Life does tend to give you a second chance, but few really know what to do with it or even how to go about bringing themselves back on track. Rewind to the late nineties and you would find Premier Automobiles in just such a situation. With two joint ventures gone bad, a lockout that is still being fought in the courts, losses mounting into hundreds of crores and a nameplate that was about to be wiped out from the face of Indian business, Premier couldn’t have been in a more dire situation than this. Their core competency lost, Premier went back to their sole surviving business of making machine tools and engineering in Pune and it seemed that they would never return to making automobiles. But, Premier was out to prove everybody wrong.
So, in 2004, they came back into the field. They did so by launching a pickup and panel van which we all now know as the Sigma. Sold in a select few states, Premier has seen decent success with these vehicles, producing close to 1000 units each month. And if you thought Premier had banished their past with these commercial vehicles, think again. They brought the 1527cc TUD5 that powered the erstwhile PAL-Peugeot 309, and the Nissan gearbox from the 118NE, back into the Sigma! But they always kept the flame of building cars alive, and so went around doing a market survey.
Since they had a limited production capacity, they wanted to enter a niche that would ensure they could utilise their production capacity of close to 25,000 units completely, and still be modern in build and outlook. The market survey revealed that there existed a need for a cheap SUV that looked just as modern as its larger compatriots yet cost no more than the Suzuki Gypsy at best. They scouted around the world for such a product and found Zotye Auto in China building just one such vehicle — the Zotye 2008. The Zotye 2008 is nothing but a first- generation Daihatsu Terios, built for Kei car regulations in Japan as a mini-SUV. While the Terios was available in four-wheel drive, the Zotye is built as a rear-wheel drive. Premier gets the exact same car, down to even trim and other bits, except for one — the engine. This is the same TUD5 engine, except that it has been reduced by about 40cc to make it a sub-1500cc engine. Add the fact that it is sub 4-metres in length (think excise duty benefit!) and you are looking at a tantalising price tag of around Rs 5 lakh for what will be eventually called the Premier Rio.
At first glance, the Rio looks like a modern SUV that could have been built by any of the mainstream manufacturers. The paint quality is impeccable (the painted panels come from Zotye), the shutlines are pretty tight in most places, the quality of plastic on the side strips and the grille is of high quality and the tyres aren’t measly either, at 205/70 R15. It opens and closes with car-like precision and once you are behind the wheel, it feels car like too!
The interior plastic quality might appear slightly cheap, but it is well fitted and put together. It is basic on the inside, yet feels better kitted out than the Maruti Gypsy or a low-end Bolero. You get air-conditioning and a basic MP3 CD player, but that is only one of the variants. Higher specced out ones will probably get a better-sounding audio unit, some more trim fittings and even ABS and airbags.
The view from the driver’s seat is nice and commanding, even though it lacks steering and seat height adjustment. The compactness becomes immediate, especially when you take a glance at the rear seats and the edges of the car around you. Space at the rear is limited and the floorpan is set high, which results in less legroom and underthigh support, but one must not forget that it is a compact SUV after all. Boot space is better than most hatchbacks and loading is easy.
Since this is an indirect injection turbo diesel, you wait for the glow plug to go off before you crank the engine. The 1489cc engine produces about 64 bhp@4000 rpm and 15.4 kgm of torque from 2250 to 3000 rpm. Due to its slightly archaic design, the engine begins with a clatter and some driveshaft hum and even though it settles down a bit once it’s nicely warmed up, you do get a lot of mechanical noise on the inside, especially from the driveshaft.
This engine is not one that loves to be given the stick, yet it moves reasonably smartly. First gear takes you up to 40 kph, while second settles at 60 kph and third at 80 kph. This vehicle isn’t about outright acceleration as much as it’s about driveability, and the car is fairly driveable. The 5-speed gearbox from Zotye has a light throw, but does not slot with a click or a snick; it’s a bit artificial in its throw. Once you move in a band from 2000-2800 rpm, the car becomes more driveable. It chugs along decently and gets less noisy as speeds increase, but refinement isn’t its forte. We expect it to become better once serial production begins later this month. While the engine is Bharat Stage III ready, the company is planning a seamless move to Stage IV when the norms come into force. That should also mean a further improvement in refinement levels. What doesn’t need work is the ride and handling bit. The car feels tight and grippy and pretty planted. It doesn’t get affected by crosswinds or road undulations, and the power-assisted steering has a decent amount of feel too. This is also because the car weighs just 1145 kg, which is 150-odd kilos heavier than the Gypsy, but still some 500 kg lighter than the Bolero. Ride quality is much better than the leaf-sprung Gypsy and it feels like it could have been set up by the engineers at Tata Motors. It never felt lumpy over evened out roads and didn’t crash into potholes, with the suspension and tyres being perfectly weighed in for the job. In the sub seven-lakh rupee segment, you won’t find an SUV with a better balance of ride and handling.
Which leaves us to debate if it makes sense to buy one. Premier will start with around 20 dealers across India who will retail the vehicle, who are different from those who already retail Premier’s commercial vehicle, so sales and aftersales service should not be a problem going forward. Even though the Premier name carries a negative connotation in the minds of some, we believe that because it will function in a niche, it still has the potential of selling 500-800 units a month. A bit more engineering and it has the potential to even threaten sales of some hatchbacks! Comeback stories don’t get better than this.