Palio Diesel

This month we have yet another convert to the cause of oil-burners, as the Palio goes diesel...

Whether it’s eco-friendly or not may still be debatable, but what’s for sure is that diesel is cheap. Compared with petrol, it saves you about ten rupees on every litre of fuel you buy, and for many, that alone makes a diesel’s noise and vibration bearable. But it’s not only penny-pinchers who opt for diesel these days. With increasing levels of refinement and sophistication, the good old oil-burner is going places - with all categories of buyers. We, at Motoring, have loved the Accent CRDi and our long-term Scorpio 2.6 has been nothing less than brilliant. 

Driveability, once the bane of diesels, is now their selling point. And because more and more people are now willing to at least consider buying a diesel, all manufacturers make it a point to have at least one in their line-up. From Maruti to Hyundai, and from Tata to HM, everyone has clambered on to the diesel bandwagon, and the phenomenon looks all set to multiply manifold worldwide. I still cringe when Bijoy says that a diesel-powered Ferrari might be just a few years away, but then one never knows...  

Status quo?
Which brings us to the Palio D, the new diesel-powered Fiat. Last-generation Fiat diesels, the Uno 1.7D and the old Siena TD60, weren’t spectacular success stories, but that has not stopped Fiat from bringing in a new diesel mill for the Palio, which has been doing well since it was launched in mid-2001. Since its inception, the Palio has garnered praise from all quarters, and is a competent performer in most areas except one. And an important one at that. The perception is that the Palio twins, the 1.2 and the 1.6, tend to guzzle fuel. And when “gaadi average kitna deti hai?” is the pervasive question, the Palio’s mileage figures just don’t work. That’s because it’s seen as a “small car” and people expect those to be frugal with fuel. Which the petrol Palios certainly aren’t. The solution? A new diesel engine that’ll make sure running costs are kept low. 

Except for the badging on the boot, the Palio D looks exactly like its petrol brother, which is fine by me. The Palio’s styling is safe and dependable if nothing more. Inside the car, there is a certain aura of quiet solidity to the car which the Japanese, Korean, and Indian competition don’t have. And though it doesn’t look as handsome as its cousin, the Weekend Adventure (which also gets a diesel variant), the Palio’s proportions manage to work. Two years on, the car’s lines haven’t started looking dated yet.

Inside, we have plastic-wood trim on the front facia (base version gets plain gray plastic), which drew a lot of flak from Messrs Param and Srini, who opined that the earlier ‘aluminium’ finish (plastic painted to look like metal) trim looked much better. Personally, I didn’t mind the fake wood – it’s as good or bad as fake
metal. Fabrics and plastics appeared to be of reasonably good quality, and better than many other cars in this segment. Packaging is a Palio strong point, and the car scores on interior space – for passengers as well as for luggage. It’s a cosy, comfortable place to be, and I wouldn’t think twice before setting out on a long road trip in the car.   

To the wire...
To come to what the Palio D is all about, it is of course, the engine. Fiat claim that this normally-aspirated 1910 CC inline-four diesel powerplant is ‘inspired by aircraft technology’. That is because it uses ‘drive by wire’ technology, which does away with the usual cable link between the throttle pedal and the fuel pump. Instead, an accelerator pedal potentiometer is used. Er... ok, let me explain. This is an electronic device which reads the driver’s inputs at the throttle pedal, converts those to electrical signals and sends them to the ECU (Electronic Control Unit) that governs the car’s digital fuel injection system. In addition to throttle position, the ECU also factors in other parameters before deciding precisely how much fuel it needs to squirt into the engine, so as to ensure maximum combustion efficiency at all times. Phew, that was tough! Can’t get away from electronic wizardry these days, can we? Anyway, what it translates to is 63 bhp at 4500 rpm and 12.2 kgm at 2500. These figures are roughly at par with the diesel Lancer (2000 CC powerplant) or the diesel Indigo (turbo’d 1400 CC engine) and better than the diesel Zen/Esteem (old 1500 CC Peugeot TuD5 engine). Then again, the Palio D is blown away in the numbers game by the Accent CRDi, which manages to put out 81 horsepower and 19.1 kgm of torque from its small, three-cylinder 1493 CC turbodiesel. 

