more eyeballs any given day. 

Though its not too uncommon at this price range, we are impressed with the build quality and the level of attention to detail in the GLA. For instance, the character line running across the silhouette actually originate from inside the headlights in the form of DRL strips. The classy rear spoiler extensions that are finished in glossy black is another example. As always in a Mercedes-Benz, shut lines are consistent and paint quality is superb.  

TO SIT IN:

Thanks to its tall stance, the GLA lets us 'walk' in comfortably. There is no bending and crouching business here. But once inside, a sense of déjà vu sets in and its not hard to understand why. The layout, the dash and most of the interior appointments are a carbon copy of the A-Class and the B-Class and the CLA. You get our point, right? We would prefer each of these models to come with unique cabins albeit with some similarities.


The dashboard is a familiar sight and features a brushed metallic insert that splits it into two. While the top half of the dashboard and the doors are finished in black, the rest of the interiors are an all beige affair. This is because of the dark brown shade that our test GLA was shod with. GLAs painted in white and silver get an all-black cabin, we are told. All that beige together with the panoramic sunroof that covers almost the entire length of the roof make the GLA's cabin feel incredibly bright and airy. The turbine-shaped air-conditioner vents that are now staple fare in Mercedes-Benz cars look fabulous and are great to touch, feel and operate. The center console has an overdose of buttons that are actually quite easy to get familiar with. The sporty three-spoke steering wheel comes with perfectly-shaped thumb recesses and boasts perforated leather finish in the touch points. The intuitive 'gear selector' stalk to the right of the steering wheel may take time to please first-time users but is a real joy to operate.


The instrument cluster has twin circular pods with a comprehensive MID (Multi Information Display) screen in between. In addition to the regulars like odometer, trip meter and fuel consumption details, it also has a nifty ECO display, service reminder and settings for ESP, Attention Assist, ambient lighting and automatic door locking. To our eyes, the 'COMMAND' infotainment screen that appears to pop out of the dashboard looks cool. But, it isn't touch-enabled, doesn't feature high-resolution fonts and images and feels dated. Forget what Audi and BMW offer, this isn't even the latest generation telematics system that the CLA comes with. To toggle through its various functions like radio, BlueTooth telephony, fuel consumption details and clock, the chunky COMMAND controller between the front seats is to be used. Despite multiple attempts, our test car just wouldn't let us pair the two Nexus 4 mobiles we had with us. Probably, its a niggle specific to the test car.


Settling into a comfortable driving position is child's play in the GLA, thanks to the rake and height-adjustable steering wheel and electrically-adjustable seats with a huge range. Both the front seats have memory functions too, to store three positions. The front seats are well-bolstered and offer adequate support at all the right places. The rear seats too are well-designed too and is a comfortable place to be in as long as it is used by two passengers. The fifth passenger has to make do with a high transmission tunnel, less bolstering and a relatively-stiffer backrest. All five seats offer adjustable head restraints though. Boot space without the spare tyre is adequate but with the space-saver strapped on, it appears pretty much useless for anything other than a pair of shopping bags.

This being the base 'Style' variant, there were a few goodies like automatic climate control and rear air-conditioning vents missing. That apart, the GLA is one brilliantly-loaded crossover. What's commendable is the safety kit on offer that include Antilock Braking System (ABS), Brake Assist System (BAS), adaptive brakes, Hill Start Assist, Electronic Stability Program (ESP) with Curve Dynamic Assist, Tyre Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS), Attention Assist, Acceleration Skid Control and seven airbags.

ON THE ROAD:


The diesel GLA that we drove has the same 2.1-liter common-rail diesel engine that's used in the A, B, CLA, C, E and ML-Class in varying states of tune. In the GLA, it churns out 134 horsepower and 300 Nm of torque. For all practical purposes, those numbers would appear sufficient but for a luxury crossover, it isn't. Its more so, when competing models offer significantly more-powerful engines at similar pricing. Mated to this engine and driving the front wheels of the GLA is the familiar 7G-DCT dual clutch automatic transmission.


Turn the ignition on and it is apparent that you're sat in an oil-burner. Refinement levels inside are good for the most part. Like the other MFA-based cars, the GLA too offers three driving modes for us to choose from - Economy (E), Sport (S) and Manual (M). Choose E for relaxed driving inside the city and the GLA up-shifts early as the engine is tuned for fuel efficiency. In the S mode, the throttle response appears to be a lot more eager and the acceleration is brisk, with the car holding onto the lower gears that much longer. For those looking for a sporty drive, the M mode with paddle shifters is the one to opt for. The GLA is still no tarmac-scorcher, mind you! What changes is that the transmission doesn't up-shift until redline and, at those revs, the engine makes quite some groan from under the hood. The claimed top speed is 205 km/h and acceleration from 0-100 km/h is said to take 9.9 seconds. What's more interesting is the ARAI-rated fuel-efficiency of 17.9 km/l. This is one crossover that won't burn a hole in your pocket.


While the A-Class offered a harsh ride quality and the CLA a plush ride, the GLA slots in between them. The ride isn't as harsh as its hatchback sibling but still has a firmer edge to it. Though you are constantly kept aware of the road surface underneath, the GLA dispatches minor bumps and potholes with ease. Sharp ones does filter into the cabin though. Despite its raised body height, handling is well-tuned and the GLA doesn't feel nervous going through corners. Body roll is contained well as long as we don't try anything too adventurous. This is, after all, a crossover and the onus is on us to keep it within its comfortable limits. Stability at all speeds, be it inside the city or out on an open highway, is superb and the GLA stays glued to the road. The steering weighs up as speeds build up but it is not one of the best when it comes to offering a good feedback. Just like any other Mercedes-Benz, braking is brilliant and the GLA sheds speed without creating a fuss.


