Deserted highway. Daybreak. The cool night inhabits our eyelids still, but is fading. Wafting, utterly isolated from the romance, at 120-odd kph, is our metal cocoon. The freshly minted daylight flutters loudly behind it like an unsecured tarp. But the indulgent smile I’m about to allow myself vaporises when I realise that the speedo needle disagrees. It points obstinately at 184 kph and it’s still climbing. Now, I’ve ridden and driven a lot faster before so I know what 184 should feel like. The horizon should feel like a viable destination, my vision should narrow so the old porridge in the cranium can process the info and it should not feel this serene. But the Optra Magnum pays no heed. As long as I have the rightmost pedal buried, the needle continues to climb. How much more of this can it take?The question is answered, and only because the road runs out. I lose my nerve and the space I need to carry on like this at 191 kph, and that’s why you’re reading that number in the tech data sheet. From the inside, it certainly feels like if I buried the throttle pedal permanently, the speedo needle would go all the way round, snap the arrestor pin at the end in half and just keep on going. Until it reaches zero again.
In the passenger seat with me is Rohin Nagrani, who has been twitching a little more violently with every 10 extra kph that passes under the needle. When we finally roll to a stop, he reboots, starts breathing again, his eyes refocus and he says, ‘My word!’ Or at least that’s what I make of his short, abrupt, fairly excited exclamation.But he should have known. Ditto I. The new Optra Magnum is no nose job. Under the hood is a 1991cc motor which bristles with 118.8 bhp, and more importantly 32 kgm. Let me put that in perspective. 32 is roughly 8 kgm (only) less than, let’s see, the BMW 525D or the Volvo S80/XC90 and about the same as a Mercedes-Benz C220CDI. Whoa! So when you roll off from standstill, the poor front wheels start spinning wildly. Even after you’ve lifted off in sympathy, there’s enough torque on the trailing throttle for the darn things to keep screaming for a while longer. Welcome, for the umpteenth time, to the new diesel age. Just to get the four-letter word out of the way, GM calls theirs TCDi – we’ve also driven CRDi, CRDe, TDCi and iTDC. Okay that last one is not a diesel engine, but a tourism promotion department of the guv’mint, but you get the drift. Rohin, as usual, has all the jargon in the right order.
‘Basically, it’s a two litre common rail developed by GM-DAT. It is their first diesel engine [which makes it a very impressive effort]. This engine is also likely to power the Captiva SUV, but with a few more horses in the corral and a variable geometry turbo. It retains four-valve sohc format and uses common-rail diesel technology to great effect.’ The engine is impressive and its bulging muscles are almost a byword. You almost expect to see the bonnet skin ripple like a well-tuned forearm would when you lay into the loud pedal.
It isn’t perfect though. When the needle plumbs under 2000 rpm, the car feels like it’s waiting... for the needle to be bounced back above two-grand, so the action can restart. The sweet spot is 2200 to about 3700 rpm where the performance begins to tails off progressively. If you like mechanical noise, you can visit the twilight zone just under the 4500 rpm redline whenever you like. In traffic, the gearing seems to fit. I can’t remember anything about the in-traffic stint, so the car must have behaved itself very well, indeed. I do remember that it absolute smokes everything off the line when the big shiny thing turns green. 60 kph comes in 5.06 seconds, which is faster than the Octavia by 0.6 seconds approximately.
100 kph comes up in 9.84 seconds, which is a significant three and a half seconds faster than the Octavia. In gear acceleration is good too. Both the usual standards,80-120 kph and 100-140 kph can be smoothly hammered in one gear – third and fourth respectively – without any hitches.The five-speed gearbox is almost sporty. The biggest change is the normal dog-leg reverse gear slot, as opposed to the earlier collared, next to first, slot. The shift feel is much better, it slots nicely but full-bore,all-out acceleration messes with the first to second shift – which, Rohin tells me is a very Daewoo trait. However, the rest of car is a different story.
The reason why visual 120 equals actual 180 is the isolation that the Optra Magnum excels at. Like the petrol sibling, the Optra is very Merc-like on this count and you are properly removed from your surroundings. GM’s first diesel sedan since the Astra has a well-weighted steering wheel that returns monosyllabic feedback; the suspension and chassis more or less speak that halting dialect as well. Which prompts me to classify the Magnum as a driver’s car (as in chauffeur) – which is not a bad thing at all in many, many books.
The ride is of a familiar, deliberate, indestructible-feeling quality that many
will appreciate. It makes the car feel large, heavy and also plush. It also thwarts any attempts you make to listen to the contact patches. Braking, similarly, is sure, strong and quick. But it also involves a bit of guesswork. Every time I used the brakes hard, my attempts at fine-tuned modulation invariably involved listening intently for sounds of lock-up. Or ABS coming on and saving my skin. As you can probably
guess, the solid chassis package’s handling traits are also damped a bit by the same phenomenon. Corner speeds have to be reined in until you have spent enough time to gather experience and hindsight.
But to be completely fair, this isn’t new information. The petrol Optra was similar and was never going to singled out as an enthusiast driver’s ride. So, I firmly belted Rohin into the driver’s seat and took up position in the rear seat for a while. I instantly folded into the standard busy executive ergonomic position (no I didn’t fold the front passenger seat-back on to the dash). With crossed legs, a pretend laptop sat on top, and an appropriate frown of concentration, the Optra becomes a potentially 190 kph office. The rear seat feels spacious and comfortable, and Rohin’s attempts at lane changes failed to dislodge the pretend laptop, which is great unless you’ve been whinging at the office for the replacement of your aging motherbrick.
Let’s take a look around the insides. Thankfully, the A-pillars are regular, slim units so the car does not suffer SX4-style continent-hiding blind spots. Our test car was the top-spec LT, so both front seats get airbags, leather interiors (steering, seats and all), a pretty likeable Alpine music system (upgrade speakers for near-audiophile sound though) and alloy wheels. The main key has buttons to lock, unlock and spring the boot open (the other one doesn’t, which strikes me as a bit odd, but what do I know). The aircon is not the automatic variety but twiddle the knobs and Siberia arrives pretty quickly.
If you were to use the driver’s seat – and there is no reason why you should not – remember to lean hard on the throttle pedal to have a laugh. Okay, seriously, if you are driving, you should find the front seats pretty comfortable over long distances.GM have taken care that the diesel motor does not make the Magnum nose-heavy, although we suspect that the heavier motor is one of the factors that robs the steering of feel.
I do have a bone to pick, though. As you can see from the pictures, the Optra Magnum wears the SR-Vs nose. But, while the SR-V Sport package, for instance, looks rather fetching, the Magnum looks just okay. The askew number plate mounting on our test car messes up the front-end a little in the pics, but the curved headlamps are, in fact, at a slight odds with the rest of the angular, masculine looking car. Our test LT trim variant costs Rs 11.67 lakh on-road in Mumbai. That’s roughly Rs 1.3 lakh less than the cheapest Octavia you can buy. However, to equate trim levels between the Octie and the Magnum, you would need another Rs 2.7 lakhs. In my world that is a whopping load of cash. Whoa!Two moons have passed since I first shattered a morning with this car and it’s grown on me. Driving in traffic, I don’t really miss the feedback. I enjoy my sybaritic isolation, and every time the road opens up, a long hard lungful for the engine is enough to dissipate any lingering doubt. The new Chevrolet Optra Magnum is an interesting buying proposition. It makes great sense in value terms and has a diesel engine that’ll take your breath away. It won’t give you the ultimate handing rush, but after you spend some time inside, you will get used to that. What you won’t get used to is the sheer speed it gathers when you allow it to.