To get away from power figures for a minute, the Palio D doesn’t really feel very sluggish to drive. The engine is quite tractable, and the key to getting the best out of this car is not to over-rev the engine – just use its low-rpm torque to keep the car cruising along briskly. The Palio 1.9D chugged up inclines at slow speeds in third gear, where a Weekend Adventure (petrol), also on test with us at the time, always required a downshift. The diesel Palio keeps up with traffic, and overtaking other cars is also not a problem as long as you time it right. Remember, no unnecessary downshifts - just coast by on low-rev torque. 

Pitting the Palio D against a stopwatch yielded results which we more or less expected. The car turned in a 7.49 sec 0-60 run, and a 17.74 sec 0-100. Top speed on a straight and level stretch of tarmac was 142 kph, which came up in fifth. To put these figures in perspective, the Indigo diesel does the 0-60 in 6.65 sec, the 0-100 in 18.20 and goes on to a top speed of 145 kph. The Esteem diesel does these speeds in 7.58 and 19.99 seconds, and has a top speed of 140 kph. So, pretty competitive, eh? Yes, if you don’t consider the smaller-engined CRDi, which goes to 60 in 5.21 sec, 100 in 12.57 and on to a top whack of 170 kph. But then the CRDi’s also vastly more expensive, so let’s not get carried away here. And while on the subject of speed, I’ll note that though the Palio D was happy cruising along at 120 kph in fifth gear, tyre noise increases progressively from 110 kph onwards, and it’s a substantial roar by the time you reach 140.
The Palio D we tested was riding on 13-inch pressed-steel wheels (the Palio 1.6 GTX gets 14-inch alloys), and tyres were 165/80 Bridgestone S248s. These, combined with the soft-ish suspension set-up, provided good ride comfort. The independent front suspension – McPherson struts, coil springs and stabiliser bar, combined with the torsion axle (coil springs and stabiliser bar) rear is optimised for occupant comfort rather than all-out handling prowess, which perhaps is how most buyers would want it. That said, the Palio D didn’t roll and wallow as much as a Siena. The car handles fast, sweeping bends with a degree of poise and even puts up with a touch of mid-corner braking if you absolutely insist. Overall, the Palio D’s handling isn’t as involving or as brilliantly crisp as that of an Ikon 1.6, but that’s offset by greater ride comfort, which I think would be important for a car in this segment. Italian genes or not, this is supposed to be an economical little family hatchback, so there. 

Those who really care about safety (or maybe that should read those who can afford safety) can opt for the ELX SP variant of the Palio D, which comes with anti-lock brakes and electronic brake force distribution. We did not have a chance to test an ABS-equipped car, but our regular car, with ventilated discs at front and drums at the back, did a 23.16 second 0-100-0 kph run, which is acceptable. During very hard braking, the car did a bit of swaying around and stepped slightly out of line, but things remained controllable nevertheless. The brakes provided adequate stopping power, but could’ve been sharper – some more bite would have been welcome. Maybe it’s time for those rear brake drums to be replaced with discs.

Call of the diesel
Does the Palio D make the grade? Well, it seems to be a sturdy, dependable little car which you can probably count on for the long haul. Performance-wise, it’s a bit staid, but fuel economy is not so bad. We only got around 10 kpl, but that was during testing, which included several high-speed runs and
acceleration and braking tests. For ‘normal’ driving, I suppose you could expect about 12 kpl with the AC on, but only if you exercise some restraint with your right foot. 

Pricing (ex-showroom, Delhi) has been announced at Rs 4,19,500 for the base version, going up to Rs 4,75,000 for the top-end variant which comes with ABS. (The diesel Weekend Adventure has been priced at Rs 6,99,000). This makes the Palio D about fifty thousand rupees more expensive than a diesel Indica V2, but cheaper than a diesel Indigo or a diesel Esteem.

All things considered, I’d say the Palio diesel is fairly good value. It certainly won’t keep you entertained like a CRDi will, but it’s more refined than an Indica and feels better put together than an Indigo. The Palio D’s running costs should be low, and the car will likely be a reliable workhorse for the family. If you’ve decided to go the diesel way, you’d do well to have a look at this one.