Thanks to its high ground clearance, we were able to get off the road comfortably without worrying about damaging the underbody. This is where the lack of All Wheel Drive, or '4MATIC' in Merc parlance, was felt. All it took was sand less than a feet deep to stop GLA's progress. If off-roading is what you are after in your next luxury crossover, Audi Q3 with the famed 'Quattro' AWD system would be a better bet.

SPECIFICATIONS:


| Engine Type: CDI (Common-rail Direct Injection Diesel) |
| No of Cylinders: 4 |
| Displacement: 2143 cc |
| Maximum Power: 134 bhp @ 3600 - 4400 rpm |
| Maximum Torque: 300 Nm @ 1600 - 3000 rpm |
| Transmission Type: 7-Speed Automatic |
| Tires: 235/50 R18 |
| Brakes: Ventilated Disc (Front), Disc (Rear) |


WE VOTE FOR:

* Aggressive design and styling
* Excellent build quality
* Extensive feature list
* Neutral road handling

WE VOTE AGAINST:

* Absence of All Wheel Drive option
* Less powerful compared to rivals
* Limited rear seat space

VERDICT:


With the arrival of the GLA, a long-standing gap in Mercedes-Benz India's portfolio doesn't exist anymore. The GLA sports an aggressive design, is well-kitted, offers the usual Merc traits of superb build quality and top-notch safety and also comes with both petrol and diesel engine options. Though its front-wheel drive configuration doesn't aid hardcore off-roading and the diesel engine is less powerful than rival offerings, the GLA's other strong points cover that up well. The problem is, the GLA is a wee bit more expensive than expected. In this segment where value-for-money isn't a make or break criteria, we don't see that impacting GLA's prospects.

Photography: Arun Varadarajan & Aravind Ramesh

20150305

2015 Geneva - Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6 Concept is a sign of things to come from Crewe

Much to the astonishment of those visiting the 2015 Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland, Bentley sprang a ‘green’ surprise. And that came in the form of EXP 10 Speed 6 Concept, a sexy two-seat luxury sports car that hints at a potential new model from Crewe to join an already-desirable model range that includes cars like Continental, Flying Spur and Mulsanne.


Finished in bright metallic green, the EXP 10 Speed 6 Concept is a modern interpretation of all the iconic design cues that we have come to associate with Bentley. It looks chic and contemporary and yet retains all of the traditional elements. Thanks to its long hood, low grille, short overhangs and sloping roofline with broad shoulders, the EXP 10 Speed 6 sports an athletic stance. The twin-circular headlights look fantastic and sport incredible detailing, the three-dimensional texturing in the precision glass notwithstanding. The large mesh grille and the wide air dam that wraps around it from below are neatly executed and exude class. Designers at Bentley have found a way to continue their love affair with the ‘oval’ theme at the rear. The taillights and exhaust pipes bear testimony to that.


The interiors are characterized by two continuous lines running across, splitting the cabin into two individual sections. The center tunnel houses a rather nice-looking 12-inch touchscreen apart from the regular driver controls. Quilted leather and knurled surfaces, two trademark Bentley traits, impart a sense of true luxury while the instrument binnacle combines the best of analog and digital worlds. As we would come to expect, craftsmanship and attention to detail appear top notch, atleast from the images released.


While Bentley has not revealed any details on the powertrain and mechanicals likely to go under the EXP 10 Speed 6 Concept’s skin, it has dropped a firm hint that this show car could influence the design direction of future models from Crewe. That, indeed, is a sign of good things to come!

20150304

2015 Geneva - Mercedes-Maybach S600 Pullman shows us how to live life king size

When the all-new Mercedes-Benz S-Class made its debut 21 months back, it was easily the flagship of the range. It had to relinquish its position last November when the Mercedes-Maybach sub-brand was carved out with the launch of S600 limousine. Just 3 months later, the poor S600 is no longer the flagship Benz. That credit now goes to the Mercedes-Maybach S600 Pullman that debuted amidst much fanfare at the ongoing 2015 Geneva Motor Show.


It's not an irony that the debut of the latest Pullman coincides with the 50th anniversary of the original and best-known Pullman of all time, the Mercedes-Benz 600.


Measuring a whopping 6.4 meters in length with a massive 4.4 meter weelbase, the S600 Pullman is easily the biggest, most expensive and most luxurious limousine bearing the three-pointed star. It is so big that the latest Pullman is actually longer than the erstwhile Maybach 62 and even the Extended Wheel Base version of Rolls-Royce Phantom. Now, that's a real big car!


A 6-liter V12 bi-turbo petrol engine that generates 530 horsepower and 830 Nm of torque powers this behemoth that would, in all probability, end up transporting the heads of state, rulers and royal families. Equipped with an electrically-operated partition between the front seats and the lounge-like passenger compartment, the S600 Pulman offers one of the most luxurious cabins to have ever graced an automobile. You might find that hard to believe, but one look at the images posted above would put those doubts to rest. Draped in finest quality leather, the two executive-style first-class seats at the rear and the two backward-facing fold-down seats offer the best location to seal multi-million dollar deals on the move. The roof-mounted analog dials informs the passengers of the outside temperature, speed and time while the Burmester 3-D Surround System promises unrivalled sound quality and listening pleasure.


Come 2016, a privileged few who could spare more than half a million Euros on an automobile would be able to lay their hands on the Mercedes-Maybach S600 Pullman. If you, by any chance, happen to be one of those lucky few, do let us know. Believe us, all we need is a peep inside the ultra-luxe cabin and nothing else.