20140915

Mercedes-AMG GT breaks cover, goes on sale in 2015

After months of speculation that sent the expectation levels skyrocketing, Mercedes-Benz finally unveiled the Mercedes-AMG GT, heralding the brand’s entry into the lucrative sports car segment. As the name signifies, the GT is the second model to be developed jointly by Mercedes-Benz and AMG, the first one being the big, brutal and striking SLS AMG. 

Of late, Mercedes-Benz has been coming out with strikingly stylish models across all segments and the GT is no exception. What’s most impressive about this new sports car from Mercedes-Benz is the seamless integration of several classic styling cues in a modern avatar. That’s something that the Porsche 911 has always been famous for. While Porsche had several generations of 911s to borrow from, Mercedes-Benz seems to have chosen the legendary 300 SL as an inspiration for the GT. The wide, single-bar chrome grille with the big three pointed star in the middle, the long hood, the fins in the fenders, the dome-shaped roof and the short and stubby rear are strongly reminiscent of the iconic coupe from the past that shot to fame with its ‘gull wing’ doors. The uniquely-shaped LED headlights, the massive air intakes right below, the power domes in the hood, the exquisitely-detailed but narrow taillights, the tapered rear end and the rear diffuser with integrated twin tailpipes are the other standout design elements of the Mercedes-AMG GT. An ode to the past it may be, but the GT is one automobile that is every bit as futuristic as it is retro.


As we have seen in Mercedes-Benz sports cars of the recent past, the ‘aviation design’ theme lends a cockpit-like look and feel to the interiors of the GT. Four central spotlight-style air-conditioning vents and the AMG DRIVE UNIT, which is nothing but a multitude of knobs arranged like eight cylinders in a V layout to signify the V8 engine under the hood, constitute the center console.

A new 4.0-liter, twin turbocharged V8 engine sits under the hood. Placed behind the front axle in a front mid-engine layout, the power is transferred to the rear wheels through a 7-speed dual clutch transmission. The standard AMG GT boasts 456 horsepower at 6000 rpm, a peak torque of 600 Nm at 1600 - 5000 rpm, an electronically-limited top speed of 304 km/h and 3.9 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h. The sportier S variant has the same engine in a higher state of tune. With 503 horsepower to boot, the Mercedes-AMG GT S can accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in just 3.7 seconds and can reach speeds of up to 310 km/h.


The Mercedes-AMG GT is said to have several performance-enhancing features on board such as the AMG RIDE CONTROL sports suspension with electronically controlled damping, three AMG DYNAMIC SELECT drive modes – Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus and an AMG DYNAMIC PLUS package that adjusts the engine and transmission mounts depending on driver’s inputs. As always, we expect Mercedes-Benz to stuff the GT with active and passive safety features of highest caliber.     

Unlike the SLS AMG that competed in the upper echelons of automotive supremacy, the GT is targeted at the Porsche 911, a thoroughbred sports car nurtured and perfected over decades. For you and me, that’s good news, as it means that the Mercedes-AMG GT would be priced a lot lower than the SLS AMG and we could get to see more of these on road.

20140914

Driven #26: 2014 Datsun Go


When Nissan announced the resurrection of its low-cost ‘Datsun’ brand in pursuit of increased sales and market share in emerging markets like India, Russia and South Africa, the automotive fraternity welcomed it with much fanfare. In an era that saw the demise of quite a few brands, this was indeed a welcome move. ‘Go’, an entry-level small car and the first Datsun in 27 years, had a global premiere in India last July followed by a commercial launch earlier this year. With lot of expectations to boot, Datsun Go’s sales in the first few months has been underwhelming to say the least.

Is the Go competent enough to lead Datsun's revival? Should it be enjoying more popularity and sales than it currently does? We find out by taking the top-end variant of the Go out for a quick drive.

TO LOOK AT:


Cars competing in the budget end of the small car segment are not known to have ‘good looks’ in their list of priorities. Take the Alto 800, for instance. It might be the largest selling car in India but it hardly attracts a second glance. In stark contrast, Hyundai Eon tries too hard to look good. That’s probably why the Datsun Go comes across as a whiff of fresh air. It is neither drab nor flashy. There is a surprising level of maturity in its design, the stance and proportions are just right and it isn’t awkward from any angle.