Maruti Suzuki Esteem Di / Zen D

Maruti’s diesel duo uses an old Peugeot TuD5 diesel mill (once also used by Hyundai for the now-defunct Accent DLS) that’s not really as slick as current oil-burners. Both, the Esteem and the Zen are dated packages overall, and a diesel engine just adds to the list of woes. Both cars are cramped, noisy, and vibrate a lot. Driving either of these can be something of a chore, but fuel-efficiency is quite good, and running costs are low. Two cheap and cheerful old mules that offer reliable and economical motoring, but soon, it may be time for both of them to go.

Hyundai Accent CRDi
Now we are talking. The Accent CRDi is one diesel that barely feels like one. Step on the throttle, and the car leaps ahead with vigour that’s as surprising as it is pleasant. There is a fair amount of vibration inside the cabin, but if you can live with it, this is a nice, economical and peppy little family car. Contemporary common-rail diesel technology, adequate space and ride comfort are all factors that work in this car’s favour. The CRDi will happily buzz along at triple-digit speeds when you want it to, yet also not present you with a large fuel bill every second day. The car is expensive, especially when compared with other diesel cars in this segment, but we still recommend the CRDi.

Ford Ikon 1.8
The Ikon where Ford fogot to put in the josh. Where the 1.6 and the new Rocam 1.3 are fiesty little packages with vibrant engines and decent handling, the 1.8 diesel just doesn't match up. The car is underpowered, low on refinement, slow and just plain dull. The extra weight of the diesel engine doesn’t help the Ikon’s handling characteristics, and fuel efficiency is no great shakes either. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the 1.6 josh machine, but the diesel Ikon just doesn’t work. The 1.8 might just be suitable for car rental agencies, but that’s about it.

Mahindra Scorpio 2.6
A superb effort from Mahindra, the Scorpio is one UV which is happy playing along, no matter what you do with it. It’s a city car, a people carrier, an off-roader and a utility van - all rolled into one value-for-money package. We at BS Motoring recently completed the One Lap of India (29 states in 29 days) event in this car, and over more than 15000 kms, not once did our two Scorpios even miss a beat. Reliable, reasonably refined (at least far more so than earlier Mahindra cars), comfortable over long haul driving, easy to drive, and fairly frugal with fuel - the Scorpio truly does it all, and does it well. Bravo!

Tata Indigo / Indica V2
Hmm..., the Indigo is a nifty little car for sure. Not high on refinement, suffers from a rubbery gearbox, and build quality is barely acceptable, but the turbodiesel engine (an evolution of the Indica’s unit) offers adequate performance and fuel efficiency. In keeping with ‘family car’ requirements, the Indigo offers above-average space inside the cabin and good ride comfort. If you are willing to compromise on build quality and refinement, the Indigo diesel does fairly well on other counts...

Tata Sumo
The quintessential budget-issue people hauler, the Sumo is big on space and low on refinement. There are lots of variants, so depending on how much you’re spending, interiors can be either spartan or fairly plush. There is also a turbodiesel option which is a must, as the normally aspirated mill feels quite sluggish. NVH levels are high, tyres wear out quickly, brakes are not so good and reliability is just about average. The Sumo is best suited for rent-a-car agencies and taxi operators, but is hardly a good family car.

I have had good times driving Fiat diesels - from the Uno to the Siena Weekend and have always wondered why Fiat couldn’t hit the diesel sweet spot of the Indian market that Tata has so easily managed. The only reason I can find is the high price tag and of course the tattered image of Fiat’s after sales network. Recently I drove an early Uno diesel with close to 75,000 km on clock and found it a good little car that has aged gracefully - of course the owner had taken good care of the car and the engine felt nice and fresh. There wasn’t much wrong with the 1700 job that was on offer here but Fiat has decided to offer the Palio with a 1900 CC engine minus the turbo-charged frills. That is not a bad thing - the new burner makes the Palio extremely driveable in traffic and it has enough grunt to haul the additional mass that comes with the Adventure. Yes, that is the car I would pick - the Adventure diesel for that three week holiday that I have been planning for the last three years. Brilliant.
 Bijoy Kumar Y