Back in late-2006, Chevrolet was looking to make its presence felt in the Indian market. Buoyed by the response to the Optra, Tavera and Aveo sedan, it felt that it needed to do more. What better than to dive into the small car market with something that was large and spacious. That car was the Chevrolet Aveo U-VA and just one of very few, large B-segment hatches in the country at that point.
The Aveo U-VA had certain strengths, namely ride quality and space. It had just one engine option; a new 1150cc petrol motor with about 75 bhp on tap and a 5-speed manual to take you through the proceedings. What the car did lack was appeal; something the Maruti Suzuki Swift did. And so did the Hyundai Getz too. Sales, were never too great and while Chevrolet would find greater success with the Spark and later the Beat hatchbacks, the Aveo U-VA struggled to get on the uptick. So sometime not so long ago, while the car market was too busy dealing with launches left, right and centre, GM just stopped manufacturing the U-VA, along with the Aveo. And in its place will arrive two replacements; the Sail U-VA that went on sale just two months ago and the Sail sedan, that is just around the corner.
These are the first two of three products from GM's Chinese partner, SAIC to find their way into the country. The next one is the Enjoy MPV, expected sometime in the next few months. So, while GM is getting its act together in a desperate bid to make its presence in India relevant, the B-segment has seen tremendous change since the days of the Aveo U-VA. There are several competitors in the marketplace, and while the Maruti Suzuki Swift has the clear lead in the numbers game, the rest are fighting it out among themselves in a do-or-die situation. One of them is arch nemesis, Ford. The Figo in its own capacity has become a runaway success and has helped turn the fortunes of the company, who were relying too heavily on C-segment sedans to pull them through. And recently, it received a facelift to help keep its strong innings going. Clearly, if GM want to taste success, they do have an example right in front of them.
DESIGN AND ENGINEERING - SAIL U-VA
Designed and developed by SAIC and GM, the Sail U-VA's antecedents go back as far as the Opel Corsa Sail, a hatch that was sold in India in the first half of last-decade. The underpinnings, the suspension and a significant part of the car traces its roots to the now, generations old Corsa, but brought up-to-date by GM. A lot of work on the car was done by the engineers at GM's research centre at Bangalore to give the car a sense of Indian-ness about it.
You can't help but wonder if the Sail U-VA is nothing more than a facelift of the Aveo U-VA at first. The resemblance is a bit uncanny at first, but then it isn't. Notice the upswept headlamps, a clear difference from the Aveo U-VA's droopy-eyed ones. The grille has chrome accents on the higher variants, making the bow-tie look even more prominent. The front bumper has masses of flat spaces, relieved by some clever swoops and creases, though we would have liked if the fog lamps and the recesses to have been a touch larger.
Move to the flanks and the crease line across the length of the doors and the stiffeners at the bottom also provide relief from what would have otherwise been slab sided doors. The glass area is huge and lends the car a sense of airiness. In fact, it also helps the car look longer than it actually is, 3.95 metres to be precise.
The tail is where the car looks rather different from its predecessor. The vertically stacked tail lamps, the large C-pillar and the practically designed boot make it look a bit MPV-ish when viewed dead-straight. Somehow the car doesn't turn heads, hinting at the fact that its design is driven more by the need to be practical than have standout appeal.
DESIGN AND ENGINEERING - FORD FIGO
The task for Ford to put the Figo together may have looked simple, given the company's success with small cars in Europe, but it wasn't. While it is based on the last-generation Fiesta platform, there are significant changes to make the car cheaper to construct, but without losing on the core Ford identity. So engineers from India and Ford's global team got together to figure this one out and they've clearly managed to solve it for sure.
With the facelift, the Figo has managed to keep the good thing going. The revised headlamps and grille make the car look a little more contemporary than its previous avataar. There are changes to the air-dam too, that makes it look more pronounced and less dumpy than before.
While things haven't changed at the flanks, the Figo's large windows too lend it a sense of airiness. The pronounced wheel arches and the new alloy wheels on the titanium version do make the car look somewhat younger too.