Spearheading the revival of Datsun, the Go debuts a few exclusive styling elements that would be prominent fixtures on all future models of the brand. The signature ‘hexagonal’ grille, that looks quite pleasing with its honeycomb mesh pattern and a thick chrome surround, is one such element. Though the grille looks quite close to that of a South Korean competitor, it lends a touch of finesse and a lot of character to the Go. The Go might compete in the budget end of the small car segment but that hasn't stopped Datsun from putting in lot of efforts to make it look sporty. The prominent creases in the hood, the kinks at the edges of the front bumper and the boomerang-shaped line that signs off an otherwise-staid looking profile hints just that. The interplay of surfaces created by the strong shoulder line, the thick C-Pillar and the arching character line that runs from the rear door to the hatch outlining the taillights on either sides look interesting. The large, rather squarish taillights and the rounded windshield are the highlights of the rear.


On the flip side, the wheel wells that already look empty with those puny tires are made to look further off the mark by the raised body. The tipped-forward stance won’t go well with some onlookers either. All said and done, the Go would end up pleasing most and offending none, which is extremely critical considering the fact that it is gunning first-time car buyers.

Though it isn’t evident at first glance, there are some places where Datsun has cut costs to ensure the pricing is right. The single windshield wiper up front and the lack of insulation under the hood and inside the wheel wells are some of those. Even if you are willing to pay, body-colored rear view mirrors, fog lamps, rear wiper and demister aren’t part of the standard kit even on the top-end variant.

TO SIT IN:


The Datsun Go makes no fuss about the fact that it is a basic car. In fact, the moment you pull the flap-type door handles and open the ultra-thin doors to step in, the first thing that strikes is the barebones interior. The basic steering wheel is quite large but has useful thumb recesses at the right places. The instrument cluster is simple and legible with a full Multi Information Display that houses an odometer, a trip meter and displays for fuel efficiency and distance to empty. This is a welcome move as Datsun has ensured that the driver doesn't have to compromise on the information he needs on the go. Interestingly, the gear-shift indicators are printed in the speedometer itself.


Moving on, we have to admit that the rest of the interiors left us with mixed feelings. The air-conditioning vents, door pads and layout of the center console are borrowed from the bigger Micra and hence, look and feel good. The overall build quality, fit and finish are impressive too and are capable of standing the test of time. The air-conditioner is a chiller and kept us comfortable on a sunny day in Chennai. Three big, plasticky knobs control the air-flow and temperature while a flimsy slider lets you toggle between fresh air and recirculation modes. Ergonomics are a mixed bag. The dashboard-mounted gear lever frees up space between the seats and Datsun has smartly used it to provide nifty seat extensions that has turned out to be a big marketing point. Its usefulness is still a question though. The handbrake lever is oddly placed and its pull-type mechanism takes time to get used to. 

There are a few places where the cabin lets us down. Those two open recesses in the dashboard, one each before the driver and the front passenger, not not only looks spartan but are also sure to invite trouble from prying eyes when parked in a public place. This is one thing that Datsun shouldn't have overlooked. How much are a couple of plastic lids going to add to the overall cost? Another irritant is the absence of a proper music system. The only way to play music is to connect your smart phone through the Aux port. The USB port next to it can only charge your phone! A mobile phone holder is standard though.


The best thing about this car is the space on offer. Based on the Nissan Micra which is from a segment higher, the Go easily trumps the competition and comes out on top, both in terms of passenger space and comfort. The 'connected' front seats and the rear bench are soft, wide and well-blostered, offering adequate support. Crucially, the Go can accommodate five full-sized adults, which is a boon in a country like ours where cars are still a luxury for many. The boot is reasonably spacious at 265 liters but the loading lip is a tad tall.

Standard across the range is the drive computer, follow me home headlamps and a wiper with drop wipe function. The top end variant comes equipped with a power steering, front power windows, central locking, front speakers, wheel covers, body-colored door handles and the mobile docking station. Some features like retractable rear seat belts and internally-adjustable rear view mirrors are conspicuous by their absence.

ON THE ROAD:


The engine norm of this segment is 0.8 liters, with both the Alto 800 and all but one variant of the Eon powered by engines of that size. The Datsun Go, in contrast, has the same 1.2-liter petrol engine from the Micra under it's hood, albeit in a lower state of tune. This 3-cylinder engine has a power rating of 67 bhp at 5000 rpm and a torque output of 104 Nm at 4000 rpm. That gives the Go with a segment-best power to weight ratio. Typical of a 3-cylinder engine, the Go shakes and vibrates a lot at idle. The vibrations do soften out once we get going. The engine is reasonably peppy and the Go accelerates quickly to the ton, compared to the segment standards. The gear shift is a bit notchy but the throws and the gear ratios are well defined. The Go doesn't feel under-powered and could easily keep pace with faster moving traffic, which is impressive. Don't rev the engine much though, it sounds and feels strained as the rpms climb up.


