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BSM Car Of The Year 2009 - City rules!

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Oops, sorry if that headline made you gulp your cup of steaming coffee. Yes, it is not a small car that has won our Car Of The Year award this time around.
 
Change, as they say, is here to stay. The game has moved a long way since Business Standard Motoring introduced the concept of Car Of The Year to India more than a decade ago. When we gave a formal structure to the COTY evaluation process, it was done in such a way that cars that were affordable to buy and run got the preference over everything else. That meant our enthusiast blood didn’t have much of a say in the matter, with the points structure leaning heavily towards cars that stretched a litre and cost less to own. That meant a series of small cars winning the honours. Maruti Suzuki Alto, Hyundai Santro, Maruti Suzuki Swift, Chevrolet Aveo U-VA, Hyundai i10… all are present in the winners’ rostrum. Sure, the occasional SUV (Mahindra Scorpio) and the sedan (Honda City) did win the honours, still.
 
Times have changed, buying preferences have changed, we do have a more educated customer base and we thought it was time we revised our COTY evaluation process too. So out goes the ‘weightage’ system and in comes a crisp and clear voting format based on the European and Indian Car Of The Year awards. And as the coffee that burned the innards of your mouth would attest, we have a relatively big car taking the honours for 2009.
 
The system and the jury 
As per the new system, a six member jury voted on seven finalists shortlisted from all the cars launched in the calendar year 2008. The elimination process ensured that imported cars and super luxury cars were sorted away to compete for other awards. Cars that are truly made in India and ones that take the game forward when it comes to design, performance, comfort and safety (not necessarily in that order) featured in the final contenders’ list. Each member of the jury was allowed a total of 25 votes which he had to divide between a minimum of five cars after extensively driving the final contenders. 

But the maximum that each jury member could allot to a single car was restricted to 10 points. The six member jury consisted of three road-testers who keep thrashing new cars for a living, one travel writer who subjects cars to real life torture on varied terrain around the world, a former rally champion who can terrorise cars by merely getting behind the wheel and a seasoned enthusiast who owns, rides and drives everything from Kinetics to a Rolls-Royce (yes, his other car is a Rolls-Royce!). Time to get on with the evaluation then.

The contenders
Given a chance, it would have taken only a nano second to arrive at the winner – the Audi R8 is stuff dreams of boys are made of. Alas, it happens to be a fully imported car, that too in rarefied numbers. Ditto the brilliant Audi TT and the eminently huggable Fiat 500. All three, sadly, got eliminated in the first round itself.
 
Amongst the luxury cars were the Honda Accord which seems to do nothing wrong, the fresh-off-the-oven Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Audi A4 that screams ‘sporty’ standing still. These cars were important and would compete for the Business Standard Motoring Premium Car Of The Year 2009 award.
A handful of SUVs, starting from the ever-so-tangible Sumo Grande (an improvement, but not a revolution over the previous model), the Chevrolet Captiva that is a splendid diesel alternative to the Honda CR-V and the refreshingly mould-breaking Mitsubishi Outlander were present too. None of them made it to the final shortlist however, though the Captiva did manage to take home some honours. That left us with seven finalists.    Joint sixth
The Skoda Fabia is arguably the best built large hatchback money can buy in India today. Get into one blindfolded and you will be certain that you are driving a sedan rather than a stubby hatch. Add to that brilliant ride quality over bad terrain and refinement akin to that of far more expensive machinery and you smell a winner. What ruined the equation for the Fabia though is the price. Sure, there is a basic version, but that is way too underpowered and not as refined. Even the premium image the Skoda brand enjoys in India did not find favour with the jury, as it plummeted to the sixth and final slot that it shared with the Tata Indica Vista. Unfortunate, since the Fabia is a far better car than the new Indica.

The Indica Vista is a very important car for Tata Motors. The Fiat derived multijet motor is leagues ahead of the engines that have powered the Indica in the past, and overall, the build quality has improved vastly. Tata never had an issue with ride quality, and the Vista handles well at the speeds that it is capable of achieving. One has got to wait a while to know if the Vista is as reliable as its contemporaries, but we do know that it is economical to run. To quote the jury: The future of the Tata hatchback looks promising if we can take the Vista as a starting point. The jury was suitably impressed (see page VI), but not enough to elevate it to the fifth slot.

Fifth
The Volkswagen Jetta was included in the shortlist since it impressed almost every road tester who drove it. But a very high level of import content means a nasty price tag that spoils the Jetta story in India. As an automotive package, there are not many cars in India that can beat the Jetta – it has the right size, right engine (the diesel option) and right dynamics going for it. To quote the jury: Fifth among seven finalists looks like a raw deal for such an excellent car, but then, one glance at the on-road price of the diesel model (Rs 17 lakh!) and you know why the Volkswagen scored poorly. 

Fourth
A new Toyota Corolla is like another X’mas – full of cheer but you already know the ingredients. Its dictionary meaning should read ‘reliable’ instead of ‘part of a flower’ and there is little that you can fault with the car. The biggest issue with the Toyota is its competition from Japan – the Honda Civic, which looks like a concept car on the road when seen next to the sedate, Camry inspired Corolla Altis. To quote the jury: There are no negatives with the Corolla Altis, but there aren’t any significant strengths either. All said and done, this is not the kind of car that you will wake up on a lazy Sunday morning to drive. Hence the fourth spot.