No changes to the rear though and that's not a bad thing at all. Neither car is modern-looking or fresh for that matter, but they are designed to be practical and that's what they are.
INTERIORS - SAIL U-VA
The Sail U-VA's sense of airiness can be felt the moment you step inside. Once behind the steering wheel, you can't help but appreciate the great view of the road you get, even though the driver's seat itself doesn't get height adjustment. The tiny windows aft the A-pillar are actually useful, thanks to the pillars themselves being thin. There is heavy use of beige inside to aid this sense of space.
While the seats themselves are rather hard to sit on, both front and rear, there is ample legroom, head room, knee room and shoulder space. Because the petrol tank is placed below the front seats, there is ample room to place small pieces of luggage under the rear seat, while there is some sort of foot rest too below each front seat for the passengers at the rear. The floor itself is quite flat, so three people have enough space to make themselves comfortable. The boot is large enough and the rear seats are 60:40 split that can be flipped flat forward, allowing them to be rather useful during house-shifting duties or the airport run. It's only the hard seats that don't exactly make the car feel plush enough to sit in.
What is also disappointing is the use of cabin plastics. The beige and grey dashboard with the silver accents don't help lift the overall interiors and make it feel a tad shoddy in this class. Our test car had 1,600 km on the clock, but it did show some rattles and squeaks. The doors too close with a tinny thud. The plastic quality on the dashboard isn't up to the mark and the dash itself looks rather sparse. On the LT variant you get a USB and Bluetooth equipped stereo, but the sound quality itself isn't up to scratch. The location of the power window switches on the central tunnel makes it inconvenient and non-intuitive to use. You do get electrically adjustable mirrors and a difficult to read, electronic rpm readout. The instrumentation does look premium, so it somehow provides relief to what are otherwise drab interiors.
INTERIORS - FORD FIGO
The all pervasive black interiors of the Figo looks simple, but is actually quite practical. Step in and the large window area somehow manages to keep the interior feel less drab than it actually is. Drivers here too will appreciate the view outside and that it's actually useful around town.
The centre console gets a silver treatment which feels better quality than the one on the U-VA. Like the U-VA, the stereo comes with Bluetooth and aux-in connectivity, though the stereo here does sound better. The steering is meaty and feels nice to hold, the instrumentation is legible, even though the digits on the speedo and tacho are a bit small. You also get a distance to zero reading, useful when you have to figure your next trip to the fuel pump.
There is ample space here too, especially around the centre console to store knick knacks and bottles. But it's only the occupants at the front who get power windows; those at the rear continue to get wind down ones even on the Titanium variant. Space at the back is decent, the seats are more comfortable than the ones in the U-VA, though it's a few mm less in all areas in terms of space. The front seats though aren't all that comfortable and tend to provide less than adequate support around the central portion of your back.
You will appreciate the boot, though. It's large and flat and is easily accessible. It doesn't have the 60:40 split of the U-VA, but it's practical enough nevertheless.
DRIVE AND DYNAMICS - SAIL U-VA
The Sail is powered by two engine options; a 1.2-litre petrol engine from the Beat that produces 85 bhp instead of 80 bhp and a 1.3-litre, Fiat sourced Multijet diesel engine, badged the Smartech. In fact, the Multijet diesel was originally co-developed by GM and Fiat and GM held on to the rights of the engine even after the two went their separate ways.
The 1.2-litre petrol engine on the Sail is mated to a 5-speed manual. Where the engine is strong is in terms of driveability, especially at lower rpms and the linear power delivery. It isn't the most exciting engine, since it doesn't rev as cleanly as some of its competition, but it finds a sweet-spot in terms of efficiency, driveability and performance. It isn't the kind of engine you would like to thrash, but it does its job decently enough. It gets to 100 kph in under 15 seconds and it's possible to hit a top speed just past 150 kph. Not very exciting, but par for the course. What the engine lacks is the kind of spunk we've seen in the Swift petrol and the hunger for revs. Even the gearbox doesn't help matters here. The gearshifts lack feel and for a while, after start-up when the engine is cold, the gears don't fall into place well. In fact, it's entirely possible to shift into first, instead of third if you aren't careful. And the engine is noisy too. Past the mid-range, there's just too much sound filtering into the cabin. Not good.
