Srini drives old cars for a living. All right, that is not exactly correct, as he does a great deal of new car testing away from my eyes. Three-in-one comparisons between front-engined, front-wheel driven cars? Well, my associate editor dearest would churn that out without cribbing. Actually he cribs, but we generally ignore it and pile his plate with even more comparisons.
So it was not amusing to watch him get on with the drive of the Volkswagen Vento with the kind of familiarity normally reserved for a south Indian breakfast. Once on the highway, he started pushing the unsuspecting 1.6-litre diesel for all it was worth. You could hear the engine pray for mercy after submitting every one of its 105 horses available, as Srini slalomed through slow-moving trucks, avoided Splendor riders and spared the life of ‘cows’ of the bovine and human kind that tend to fill up the highway to the capital from Jaipur. You don’t need a music system while Srini is driving — the cabin fills up with highly entertaining expletives that show his multi-lingual flair. But try telling him that — he will play Giorgio Moroder (who?) and Arabic songs while doing all of the above. And to think that he was accompanying me as a photographer this time! Did he like the car? Do you expect a VW diehard who has a bright yellow bug parked in his garage not to like a VW product? Naturally he is biased, but he did mention a thing or two about ride quality and driveability once he was forced out from behind the wheel of the car. Earlier, I was driving the Vento on slightly hilly terrain and was amazed at how driveable the diesel engine was. Slot it into third and you could get 25-plus kgm of turning force working for you as early as 2,500 rpm. In short, one could drive it like an automatic and enjoy the scenery unfolding around you. Mated to a five-speed manual gearbox (no complicated and expensive DSG here), the 1.6-litre engine sends 103-odd bhp at 4,400 rpm and that explains how tactile this motor is. On the negative side, despite being warmed up, the engine seemed to emit a ‘truck-ish’ growl that competed with the continuous drone of expletives provided by a suitably warmed-up Srini. Overtaking requires a timely downshift and without drama, the Vento would leap past slower traffic — nice! The steering, which can be adjusted for rake and height, offers almost nil feel compared to the new Jetta, which I drove recently in America. The Jaipur-New Delhi highway is not exactly my favourite bit of road, thanks to heavy traffic. But as a test driver, there are not many other roads that are as representative of modern India as this one is. For example, there are fast sections where you are doing an average of 80-90 kph (that means top speeds of 120-130 kph) on four-lane tarmac that is smoother than even PR talk. Then, out of the blue, you encounter a series of potholes or undulations that can get the best or the worst of suspension setups. On one occasion, I hit a piece of rough stuff at three-digit speeds while overtaking a truck. Now that could have sent a Swift Dzire, for example, into a tizzy. The Vento shook vigorously but reacted to a firm hold on the steering with utmost respect and held its line.
A classic road-testing moment, where you start respecting the product indeed!
The ride quality is extremely good for a car of its size and you can gun through potholed bits of tarmac knowing that a heavy duty suspension system is guarding your car as it ‘thuds’ through without bottoming out. Handling is pretty neutral for the speeds that the Vento can reach, and hence predictable. In the same breath, this trait makes it a point-to-point car rather than a motorcar with spirit. Push it hard around reducing radius corners and the Apollo Aceleres (great set of rubber indeed) protest at the hint of understeer, but still win the battle of dynamics. On the second leg of the journey, we exchanged keys to drive the petrol version — not the base five-speed manual, but a six-speed automatic variant that costs significantly more (why, pray tell?). The 1.6 Highline was sluggish off the block, but as expected, way more refined than the diesel and develops an identical 103.5 bhp. Slot the selector in Sport mode and the box kicks down earlier and provides for a slightly more entertaining drive. We touched 155 kph before the combination of a slow truck, a cow and loud words in chaste Hindi from Srini made me hunt for the brakes. At these speeds, the car felt more surefooted than its natural competition from Japan. I love the way the Vento looks — because I am a fan of the ‘Scirocco age’ VWs. Take a second look, and you realise that it is a miniature replica of the new Jetta — complete with the C-pillar kink. Getting in and out of this car is easier than it is in many cars in its class, too. Seats, I found, were good for only an hour or so, though they offer adequate support.
The plastic feel and quality may not be what you expect in a German car, but the overall feel is better than that of the Polo. And the red-and-black info-console, though it looks very 1990s, is pretty useful. Brilliant climatronic automatic air-conditioning and a decent CD/MP3 player system with four speakers make up the Highline trim. The Highline models also feature driver and front passenger airbags and ABS as standard, though in my opinion these should have been standard across the board. Srini agreed, with the right adjectives strewn into the above sentence. Deliveries of the Vento start September 6 onward, and there will be five models on offer — three petrol variants (Highline, Rs 823,500; Trendline, Rs 699,000; and Highline automatic, Rs 921,500) and two diesels (Highline, Rs 923,500; and Trendline, Rs 799,000) — all prices ex-showroom Delhi. The stunning pricing means segment leaders Honda will have to sit up and take notice.
All in all, this is a car that I’d like to recommend to friends. As for the petrol version, my heart still lies with a certain i-VTEC-powered car. The VW Vento is to be bought in diesel and in this format it does not have much competition at this price point.
As for Srini, he thinks all of us should drive @#*&ing classic cars!