Third
Hyundai sprang a surprise on us by announcing that they were launching the i20 in the last week of December, and then dropped our jaws by sending in a test car for the COTY evaluations. That meant almost all of the jury drove the i20 for the first time during our evaluations. A hurried road test revealed that the Kappa engine is not exactly energetic enough for the sorted out dynamics of the new car. It certainly is economical and pretty stylish to look at too. To quote the jury: This is one car that we will be recommending a lot in the near future. But an F1 inspired nose and a very ‘green’ motor does not make it as compelling a choice as, say, the Hyundai i10. Winning the third spot in a very competitive year is an achievement in itself though. 

First runner-up
The Maruti Suzuki A-Star is indeed the new Alto. And the entire Alto family (minus the original Zen) is selling well in India. The new small car is indeed a new benchmark when it comes to design, packaging and performance (the little 1000cc motor revs to the moon to keep you entertained!). Add to that safety features available in top-end models and you know that the A-Star would have won handsomely had we retained the old rating system. To quote the jury: This is as brilliant as small cars can get – it is affordable, economical and safe. Despite the small engine, the A-Star is fun to pilot too. The first runner-up slot sadly does not communicate the ability of this car, but it has to be content with it. 

And the winner is...
That, ladies and gentlemen, gets us to this year’s winner. The new Honda City looks stunningly good, is brilliantly packaged and has one of the best engines meant for a car in its class powering it. Reliability  and refinement can be taken for granted too. What is new is Honda’s nod to safety features for its best-selling sedan. Besides this, the new City can return 14 kpl even in traffic and deliver decent 150 kph plus performance when you demand it. To quote the jury: The new City promises the sky with the i-VTEC engine and delivers it too. With one clean stroke, the new Honda sedan has raised the bar and the resulting car is worth every penny you spend on it. An exciting, quality car does not just deserve top honours, it demands it. Congratulations, Honda Siel, for another spectacular win!   Business Standard Motoring Import Car Of The Year 2009 – Chevrolet Captiva

Held captive
Here is a car that has finally put the brakes on the fantastic run that the invincible Honda CR-V has had for so long, mainly because the Chevrolet Captiva chooses to sip the oily stuff. But that, of course, is not the only reason why the Captiva is our Import Car Of The Year 2009 – after all, it had competition from the fabulous Audi R8 and TT and the cheeky Fiat 500 in this category. The Captiva won it for several reasons. It looks good from every angle, has neatly designed and thoughtful interiors and is well-built too. The 2000cc turbodiesel engine is a strong, torquey motor that does a great job of powering the SUV. Besides all these, the Captiva is competitively priced despite being imported. No wonder it wins hands down in this segment this year.

Business Standard Motoring Best Value  2009 – Maruti Suzuki A-Star

A star, all right
Had we retained our previous format for judging our Car Of The Year, there’s no doubt that the A-Star would have been the winner of the top honours.
After all, the previous evaluation method benefited a car that was affordable to many and could run more kilometres on a single litre of fuel. You see, the
A-Star is fantastic value for money and its all-new three-cylinder engine is designed to merely sip fuel. Okay, so it may not be our Car Of The Year 2009, but it still wins our Best Value 2009 award, which the Chevrolet Spark won last year. For the price it’s asking (Rs 4.17 lakh for the top-end ZXi version,
ex-showroom Mumbai), the A-Star is compelling value. Especially when you consider that it includes dual airbags and ABS with EBD among other things. The safety features apart, the A-Star comes with a spunky motor, effervescent lines and superb driving dynamics too. Essentially, the Maruti Suzuki A-Star is a contemporary and refreshing world-class model that’s very affordable.   Business Standard Motoring Premium Car Of The Year 2009 – Audi A4

Audi do it?
You could call the new Audi A4 schizophrenic. The A4 2.0 TDI is powered by a sedate 2000cc four-cylinder turbodiesel that stretches the litre of fuel enough to keep your wallet happy, and on the other hand, the 3.2 V6 Quattro is a manic tarmac-chewing monster that can give established sportscars inferiority complexes. That apart, the new A4 is a brilliant entry-level luxury saloon that manages to capture two diverse worlds – the sporty, driving pleasure you’d get from a BMW and a cosseting, pampering ride that’s usually the prerogative of a Mercedes. Besides straddling all these extremes, the A4 also manages to look youthful and fresh, and of course boasts a high level of quality, equipment, features and attention to detail. A host of new engine options which are on their way will only bolster the A4’s popularity. If there ever was a perfect all-rounder in this segment, it is the A4. Congratulations, Audi!

Business Standard Motoring Jury award 2009  – Tata Indica Vista

Opening up new vistas
The Tata Indica was launched ten years back, and today Tata Motors is the third-largest passenger car manufacturer in the country. Yet, the venerable automotive firm has never won a  Business Standard Motoring  award. But not any more. The new Indica Vista breaks that jinx. Our Jury award is given to a significant car other than the Car Of The Year. And we find the Vista significant because of several reasons. It has taken the Indica’s ‘More Car Per Car’ USP to another dimension altogether. The proven Fiat-sourced drivetrain has managed to put a smile on the driver’s face, while the attention to build quality means the Vista is a nice place to be in. Tata Motors have also taken pains to get the components and aggregates that have gone into the car to a higher level of quality. Now add to this the Indica’s traditionally strong attributes of ride quality, affordability and incredibly low running costs. The manufacturer’s effort to make better cars is now very visible.