Ride quality is decent at all speeds and the Go doesn't feel unsettled on imperfect roads. Large bumps and potholes do filter into the cabin and so do tire and wind noise. The lack of sound deadening material clearly makes its presence felt. Handling is neutral and the Go goes about with its job in a predictable fashion. In the short open road that we encountered, the Go could easily reach and sustain triple digit speeds and didn't feel nervous when doing so. The steering, which is light at low speeds, weighs up well as speeds build up and that inspires a lot of confidence. This is where we feel Go's association with the Nissan Micra has strongly helped its cause. It doesn't drive, ride and handle like an A-segment car. The Go feels a whole lot matured.

Though Datsun claims a fuel efficiency figure of around 20 km/l, we managed a respectable 15.5 km/l during our drive. That should keep a majority of Indians happy. The 155 mm Strada tires isn't the best out there when it comes to offering good grip levels. They also contribute a lot of decibels on the move. Ventilated discs up front means that the Go offers adequate stopping power. But, watch out under hard braking. The thin tire section and the absence of ABS makes the car a bit nervous.

SPECIFICATIONS:


| Engine Type: DOHC |
| No of Cylinders: 3 |
| Displacement: 1198 cc |
| Maximum Power: 67 bhp @ 5000 rpm |
| Maximum Torque: 104 Nm @ 4000 rpm |
| Transmission Type: 5-speed Manual |
| Tires: 155/70 R13 |
| Brakes: Ventilated Disc (Front), Drum (Rear) |


WE VOTE FOR:

* Neutral styling
* Spacious interiors
* Mature road manners

WE VOTE AGAINST:

* Evident cost-cutting
* Lack of safety features
* Nissan's sparse dealer network

VERDICT:


After spending a few hours with the car, it is evident that the Datsun Go has a lot of strengths up its sleeve. It is spacious, can easily accommodate five, rides and handles pretty well for an entry-level hatchback, boasts more than adequate power and torque figures and it's neutral styling would please all and offend none. Yes, cost cutting is glaringly obvious at many places, quite a few features are surprisingly not offered even as an option and Nissan's after-sales service has a long way to go before they think of competing with Maruti-Suzuki and Hyundai, the two stalwarts they are fighting against in this segment. But, are these big enough to dent the sales prospects of the Go? In our opinion, they aren't and the Go deserves to sell well in our market. We only hope the market is listening and is ready to give Datsun a chance.

| Photography: Bharath Rengaraj |

20140909

KTM launches the RC200 and RC390 in India

KTM stormed into the Indian motorcycle space a couple of years back with the Duke, a naked sports bike that went on to become a huge success. After a long and agonizing wait since they were unveiled at the 2014 Auto Expo in New Delhi earlier this year, KTM finally launched the RC200 and RC390 in India today. Essentially, the RC twins are fully-faired variants of their Duke counterparts and share the basic underpinnings, including the engines, with them. At INR 1.60 Lakhs and 2.05 Lakhs for the 200 and 390 respectively, the RC motorcycles are priced at a slight premium vis-à-vis the Dukes, but are still incredible value for money.


Following a strategy similar to that of the Duke twins, the RC motorcycles look strikingly similar to each other with the body decals being the only differentiator. Sporting a full fairing, menacing twin circular headlamps on a recessed housing and LED daytime running lights, the RC bikes look sharp and futuristic. The exposed Trellis frame painted in the trademark KTM orange shade, the minimalist rear and the split seats are the other standout deisgn elements. On road, the RC is sure to attract envious stares from onlookers.


While the RC200 gets a 200 cc single cylinder engine that generates 25.48 bhp and 19.2 Nm of torque, the RC390 is powered by a 372.3 cc single-cylinder fuel-injected mill that’s good for a whooping 42.9 bhp and 35 Nm of torque. Both the motorcycles get high-specification suspension system from WP, shorter wheelbase (compared to the Duke) and reduced rake angles to complement their track-handling characteristics. To handle the additional power available at the flick of its throttle, the RC390 features a standard Antilock Braking System (ABS) supplied by Bosch. The RC200 sadly makes do without it. Similarly, RC390 sports premium Metzeler tires while the RC200 wears MRF radials.


If the success of Duke 200 and 390 are any indication, we expect the two RC motorcycles to fly off the showrooms as quickly as they enter. After all, with striking design, flickable chassis with more than adequate power on tap, widespread after-sales support from Bajaj and a superb price tag, we would be surprised if they don’t succeed. Now that the Naked and Super Sports segments are tapped, what’s next KTM?

