Rally Group N Honda CIty VTEC - Tale of Two Cities

You’ve got to be grateful for television. Because if it weren’t for the good old idiot box, how would we, the office-going cubicle-dwellers, ever get to watch the greatest sport on the face of earth – the World Rally Championship? Indeed, what can compare with the spectacle of Mitsubishi, Subaru, Peugeot, Citroen, Ford and Skoda rally-weaponry ripping stretches of tarmac and dirt to ribbons? 

In an increasingly regulated and monitored world, driving mundane cars over familiar roads all the time gets tedious. And for me, when such tedium sets in, watching rally cars work their brutal magic is emotional catharsis of sorts. And since I keep harping on about the great WRC, Simo Lampinen driving schools, and the enchanting Mitsubishi Evo VIII, the editor offered me the next best thing. “Would you like a drive in Jiby Maliakkal’s rally-prepared VTEC?” Now, are Ferraris red? Was Beethoven any good at composing music? Are hot gooey brownies with chocolate icecream, God’s own food? And do I love fast cars with loud exhaust notes...?

One phone call from the ed, and things were arranged. So there we were, Param and I, on our way to Nashik, where the MRF Taj Challenge (part of the MAI Indian National Rally Championship 2003) was being held. Jiby Maliakkal, of team Chettinad Sporting, would be participating in a Gulf Oil sponsored Group N City VTEC, and I was slated to drive the car just one day before the race. Jiby was, of course, understandably anxious and there were fervent pleas for me to exercise caution. And just to make sure I paid heed, some quiet threats were also made – journalists who crash race cars in Nashik have this inexplicable tendency to suddenly disappear forever, I was told. Er, point taken, Jibs. And hey, I was only kidding about wanting to try left-foot braking and handbrake turns on your car. Seriously. 

Giant killer
So why a VTEC, I asked Jiby. “And why not?!” he shot back. Well, fair enough. It might only be a scant six horsepower up on the non-VTEC City 1.5, but I suppose every little bit counts when you’re rallying. Honda’s VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) engines have a well-earned reputation for being extremely rev-happy, and are especially responsive in the upper reaches of their rev-range. That holds true for the City VTEC as well, which, before the Corolla 1.8 came along, was just about the undisputed king of quick in the country. Since fuel economy is always important here, the City VTEC’s 1493 CC inline-four makes do with an SOHC set-up, which is not as optimal for sheer spine-tingling power delivery as a DOHC VTEC mill (as used in Honda’s NSX and S2000 cars), but is still a corker nevertheless. And though Group N regulations don’t permit much in the way of engine modifications, Team Chettinad Sporting have still managed to extract an extra half-dozen horses by using a one-off free flow muffler that’s been designed by Team Chettinad’s chief wrench Swaminathan (who’s called ‘Swami’ by everyone on the team). But more on that later.

The car looked rather neat in its blue and yellow livery, and I was raring to have a go in it. We had been driven to Nashik in a diesel-engined Ambassador, and the journey had been tepid to say the least. And now that we were in the presence of a hotrod VTEC, can we blow the cobwebs off, please? The car was willing, but first we had to see if my ample frame would fit in the VTEC’s rather tight confines. There was a rollcage to be clambered over, and then there was that rather snug-looking ‘Cobra’ racing seat with a racing-spec four-point harness. Interiors were, of course, completely stripped out and there was bare metal and wiring harnesses everywhere. Compared with Jiby’s roadgoing City 1.3 (which had been brought along just so we could drive both cars back to back), the race car’s innards looked shorn of all accoutrements to civility, but at the same time, much more single-minded and purposeful. 

The rally car also had this intimidating looking bank of buttons, LEDs and miscellaneous instruments – and it didn’t look like I’d be able figure out what they were meant for. Thankfully, these were in front of the navigator’s seat, so hopefully I wouldn’t have to mess with any of them! Swami would be along for the drive, and he would be keeping an eye on the instruments anyway, so engine meltdown was only a remote possibility. If at all.

Finally, I did manage to wriggle into the Cobra seat, and was securely strapped into the four-point harness. And suddenly, I knew what one of those tinned sardines must feel like when they are stuffed into a 6x3 inch metal can. Well, almost. But then came the most glorious moment ever. I turned the key, and the VTEC mill came to life. No, let’s make that exploded into life. The raucous exhaust note – guttural, loud and rasping – was to die for! I revved the engine a bit, and it was like hearing a pack of Rottweilers bark loudly into a very sensitive microphone. Unlike the roadgoing City 1.3 (or, for that matter, the 1.5 or the VTEC), which barely lets on that there’s actually an internal combustion engine at work below the bonnet, the rally VTEC made it very clear that there are sixteen valves working furiously atop four cylinders where petrol is being burnt, and kinetic energy is being produced and waiting to be let off the leash. And if that be the case, who was I to keep the leash on?

