The Amby hogs the limelight again

The big news doing rounds in all automotive websites and blogs over the last few days is the Ambassador (fondly called the 'Amby') being chosen as the world's best taxi by Top Gear, arguably the most popular automotive show on earth that airs on BBC. Famous for their fun-filled, straight-from-the-heart views on cars, the show and its three hosts are so popular that this announcement has given excellent worldwide publicity to the car that literally put India on wheels for more than half a century.

Considering the experiments performed by Top Gear in the past, we all know that the show is pure entertainment for automobile-lovers and the verdicts are to be taken with a spoon of salt. Even then, why aren't we surprised by this verdict then?

It's because we were brought up by a generation that grew up seeing, traveling and dreaming about the Hindustan Ambassador. In those days, choices were strictly limited and life in general was a whole lot simpler. You have got to be either an Ambassador loyalist or a hard-core Fiat fan (That's how the Premier Padmini was called). The Ambassador's victory starts right from that statement. While the Premier Padmini was not able to shake off its origins and was popular as a Fiat, the Ambassador totally overshadowed the Morris Oxford, the British car in which it was based on. The Ambassador had, and still has, such a patriotic influence that its hard to convince many of our countrymen that the Ambassador isn't an Indian car after all.

Who cares though? Its origins might be British, but it was India and the Indians that celebrated the car, treated it as part of their families and gave the Ambassador an iconic and cult status. From being used to transport the visiting foreign diplomats in bullet-proof safety to being left unattended to rust in peace, the Ambassador has seen it all and continues to play an integral part in Indian roads, albeit in a much-less significant way.

The first thing that strikes your mind when you think of an Ambassador is its 'taxi' legacy. For decades, the Amby has been performing the duty of ferrying people and luggage across Indian cities, over broken bridges and unmanned level crossings and through streams and rivers. In all these years of service in India, the Ambassador would have even tackled terrains that would wreak havoc with modern cars. It's big footprint meant that passengers can walk into the car, rather than bending and flexing themselves in. The space and comfort offered by the sofa-life rear bench in the Ambassador is legendary and the ability to squeeze in as much people inside as possible is unmatched to this day. The leaf springs at the rear quite literally gobbles up potholes and pampers the occupants with supreme ride comfort, irrespective of the road conditions. In case things go wrong, every roadside mechanic you spot would have his own fix for getting the Ambassador up and running again.

Agreed, the car takes ages to gain speed, the brakes need more than the weight of two feet to show that its working and turning the non power-steering equipped variants is a royal pain. But, those are for the drivers to worry about. As long as you are a passenger, all you do is sit, relax and enjoy the enchanting views on offer in those large windows. And that's what taxis are intended for, mind it. In that sense, there is nothing quite to match, let alone beat, the coveted Amby of India. Well, all the Ford Crown Victorias and the TX4 Black Cabs of the world, move over please! Let the King march on.


The mystery of Nissan Evalia in India continues

For us at Anything On Wheels, the story of Nissan’s Evalia in India continues to remain a mystery. The part-van part-MPV (Multi-Purpose Vehicle), that made quite a splash as the official taxi in major metropolitan cities around the world and was expected to take the fight to the hitherto-unchallenged Toyota Innova in India, failed miserably. Why did New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai failed to accept something that New York, London, Barcelona and Tokyo embraced?

Look no further than the Evalia itself for clues. The design and styling, a factor that singularly influences most car-buying decisions these days, was a major dud. Agreed, the style quotient is not that important in the MPV segment that Evalia is playing in, but still, it mattered. The absence of certain essential features like, for instance, the captain seats and fully-open-able windows in the middle row, didn’t help either.

While the model itself had its fair share of shortcomings, Nissan is also to be blamed for the Evalia’s disastrous run in India. Apparently, a problem with its marketing agency meant that most dealerships didn’t have stocks of the Evalia when it was launched, thus losing out on very-critical early enquirers. With the exception of a few newspaper and television adverts at the time of launch, there was no sustained marketing efforts to be seen. This was very different from the approach Nissan adopted for the Micra and Sunny, which saw a series of ads every time the market showed signs of coming down. Compare this with what Tata’s relentless efforts in pushing the Aria, a model that has performed as poorly as the Evalia in the Indian market, and you will understand the difference.