20140904

Maruti-Suzuki unveils Ciaz, aims to topple City and Verna

Despite controlling a lion's share of the Indian passenger car market, we have seen that Maruti-Suzuki is as vulnerable as any other manufacturer when it comes to anything that's not a hatchback. While the Grand Vitara and Kizashi sank without a trace, Baleno and SX4 managed to ruffle some feathers. In what could well be termed as it's most ambitious attempt to crack the mid-size segment, Maruti-Suzuki unveiled the Ciaz sedan earlier this week.

Like the Ertiga and A-Star before, Indians were first treated to the concept version of Ciaz at the 2014 Auto Expo in New Delhi earlier this year. But, unlike those two models whose production versions were severely toned down vis-a-vis the concepts, the Ciaz strays not far off the concept. Yeah, those stunning taillights and cheeky chrome inserts in the front and rear bumpers haven't made it to production, but the overall theme is thankfully carried over.


Drawing inspiration from the 'Concept Authentics' that Suzuki dislayed at the Shanghai Motor Show last year, the Ciaz pleases with a sleek design and near-perfect proportions. These days, when chopped-off boot sections are the norm elsewhere, this comes across as a whiff of fresh air. The bold chrome-lined grille flanked on either sides by projector headlamps, the clean profile with a strong shoulder line and the sharp rear with taillights that bear more than a passing resemblance to a fellow-Japanese competitor from the same segment gel well together. Interiors are neither flashy nor conservative and is dominated by a touchscreen multimedia system in the center console. As usual, the cabin is a mix of beige and black with splashes of dark-brown wood inserts in between. Boasting the largest wheelbase in its segment, passenger space is going to be Ciaz's trump-card. Though the list of features on board isn't officially released yet, we don't expect the Ciaz to be as rich as the Verna or City in content.


The 1.4-liter K-Series petrol and the Fiat-sourced 1.3-liter diesel engines that powers the Ertiga would power the Ciaz too, which is a huge disappointment. For its size and segment, the Ciaz deserves more powerful engines under its hood. Sure, the class-leading ARAI-certified fuel efficiency figures would have majority of Indians drooling, but what stops Maruti-Suzuki from launching a bigger engine atleast in the higher variants? Owing to economies of scale, we are sure Maruti-Suzuki isn't looking at that option right now. Until then, Honda's free-revving 1.5-liter petrol and Hyundai's screaming 1.6-liter diesel engines shall rule.

With prices not announced yet, the Ciaz is still treading dangerous waters but the initial feedback is extremely encouraging. Will the momentum be sustained post-launch and the Ciaz end up being the most-successful Maruti-Suzuki ever in the premium segment? We think it would. With dealers accepting bookings pan-India, let's wait and watch the result.

20140822

Travelogue #12 - Dubai to Jebel Hafeet


It might sound clichéd, but from the moment your AirBus or Boeing descends over the city's skyline till the time you take off on your return flight, the phrase "This happens only in Dubai" resonates oh so often in your minds. Be it the sheer magnificence of Burj Khalifa or the pleasant charm of the Palm Islands, the glitz and grandeur of the swanky malls dotting the city or the clockwork precision of autonomous trains in Dubai Metro, this bustling megapolis is sure to have you smitten.


For all its glory, Dubai has a downer, a rather big one at that. The notorious rush-hour traffic that often brings the city and its suburbs to a standstill can get on your nerves, literally. It did, for us, on a recent visit. Frustrated, we were looking at just two options for the next day - either curl up in our beds and laze around or head out for a long drive that ends in a stretch of tarmac considered to be amongst the world’s best driver’s roads. Obviously, we chose the latter.

So, Jebel Hafeet it was, a decision predominantly driven by the lure of the awesome 11-km final stretch that makes car enthusiasts go crazy. Jebel Hafeet is a popular mountain in the United Arab Emirates, bordering the neighboring country of Oman. At the foothills of this mountain is Al Ain, fourth largest city in the UAE that has a handful of places to keep tourists engaged. With the destination decided, a first-gen Ford Escape with more than 80,000 kilometers on the odo was all we had at our disposal. Quite old no doubt, but it’s a Ford after all! And so, we were good to go.


Next morning, we got moving at 07:00 AM sharp, knowing that’s the only way to evade traffic. The awesome roads in Dubai might tempt us to get excited, but remember the fact that they are constantly monitored and patrolled. Though we had an UAE resident showing us the way, clear directions and exit signs everywhere means that visitors are unlikely to get lost. Wherever one stays in Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (E 11) and Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Road (formerly Emirates Road, E 311) aren't inaccessible. From either of them, follow the exit marked E 66 to end up in Dubai - Al Ain Road.


