Ambassador

Test of time
It's been around a long time and yet the Ambassador rolls out with a new car smell

There is no room for nostalgia here. It does not take much cerebral energy to condemn the Ambassador as an old product and dismiss Hindustan Motors’ wisdom in keeping it in production. But HM, which also builds the Lancer and the Pajero does not make cars for charity, and if there are around 14,000 people queuing up to buy an Amby every year, not even Karl Marx can question the raison d’être of building it. Now, that’s very close to the number of Ford Ikons sold in this country too. So get it straight, the Ambassador still brings in the money not just for HM, but also for a great deal of people who drive hypothecated Ambassadors as taxis. So who else benefits from it? The country’s legislative,
executive and judicial machinery is more or less controlled from its sofa-like rear seat. Like I have told you upfront, we are not going to look at the Ambassador with sepia tinted eyes; this road test will try to find out what on earth the Amby has to offer that it is so popular even in 2003.

Time-less
Our road test car came wearing a metallic shade of burgundy that was unsuccessful in hiding the car’s imposing size. It was fresh from a long journey from Kolkata and even featured an elaborately decorated West Bengal numberplate. Those who know their Ambys will spot the Mark III-like grille and turn indicators instantly and the only sign of modernity are the radial tyres and plastic-and-chrome door handles. The car does have an air of dignity about it and once it is thoroughly cleaned and polished, seems to represent old economy almost as well as a well maintained vintage or classic
car. I have heard stories of wealthy old men flaunting their diesel-ised,  air-conditioned, jet black-and-chrome Ambys in club parking lots – just to assert that they were rich enough to own one when they were young. 

Take that, IT kids who have bought Corollas in a hurry, your wealth smells as new and is as disposable as your car. In short, a brand new Ambassador can look quite convincing if you know how to flaunt it.But for a nanosecond, let me assume I was in charge of preparing the Ambassador for 2004 – that’s because the 2003 model’s already ready – . I would go back to the press shop, find the dies for the Landmaster and give the Amby the domed-out rear end it would look cooler
carrying around. I would not resort to any plastic bits on its exterior and would revert to those good old thumb-pusher door handles and even a chrome Ambassador label on its flanks rather than on the boot lid. If possible, I would fit it up with a plasto-chrome grille to ape the Landmaster, or for that matter, the Mark I. Essentially, HM will then have a time-warped retromobile with modern innards without even trying hard. Why add make-up when looking gracefully old is absolutely acceptable?

Time capsule
I have been test driving a few SUVs in the recent months and let me tell you the Ambassador’s seating position is similar to that of the Forester, if not the Vitara. There is ample space and enough glass area to grow vegetables inside. A plasticky instrument console tries its bit to make the package look modern, yet there are useful cubby-holes around, while the switchgear is neatly integrated into the console itself. A thoroughly modern seat design with contemporary fabric upholstery is thrown in too. But for some reason, HM is bent on hiding the car’s age, while the classical centre dials,
column shifter and the thin steering wheel with a horn-ring around it would have been just great. Please note, my criticism is bordering on the romantic and from a purely functional point of view, there is little you can complain about right now.

Time machine
Don’t even dare board a flight with the Amby keys in your hand baggage – the X-ray machine is certain to think it is a bread knife. Twist it in its traditional slot, somewhere below the steering wheel and wait for the  glow-plug warning
lamp to go off. The 1995 CC in-line four motor comes to life with an instant roar and the accompanying cold-diesel-engine vibes. In case you are watching the proceedings from the outside, you’ll also witness a brief, black cloud of smoke emanating from the tailpipe – the thickness of the cloud depending on the quality of diesel you filled the last time out. The Isuzu engine, which lost its Japanese roots long back thanks to a localisation routine, is not the most civilised of the diesel powerpacks in town. It is noisy to begin with and sends pre-self destruction vibes when blipped hard. Warm up the motor and it all settles into a slightly untidy but still very audible idle. The five speed,all-synchro floor shifter is easy to master and more so if you have driven Jeep-clones such as the Armada and the Bolero. Yes, lever play is a bit too heavy, but the gears slot surely, without any accompanying curses. Again, the right mindset to appreciate the efforts of a group of engineers who tried their best to make the Ambassador an effortless experience is called for here – the easy power assisted steering being a case in point. Not so long ago I requested my father in-law to sell his Ambassador (Mark II with a Matador diesel under its hood), citing that the effort needed to drive it around was not worth it. The man capitulated, though he cribbed that his new Santro couldn’t carry as many coconuts, how much ever he tried. Maybe I should have steered him towards a brand new Ambassador with power steering. Just maybe.

