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Chevrolet Optra Automatic - I'll take an auto

I’ve always thought that cars with automatic transmissions were for sissies. Perhaps it’s ignorance, or just an attitude. Still, as far as I’m concerned, the feeling of driving a car can’t be described as complete if you’re not shifting gears by hand and mashing the clutch with your foot. In my opinion, a script for the ideal driving experience should read like this:

A smooth, flat, deserted stretch of road that eventually leads uphill into a series of wrenching bends. A fast, low-slung, revvy sportscar that handles like a razor-blade glints menacingly in the sun. A heat haze shimmers in the distance. You open the door, sink into the Recaro seat and run your hand over the Momo steering wheel. The key goes into the ignition and the engine burbles to life. You dab the throttle a few of times, luxuriating in the explosive blasts emanating from the exhaust. Your eyes narrow.  Your hand grips the chrome-and-leather gear lever,  you engage the clutch and shift into first. You floor the gas pedal, take your foot off the clutch and shoot into the distance in a cloud of tyre-smoke. Your hands and feet work in perfect harmony as you tear through the revs, shifting gears at exactly the right moment, until you hit a top-whack of about 300 kph. You sight the first bend, shave  off speed, declutch, downshift and hurl the car into it. Tyres squeal, you go sideways, straighten out, give it some gas and carry on as if nothing has happened. Notice that the words ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ have been italicised, illustrating their importance in the process. 

In light of the above, you will appreciate why I wasn’t exactly straining at the leash when I turned up at General Motors’ Gurgaon office and was handed the key to the new Chevrolet Optra, the automatic AT version. I immediately realised that the first line of my script would have to be modified to ‘A dusty, uneven, crowded stretch of road that eventually leads straight into several police barriers.’ Talk about being brought down to earth. But...just then a company driver pulled up in the car and I thought. ‘Hey, wait a minute’...

It’s certainly no low-slung sportscar, but the Pininfarina designed Optra  is an undeniably handsome machine. The car was essentially the top-spec Optra LT with an auto-tranny thrown in and although some may say it’s wedgy, personally I think it has clean, refined lines. The rear three quarter view is especially good and the light clusters at both ends are attractive. It’s definitely more eye-catching than other cars in its class. Maybe this would be fun after all.

Once inside, I settled into the plush leather seat and immediately felt cosseted. There’s nothing like leather to make you feel important! With adjustable height and lumbar-support, driver comfort was superb. The cream-coloured interiors were a tad too...well, creamy, but the faux walnut panelling added a touch of class. Instrumentation was elegant and simple to read, the leather-covered steering wheel had sound system controls (and tiny horn buttons, an irritant), the CD player sounded superb and the AC cooled rapidly. Rear seating was luxurious, with generous leg - room to boot. The nifty sunroof opened in five seconds and made the cabin that much more cheery. Nice!So it looked the business, but could it go? I gripped the gearshift and treaded air where the clutch pedal should have been. ‘Sir, yeh automatic hai sir, no clutch’, the driver said helpfully, obviously pleased at my blunder. Righto, so I stepped on the brake, pulled the shifter down to ‘D’, let go of the brake and I was off. Out of the showroom and into traffic, I soon realised why the vast majority of cars sold in America are automatics – they’re so darned easy to drive, and when stuck in traffic they’re an absolute boon. While others were busy giving their left limbs a work-out, I sat in comfort and only had to move my right foot.

I found a relatively clean stretch of tarmac with a couple of sharp bends, pointed the Optra’s nose towards the straight and floored the gas pedal. The car took off immediately and began accelerating smoothly. Gear changes took place more or less where they would have in a car with manual gears, although there was some amount of lag. By the time I neared the first corner I was doing a speedo-indicated 130 kph, and although I had no timers the car had reached that speed quite rapidly. A light touch on the brakes and I was into the corner, where I learnt a few things.The first was that with disc brakes provided only on the front wheels, braking was a bit spongy and not completely assured. The other was that high-speed cornering isn’t recommended. The car doesn’t like it very much and wants to slide its rear out. There’s also not much steering feedback and rear visibility is hampered by the rear- seat headrests and high - mounted stop lamp. Out of the corner and on to another straight, where I decided to see how it handled when pushed. The car will take you to about 180 kph, but begins to wallow fairly alarmingly after you hit 165 kph. However, any bumps you encounter on the way to these figures will be effortlessly taken in the car’s stride, so full marks to the suspension package.

I spent the best part of an afternoon driving the car in all sorts of conditions, and it really didn’t put a foot wrong. When I handed back the key, I could honestly say that I had had a blast. Here was a car that was good-looking, extremely comfortable, superbly appointed and a snap to drive, especially in traffic. Sure, it didn’t like fast corners and wobbled a bit when going flat out. However, to be  fair, most people buying a car like this will be chauffeur-driven, and any chauffeur who attempts going sideways through corners isn’t likely to be employed for too long. Not too many owner-drivers are likely to try that sort of thing either!

Should you buy this car, then? If you’re looking for sharp handling and a spirited engine, you’re barking up the wrong rev-counter. If, on the other hand, you want to go about your business in a calm, convenient and luxurious manner and want all sorts of goodies thrown in, look no further. 

At Rs 10.28 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) for the fully-loaded LT version, there simply isn’t any other car that can match it for value.This is a whole lot of automobile for your money, and it sure as heck changed my outlook on automatics!