Wide, smooth and arrow straight for the most part, piercing through vast stretches of sand on either sides and sprinkled with well-behaved traffic that throws no surprises, highways in the UAE can be really boring to drive on. The E 66 was no different. It’s hard to believe that this very road was notorious for accidents and casualties a few years back. Minimum speed limit in the E 66 is 60 km/h while the maximum is 120 km/h for cars. Radar guns are installed at regular intervals to pick up over-speeding vehicles but impatient souls have smarted the technique of zooming well over the limit between the installations and shedding speed just in time to evade the gun. Watch out for them! Entry to Al Ain city is clearly marked and can’t be missed. Coming from the hustle and bustle of Dubai, what struck us immediately was Al Ain’s calm and laidback nature. Roads were reasonably wide, traffic was sparse and, true to its “Garden City” tag, Al Ain had greenery all around.



Since our target was to be at the top of Jebel Hafeet in time for sunset, we had quite a few hours to spare. Our first stop was Al Ain Zoo. Though nothing new, this zoo has a big cat house and an interesting bird cage that’s worth a visit. When it was time for lunch, we headed to “Green Mubazzarah”, a popular picnic spot right at the foot of Jebel Hafeet. Natural hot water springs originate here and form big deep puddles all over the place. Sensing an opportunity, the authorities have developed the place into a full-fledged tourist attraction, complete with lush greenery over the mountain slopes, barbecue grills with shelters and ample car parking spaces. There is a historic dam right next to Green Mubazzarah for those interested in ages gone by. With most of the afternoon spent, it was time to kick off the most-awaited leg of the drive at 04:00 PM.




Measuring 11.7 km from the plains to the top, the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road is a brilliant piece of engineering and a marvelous road to drive on. With two lanes for uphill traffic and one for downhill traffic, this smooth and curvy road can mount a challenge to the best of race tracks in terms of asphalt quality and for the sheer thrill it offers. View points en route offer spectacular views of the road itself and the vast plains surrounding the mountain. Given a chance, we would love to spend an entire day driving the wheels off a sports car up and down the Jebel Hafeet mountain. It’s that good! The statements that we just made might have failed to excite you, but we are sure these pics won’t.




They did set your pulses racing, didn’t they?



We reached the top in no time only to find that the road just abruptly ends in a big parking lot that offers a panoramic view of the plains. Sunset from this place, with cool breeze gushing over you from all sides, is indeed good to experience. There is nothing else to do at the top apart from grabbing a bite in the strictly-average-quality restaurant adjacent to the parking lot. Right opposite to this, a few meters down the road, there is a luxury hotel and a palace belonging to one of the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi. It might seem the most unlikeliest of locations but we can’t stop drooling over the prospect of driving up and down this road to reach the hotel or the palace.


Amidst swears that we are coming back to Jebel Hafeet in a road-hugging, rear-wheel-drive sports car, we started our drive back to Dubai in our trusty old Escape. View of the Al Ain city from one of the view points in Jebel Hafeet mountain and view of the mountain road itself from the plains below with the lights lit up are worth a stop each on the way back. 

THE AUTOMOBILE:




This small SUV from Ford might look like a total misfit to a destination like this but, believe us, the Escape's minimal body roll and predictable handling did let us enjoy those awesome curves that the Jebel Hafeet mountain road had on offer. There was no problem accommodating five of us, all full-sized adults, and the knick-knacks that we carried. What was apparent though was the lack of relative grunt all through the rev range. The Escape was no match to the EcoBoosts, V6s and V8s scorching the roads. Wear and tear resulting from close to a decade of vintage and more than 85K kilometers on the odo also made their presence felt. Some interior plastics had turned pale while the muffler was about to give up soon. Other than that, the Escape did live up to its name and let us escape the mad rush of Dubai, even if it was just for a day.  

TRAVELOGUE STATISTICS:

* Destination: Jebel Hafeet
* Route driven: Dubai - Al Ain - Jebel Hafeet - Dubai
* Total distance covered: 359 km
* Toll & Parking Charges: 0 Dirhams
* Number of days:

* Vehicle Make & Model: Ford Escape 
* Odometer Start: 86576 km
* Odometer End: 86935 km
* Average trip fuel efficiency: 8.2 km/l

* Best time to visit: December
* What not to forget: Plan to be at the top for sunset
* Fun Tip: A fun-to-drive car should be on top of your list of requisites for this drive. The asphalt and those curves are so addictive!  
* Health Tip: Do not forget your sunscreen if you are planning to do this in the infamous Middle East summer.