All this eventually forced Nissan to stop production of the Evalia in its Chennai plant, as dealers struggled to move out the stocks that they held. Reports that Nissan is working on making some essential changes to the Evalia for a renewed assault against the Toyota Innova and Mahindra Xylo also came in. The rumored changes included the availability of captain seats and open-able windows for the middle row, a redesigned dashboard with a closed glove box and some additional features such as rear washer and wiper. Surprisingly, all these changes have already been incorporated in the Ashok Leyland Stile, an Evalia clone that was unveiled earlier this week and is all set to enter the Light Commercial Vehicle segment as part of the joint-venture between Ashok Leyland and Nissan.

That’s why the sight of this Evalia with ‘On Test’ stickers in Chennai had us excited for a moment. But, the excitement was short-lived, as we realized that this was nothing but the existing model in its international trim. Note the ‘NV200’ badging and the absence of reflectors and chrome strips in the boot-lid that was added exclusively for India to mask the Evalia’s bulk. As the suspense over Evalia’s future continues, let’s hope that Nissan hasn’t given up on this model’s prospects in India already.


Nissan resurrects Datsun brand, unveils 'Go' hatchback

We don't witness a global automotive manufacturer launch a new brand in India often. But, today was one such day, as Nissan relaunched the once-popular but now-defunct Datsun brand at an event in Gurgaon. Targeted towards the emerging markets like India, Indonesia, Russia and South Africa, Datsun is an important part of Nissan's plan to tap the upcoming markets and gain market share. With Datsun relaunched after more than three decades, Nissan now has three automotive brands targeted exclusively for each section of buyers. While Datsun chases the value-conscious buyers, Nissan would continue to cater to the middle-class customers and Infiniti would be aiming for the rich and affluent folks.

In addition to relaunching the new low-cost brand, Carlos Ghosn, President and CEO of Nissan, also unveiled the 'Go' hatchback, Datsun's first model that will go on sale in 2014 at a price less than INR 4 Lakhs. That would pit the Datsun Go squarely against Maruti-Suzuki Wagon-R and Hyundai i10, two top-selling cars in India. With abundant interior space as its trump-card, the new Datsun can attract buyers of the higher variants of Maruti-Suzuki Alto and Hyundai Eon as well.

Looking at the official pictures released by the company, it is clear that the Datsun Go is designed to impress. From the signature hexagonal grille up front that seems to have been inspired by Hyundai's recent design philosophy to the smart rear-end and the sharp creases that dominate the profile, the Datsun Go does look impressive. With a wheelbase that's as long as the Nissan Micra, the interiors are the real talking point of the Datsun Go though. The dashboard is a blend of colours, with two shades of beige nicely complementing the black shade. The dashboard-mounted gear lever and hand brake liberates lot of space between the front seats, which has been put to good use with what would end up being used as a baby seat. While some parts show obvious cost-cutting, few other parts like door handles, air-conditioner vents and buttons are shared with the Micra.

Though the specifications of the Datsun Go aren't released yet, it is expected to be powered by the same 1.2-liter petrol engine found under the hood of the Micra.

Underlining the significance of the Datsun brand and the new small car, Carlos Ghosn, President and CEO of Nissan, said “This is a historic day for Nissan Motor Company and for our customers and partners in some of the world’s fastest-growing markets. It’s also an exciting moment for many women and men here in India who, today, come one step closer to realizing the dream of purchasing a car.”

Following the Go, Datsun is expected to launch a raft of new models aimed at the budget-conscious buyers across the various target markets. With Dream, Access and Trust as its key values, Datsun is Nissan's answer to the Suzukis and Hyundais of the world. Will Nissan's three-pronged strategy work in India? Will Nissan get the positioning of the brands right? Well, wait till 2014 for the answers.


Global sales of Toyota Prius crosses 3 million units

Toyota holds a special place in our hearts for always being a few big steps ahead of its competitors in 'hybrid vehicle' technology and, more importantly, popularizing it to the masses. While most other manufacturers were still contemplating on which amongst 'hybrid', 'pure electric' and 'fuel cell' is the best alternative to internal combustion engines to plonk in their resources and were taking baby-steps towards them, Toyota plunged chest-deep, pooled in its funds and came out with the Prius, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid passenger car, in 1997. Remember, they had no clue then on what would be the result of this highly-expensive experiment.

But now, a decade and half later, Toyota is laughing all the way, with an enormous technical, commercial and marketing lead in 'hybrids' over competitors that are trying to catch up quickly. The Prius, that started off as a single model, has grown into a sub-brand of its own now, encompassing a family of hybrid vehicles. If that wasn't enough, catching up with the Prius just got a bit more difficult as it’s cumulative global sales crossed 3 million units in the month of June-2013. Add the fact that the combined global sales of all ‘Hybrid’ models of Toyota crossed the 5 million milestone earlier this year (March-2013), and it calls for a celebration.

