Here’s a bet. A diesel-powered car is going to win the legendary 24 hours race at Le Mans this year. If you think I am having a bad day at work, please read about the revolutionary Audi R10 elsewhere in this issue and you will start placing bets yourself. Now let me exceed the envelope and tell you something more – soon, the world will get a Lamborghini SUV powered by a diesel engine that will exchange blows with the likes of the Porsche Cayenne. Time to tear you apart – soon, it is possible that a scarlet Ferrari will roll into the wrong side of a fuel station and queue up behind a row of trucks.
A diesel Ferrari? No, the editor of your favourite motoring magazine does not have a liking for hate mail from tifosi. Instead he thinks he has got an inkling of tomorrow’s performance technology. Enough. I am fresh from a blast in the Skoda Laura, which essentially is the new generation Octavia which Skoda India had to rename since the older model is still doing well in the Indian market. Spending time and energy trying to analyse whether it was a good marketing/ branding move or not is not of much use – the deed has been done, and a thousand Laura jokes are choking up inboxes of Indians around the world. A rather sensuous act involving two girls in the Skoda communication hasn’t helped matters either. But take it from me – a brilliant product will rise above unremarkable communication, insane pricing strategies and even the lousiest of names. And the Laura is a brilliant product.
Let me take you straight to the Mumbai-Pune Expressway on a cold January morning. The Laura was piercing mild fog at 150 kph when I decided to floor the pedal. The turbulence outside was now audible and the 205/55 rubber worn on 16 inch rims was sending a thrum through the seat of my pants. Soon the car was doing an indicated 190 kph. The sight would have been awesome from outside the car – shafts of light piercing the fog and a metallic silver bullet of a car travelling at appropriate velocities. Wow. But to me, there was no surprise element here. That bit was done and kept aside when I first floored the Laura at a traffic signal light. You see, a) you don’t expect too much of turbo-lag from modern day turbodiesel engines, and b) you don’t expect automatic diesels to be so quick off the block. So the first time I floored the right pedal, nothing happened for a nano-second or two, and the only activity I could see was a tacho needle behaving violently, as if a nitrous cylinder was being emptied into the engine head. But then, as the turbo-boost pressure built up and with the tacho at around 3500 rpm, 25 kgm of torque was dumped on the front wheels. What followed was a frantic effort to latch on to the nicely weighted steering wheel and standing on the brakes so that I didn’t alter the original rear-end design of a Swift.
The Laura gets a diesel engine which features VW’s Pumpe-Duse technology and that means instead of using a common-rail to feed the engine, this motor employs four injector-pump units so that pressure is not lost in transit. A more efficient explosion and hence better fuel efficiency and more power is the result. The power thus generated is transferred to the front wheels through a Direct Shift Gear auto-box, yet another VW-Audi Group invention. While the DSG automatic (which uses a second clutch that pre-selects the next gear for you to ensure faster and more precise shifts) works well with petrol engines, providing instant throttle response and sterling performance, the Pumpe-Duse/DSG combination does not alienate turbo-lag completely – or so I felt. But do not think I am cribbing, because trust me, it is nice to have a powertrain that has a bit of character inducing lag followed by an adrenaline rush instead of one with seamless power delivery.
The good part is that the lag does not play any role in the numbers. Zero to 60 kph can be managed in under five seconds and a 100 kph run in 12.2 seconds. The passing speed performance is simply the best we have recorded for diesels, at 9 seconds for 80-120 kph and 13 seconds for 100-140 kph. Sure, the DSG gearbox helps but we believe a simple manual transmission would have made this car even quicker. Lest I forget, there is a Tiptronic facility to the DSG box that lets you shift manually – but then, I found it rather pointless since I was getting all the performance I expected in the auto mode itself. So then, a diesel that is almost as quick and as fast as any petrol-powered car in its class. But the story just begins. The new Golf platform makes the Laura even more sporty thanks to a revised suspension setup and an electro-mechanical steering system. Sharper steering and a perfectly acceptable ride on most road conditions makes driving the Laura good fun. You can slam it into corners alright as long as you keep the engine on the boil (Tiptronic makes sense in such situations), so that you have enough reserve torque to counter the above mentioned turbo-lag. We tried to upset the dynamic balance of the Laura with severe steering inputs at speeds but to no avail. That said, where the steering failed, the right foot succeeded – it was easy to get a whiff of lift-off oversteer, especially at speeds above 120 kph on the highway.Before we forget, the Laura looks handsome from every angle – it is as well-proportioned as pre-Bangle BMWs. The notchback body style liberates enough luggage room for a month’s holiday. Inside, the seats are exceptionally good, and fit and finish almost reaches C-Class levels. I really love the charcoal-finished dash. The only worry was a centre console display that was difficult to read during the day, more so when driving against a blazing sun. Rear seat room is acceptable for a notch, though D-segment dwellers won’t appreciate it much.
We hear, as we go to press, that the on-road price of a Laura will be close to Rs 18 lakh. And I can tell you that every bit of technology that has gone into this car is worth it and makes it a wonderful machine in its own right. But hey, Rs 18 lakh? Isn’t that a bit too much to pay for a car when bigger, quicker, faster (if not as frugal) cars are retailing for Rs 14 lakh? And then, if you really wanted outright performance you would have bought the Octavia RS and learnt how to do doughnuts with it already, right? And if you really wanted economy, then I am certain you are already driving the good old 1.9 TDi and wearing a 21 kpl smirk on your face.
With those Octavia twins still occupying dealership space, I can recommend the Laura to only those who want a new-age, long distance car with lots of safety features and less number of fuel stops – if your hands are up, you have found your next car. Laura and Skoda will certainly be remembered for heralding (that is a 200-year old word) a new breed of diesel engines to a developing market like ours.As for diesel Ferraris, I sincerely hope that happens after I have spent my time on this beautiful planet.