But it's the 1.3-litre diesel that you should be looking at. A little different from the ones found on Fiats and Marutis, the diesel engine has a different inlet , exhaust and turbocharger. Power here is rated at 77 bhp, instead of the 74-75 bhp on others. What GM has managed to do is reduce the sudden spike in power when the turbocharger kicks in at 1,900 rpm. It's more linear and makes it a tad more driveable around town. A smidgeon slower to 100 kph than the petrol, the refinement of the diesel is slightly better and it steers a bit better too. It feels more planted on the road, thanks to the higher kerb weight.
The Sail's best part is its ride quality. It has a more mature ride than some sedans and that really does make it good on bad roads, especially the diesel. The petrol tends to feel a bit more skittish and lacks the planted feel of the diesel. On expansion joints, though the car does thud a fair bit. The steering is light and easy to use, but lacks feel and there's some body roll when you go hot into corners on account of the softer suspension setting.
FUEL ECONOMY: The petrol Sail returns about 11.5 kpl in town and a healthy 17 kpl on the highway. The diesel is a bit better at stretching the litre, going to 13 kpl in city and just a tad short of 19 kpl in town.
DRIVE AND DYNAMICS - FORD FIGO
Fords are typically the more fun-to-drive cars and the Figo is no exception. Powering the car is a 1.2-litre petrol motor producing 70 bhp and a 1.4-litre diesel motor that produces 68 bhp. The latter is quite popular in the country, even on the Fiesta and is a proven engine.
The 1.2-litre petrol has decent driveability, though it's no strong hitter. It's designed to be driveable and efficient, and while it scores on the former, it doesn't do so with the latter. It's also down to the fact that the motor is weak and it needs to be revved quite a bit to get going. So you constantly keep slipping the clutch a bit more than on the U-VA and that can take away the fun of driving. Or commuting. What helps the Figo is that the clutch is light and the gearbox action is leagues ahead of the U-VA. It's slicker and more positive to shift, though I get the feeling that Ford have done some cost-cutting here too with the facelift, the shifts lacking that slight decisive edge that the pre-facelift Figo seemed to have.
But, like the U-VA, it's the diesel that scores higher. The performance numbers of the diesel are better too, hitting 100 kph about a second quicker than the petrol and top speed too is slightly higher. What makes the diesel particularly good is the linear power delivery with close to no turbo lag and none of the spikes in power delivery. It doesn't have the torque of the U-VA (20.9 kgm vs 16.4 kgm), but it's easier to control and live with. The downside is that the engine feels noisy, somewhat gravelly too and NVH isn't up to the mark.
Yet, it's more fun to steer. The steering has better feedback, is more predictable and the car feels much tighter when you decide to pelt down a twisting course. The ride does have a firm edge, but it isn't entirely uncomfortable.
FUEL ECONOMY: The petrol is good for 10.8 kpl in city and about 15 kpl on highways. The diesel scores better; about 13.2 kpl in city and 18.5 kpl on the highway.
GM have made some progress with the U-VA, especially in terms of offering a diesel engine option, kitting it up a bit more and even offering a 3-year/100,000 km warranty. However, the fact is the car doesn't feel premium enough, it doesn't steer with the refinement and engineering finesse of its rivals and it just lacks the kind of appeal one has come to expect of cars in its segment; the Suzuki Swift and Hyundai i20. It makes for a sensible car to live with and own, but at the end of the day doesn't have a clear-enough clinching factor.
Ford may have re-done and re-skinned an existing car, but the underpinnings and the meat of the matter was always good. The Figo may be built to a cost, but doesn't feel as much as its American counterpart. It's also cheaper, better loaded and feels richer. Plus it feels better engineered and more fun-to-drive, factors that make for a better living and driving experience. It is our pick of the two.