Thanks to Toyota's website, we now know that the Prius was born of a comment made by its president Eiji Toyoda in September-1993. “In the 21st century, is it acceptable to go on making cars the same way? Shouldn’t we rethink manufacturing from the ground up?” were the statements that eventually led to the launch of Prius on October-14, 1997. The car was a result of loads of research done on user-friendliness, body size, design, fuel economy and environmental and social issues in a 21st century automobile, which led to the concept of a motor and engine working together as a "hybrid" system.

The Prius was not a sensational hit immediately on launch. But, slowly and steadily, it became the darling of the automotive industry with both the general public and a host of celebrities embracing the new ‘green’ thing in town. When its sales ended in 2003, the first-generation Prius had found 123,000 customers. The second-generation model, that was launched in 2003 and was on sale until 2011, was more successful and touched a cumulative sales figure of 1.19 million units globally. Launched in 2011, the third-generation model has already raced to 1.69 million units, with the number increasing steadily.

A point to be noted is that these numbers do not include the sales of Prius off-springs like Alpha, c, v, Plug-in Hybrid, etc. which would add up another 0.5 million units approximately.

Though Toyota did launch the third-generation Prius in India, the lack of incentives from the government and the duties and taxes charged on importing the Completely Built Units (CBU) into the country meant that the Prius retails at an astronomical price tag of INR 32 Lakhs ex-showroom Chennai for the top-end variant. Not surprisingly, sighting a Prius on our roads is as rare as spotting an Italian exotic. Here is us wishing to see more Prii (plural of Prius) in India.


Jaguar launches the gorgeous F-Type in India

The Indian landscape just became a whole lot more beautiful, as Jaguar unleashed its gorgeous F-Type in our country today. Well, we might be exaggerating a bit here, but the F-Type is so good-looking that it makes you go weak on your knees. Just look at those incredibly sexy taillights and that curvaceous rear, if you don’t believe us. With the F-Type intended to be the spiritual successor of the legendary E-Type that is widely considered as ‘one of the most beautiful cars ever’, the designers at Jaguar had their work cut out. And boy, have they delivered!

Two variants of the F-Type have been launched in India, the V6 S and the V8 S. At INR 1.37 Crores for the V6 and INR 1.61 Crores for the V8 (Ex-showroom Mumbai), the F-Type is definitely pricey. But, with the Porsche 911 and Audi R8 as its chief competitors, the F-Type isn’t targeted at the regular Joe as well.

For its price, the F-Type comes with a host of technological advancements and features that justifies its positioning. Detailing is top-notch like, for instance, those pop-out door handles that juts out of the body only when they have to be used and the pop-up air-conditioner vents that rises from the dashboard once the ignition is turned on. Agreed, these are just electric motors that are doing nothing but increasing the kerb weight, but it is such detailing that makes you fall in love with the car. The Active Exhaust Note that gets louder at the touch of a button and a retractable soft-top are the other features that the F-Type owners can boast of.

The V6 S variant is powered by a supercharged 3.0-liter engine that puts out 375 bhp of power and 460 Nm of torque. This motor accelerates the F-Type from a 0 to 100 km/h in just 4.9 seconds and gives it a top speed of 275 km/h. The V8 S variant comes with a 5.0-liter supercharged engine that produces 488 bhp of power and 625 Nm of torque. 0 to 100 is reached in just 4.3 seconds and the top speed is limited to 300 km/h. Both the engines are mated to a 8-speed Quickshift automatic transmission.

But, with such a stunning design, are you even bothered about the specs? For once, let the specifications be damned! Go, buy the Jaguar F-Type just for its looks, if the asking price isn't a concern.


Nissan launches Micra facelift, repositions existing model as Micra Active

The Nissan Micra, that was launched in India with much fanfare as the Renault-Nissan Alliance's first model in the country, might not have been a big success in our market. But, the Micra has been a huge success internationally, which meant that the Chennai plant was busy churning out export variants of the premium hatchback. Three years have since passed, and the time has come for a mid-cycle nip and tuck.

There are mid-cycle facelifts that would just make us strain our eyes trying to spot the differences. And there are facelifts that genuinely raises the appeal of a car that is just starting to look outdated. Thankfully, the Micra facelift adopts the latter. Nissan has done a fabulous job of redesigning the front-end of the Micra that was often criticized for looking too curvy and feminine. The new Micra's sharp, peeled-out headlights, the split grille with thick chrome strips, the bigger air-dam with large hexagonal slots and the fog-light surrounds that protrude towards the edges of the front bumper have really transformed the character of the car. Though the profile and rear remains largely unchanged except for the new alloy wheels, LED taillights and a redesigned rear bumper, the Micra now looks a whole lot better than the outgoing version.