Time, speed, distance
Slot it into first gear, mash the pedal and it will do 38 kph and nothing more. Second gear is where the action is, and with no intention to embarrass Ambassador aficionados, the car will touch the 60 kph mark in 12.3 seconds. While it can be termed slow off the block in comparison to modern-day diesel sedans and hatchbacks, it compares well with some of the UV people-movers it competes with. The Earth will cover a considerable distance in space around the sun by the time the fluorescent speedo needle of the Amby crosses the 100 kph mark. Remember the days when you peeped at the speedometer of the Ambassador that took you to school and wowed at the indicated (and totally impossible) top speed of 140 kph? Well, those days are gone and the new Amby has a speedo marked a good 20 kph higher. Point that classic bonnet at an arrow-straight road and the Isuzu oil-burner will rev its heart out to dish out a top speed of close to 135 kph.
Modern radial rubber handles such speeds well as long the going is straight. The Amby’s suspension set-up was devised before one Mr MacPherson was born, but thanks to the brilliant 15-inch wheel-tyre combo, the ride over bad roads and potholes is comparable to much more expensive machines. It is not difficult to understand why people double my age still wax eloquent on the rear seat comfort of the Ambassadors they had owned. What is difficult is to get a fix of the dynamics that work under its cavernous body – there is a lot of pitch and body roll but my passengers seemed to enjoy the ride. Heck, some even slept off as if they were being rocked in a cradle.

What the Amby cannot do though is handle fast corners and while I was not really interested in finding out, tell me, how many UVs made in our country tackle twisties proficiently? Whatever road-handling there is in the car is thanks to the tyres, and that means the Amby is not the car I would jump into for a jaunt through my favourite mountain roads. Cycles don’t fly, ships don’t go on rails and the Ambassador shouldn’t be pushed around corners.

Time trial
During our month-long road test, the Ambassador Classic 2000 DSZ Power Steering Bharat Stage II (all these badges are present on the boot lid, really...) managed to return an amazing 14 kpl, and that too on a very consistent basis. It was not driven around gently too; we had our road testers thrashing it around, the photographer using it for his commute,
previous and current Ambassador owners sampling it, the works. Except for a few new noises of protest when such cruelties as 0-100 kph-0 tests were inflicted, nothing went wrong (touch wood, the car is still with us) during this period. Well, almost. The air-conditioner did act up occasionally but that was not a malady that required a visit to the service station – it was just being temperamental. Actually, we kind of like the Ambassador for its genuine attributes of space and economy. After all, 14,000 buyers each year can’t be all that wrong.Do we recommend a buy? We won’t be able to sleep well if we suggest it as a private buy, what with all those quicker, faster and more comfortable sedans and hatchbacks available for slightly more money (the model tested here costs Rs 3.75 lakh on road, Mumbai). Though as a people mover, the new Ambassador is practical and makes economic sense and I only wish drivers took a bit more care in piloting it. The engineers have done their bit in making it drive almost like a modern car but its inherent dynamics are not good enough to understand and comply with the cardinal rules of contemporary vehicle dynamics. Consider this – the Ambassador was designed when crashworthiness was applicable only to flying objects. The counter to that is this – most UVs that the Ambassador competes with in the taxi market have questionable crashworthiness too. 

As our photographer puts it, why should the Ambassador have crumple zones when every other car around it does? That
profound statement somewhat completes the Ambassador equation, right?