The same theme has been carried forward inside as well. The top half of the center console is all-new, with rectangular air-conditioner vents replacing the circular vents of the pre-facelift model. The interiors are refreshing with a mix of brushed metal inserts, surfaces finished in glossy black and chrome touches. The 3-cylinder 1.2-liter petrol and the 4-cylinder 1.5-liter dCi diesel engines are carried over from the old Micra, while the CVT automatic transmission makes its debut in the Micra facelift. While most of its competitors are soldiering on with old-school auto-boxes, Nissan's initiative to bring the advanced continuously variable transmission in the Micra is commendable. The top-end Micra XV Premium comes fully loaded with features that include climate control system, keyless entry and go, Bluetooth connectivity with USB and Aux-input and reversing camera with display in the rear view mirror.

While the three petrol variants - XL, XL(O) and XV CVT are priced at INR 4.79, 5.42 and 6.39 Lakhs respectively, the four diesel variants - XL, XL(O), XV and XV Premium are priced at INR 5.9, 6.43, 6.9 and 7.14 Lakhs respectively.

In what is slowly becoming a norm in India, the previous Micra is not going to be discontinued. Instead, Nissan has given the old Micra a 'blink-and-you-miss' redesign, stripped off as much features as possible and repositioned it as the Micra Active. A basic headlight cluster, a redesigned front bumper, black door handles and mirrors and plastic wheel-caps make the intentions clear. With the exception of the top-end XL (Safety) variant that comes with central locking, EBD and Airbags, the interiors of the other Micra Active variants are stripped down to just the essentials. Targeted squarely at big-sellers like the Hyundai i10 and Maruti-Suzuki Wagon-R that come with petrol engines only, the Micra Active is also available with just the 1.2-liter petrol engine under the hood. What has not changed is the abundant space inside the cabin.

The Micra Active is available in 4 variants - XE, XL, XV and XV (Safety). At INR 3.5, 4.01, 4.3 and 4.71 Lakhs respectively, the Micra Active is tremendous value for money. By doing so, the Nissan Micra is now straddling a whopping two and half segments, hoping to attract buyers from all these segments. Good luck Nissan!


Tata Nano CNG caught testing in Pune

Tata Motors made news last month when they launched eight face-lifted, refreshed and new variants of existing models on a single day. Among them was the CNG variant of the Nano, which was badged as 'emax'. Though the price of Nano CNG was not announced and the model has not gone on sale yet, we know that Tata Motors is planning to launch it as quickly as possible to try and stem Nano's falling sales.

This Tata Nano CNG, spotted testing in Pune a couple of days back, proves that the work is going on in full swing. What catches our eyes first is the 'Nano CNG' badge in this test car, quite different from the 'emax' sub-branding that was unveiled for all the CNG variants of Tata cars last month. Don't let the badge confuse you though. This test car might have been manufactured and put into testing many weeks or even months back, when the marketing strategy to brand it as emax wasn't finalized. Or, it could well be that Tata might just launch the car as Nano CNG, instead of bothering with the emax moniker. Whatever way it is, the CNG variant of Nano is coming soon.

Apart from the bigger air-vents in the rear bumper that is said to aid engine cooling and was officially introduced in the 2013 calendar year model launched last month, the test car was no different from the other Nanos that are plying on the roads. So, expect nothing more than a chrome strip each in the front and rear bumper to bring it in line with the current model year when the Nano CNG goes on sale.

The CNG variant of the Nano comes with a button on the dashboard that lets the driver toggle between gasoline and CNG fuel options. With a 624-cc rear-mounted engine powering the rear wheels, the Nano CNG produces 38 PS of power at 5250 rpm when run in gasoline and 33 PS of power at 5500 rpm in CNG mode. The torque ratings stand at 51 Nm at 4000 rpm in gasoline and 45 Nm at 3500 rpm in CNG. Depending on the fuel running the engine, the fuel gauge alters its reading accordingly, giving the driver a sense of the amount of fuel left on both tanks. The CNG tank is placed beneath the driver's seat and the filling nozzle is tucked under the hood. Just like you do for filling gasoline, pop the car's hood up for filling up CNG too.

With the promise of lesser running costs, the already-efficient Nano becomes even more frugal in the form of Nano CNG. Even if the sales don't pick up drastically, we expect the CNG variant to bring back some excitement into the Nano brand, which should keep it going until the diesel variant comes and shake things up completely.