The gearshift slotted into first in a clean, crisp action and I floored the throttle. For a split second, there was nothing. Then, it was like someone had opened the gates to thunderous hell. The engine howled in rage, the exhaust rasped in sympathy and discord rose to a crescendo as the car’s front wheels scrabbled for grip – and sent bits of their 185/60 MRF ZDM1 gravel tyres’ asymmetric tread flying backwards in the air. Param, who was behind me in Jiby’s City 1.3, was peppered with these flying chunks of rubber as the VTEC screamed away, leaving behind twin trails of smoking rubber to mark its departure. Right away, we put an impromptu stopwatch to the rally car, and got a 10.84 second 0-100 kph time. Now this is about a quarter second off the time we’ve recorded in a stock VTEC, but I’m sure the rally car would have been quicker if we had tried another couple of timed runs (which we couldn’t, due to paucity of time and lack of suitable roads). It certainly felt quicker than a stock VTEC, and a stock City 1.3 would be at least two seconds slower to the 100 kph mark. The rally VTEC’s acceleration was overtly enthusiastic in every gear, with the engine sounding like a giant pack of killer bees let loose upon the unsuspecting Nashik populace.

This City or that
Swami had promised he would take me through some interesting bits of road, and sure enough, the curvy bits arrived soon. What I didn’t know was that I was in for a bit of a shock. Entering the first corner – a smoothly-surfaced ninety-degree bend – I kept the car in third at about 70 kph, and before I knew it, the car was drifting sideways! Now, I’m used to a steady diet of front-wheel-drive cars that mostly just understeer when pushed hard, and I’m accustomed to having the front end washing out more than anything else. The rally VTEC was a different animal. Different from anything I was used to driving. To me, it seemed the car was set up for significant oversteer. Just tip the thing into a corner, and almost regardless of whether you were on or off the throttle, the car wanted to step out. In comparison, the stock City 1.3’s handling suddenly felt inert and completely lifeless. The VTEC was serving up oodles of drama in every corner, but the saving grace for me was that it would break traction progressively and never whack out sideways suddenly. In fast bends (okay, so that’s “fast” according to me, and you can stop smirking now), the car would drift smoothly and slides were contained by small, continuous movements of the steering wheel.We also took the car off-road, and the car continued to amaze me with its all-around competence. There was little body roll, and the suspension felt so very alive, responding swiftly and decisively to every little bump and rut in the track’s surface. I had been told me that the team had spent a massive sum of money on replacing some of the VTEC’s suspension components, and it seemed money very well spent.  

Soon, I settled into a rhythm of braking late for corners, sliding gently, making small corrections to the steering and accelerating out of corners as hard as I knew how. For the given combo of hi-strung rally car (none of the stock City’s calm, unruffled progress here) and ordinary road test driver (no superhero rally god), the whole process was surprisingly free from misadventure. Even Swami, who was visibly tense some minutes earlier (“who’s this imbecile trashing MY precious car, and WHY is Jiby letting him drive?”), calmed down and relaxed his death-grip on one of the door handles.

What was really setting the rally VTEC apart from its roadgoing brothers was its raw feel, its rough-and-ready mien. It’s amusing the way racing cars make you realise how road cars’ responses are sheathed in layers of safety insulation. Whatever aspect you consider, be it noise levels, acceleration, braking or handling, the stock City 1.3 felt so... rubbery and dull. But then, for most people, the rally VTEC would not make a very good roadgoing car. Its tendency to get sideways at the slightest provocation, high levels of VTEC symphony pumping in through the front windows all the time, and stripped out interiors were immensely enjoyable on a short, fast sprint on some curving roads near Nashik, but I don’t know if many would want to live with those traits everyday, in unpredictable city traffic. It’s then, perhaps, that the 90 bhp City 1.3, with its CD-player, airconditioning and benign handling would start to look more appealing to most.

Driving the rally car was giving me an adrenaline high, and I wanted to go on driving it, but all too soon it was time to head back to the hotel where the team was waiting for us. It had been a satisfying blast, and all good things must come to an end sometime. Back in the hotel, I quizzed Jiby – did he intentionally have the car set up for such pronounced oversteer? He smiled, and told me the car had not been set up at all! They had just bunged on whatever tyres they could find (gravel, in this case) and the car was still sporting suspension settings from the last rally it participated in. Well, thanks guys! And should it ever catch my fancy, what would it cost to build a rally VTEC like this one? “Hmm... over the purchase price of the City VTEC,another three and a half lakh” is what they reckon, out of which the biggest chunk – more than Rs two lakh – would be spent in doing up the suspension, replacing springs and struts. And there’d be the arduous process of stripping the car of all frivolities (anything that doesn’t help the car go faster comes off), fitting a rollcage and various strengthening struts, choosing the right set of wheels (this car was running stock 14-inch alloys) and tyres and getting the suspension settings right through endless trial and error. 

Though I test drive road cars all the time,driving this rally VTEC was something else – a unique experience, a tiny glimpse into the intense world of competition machinery. It also showed me how much there is that can be done with our ‘normal’ road cars. A Honda City 1.3, which I otherwise find at least mildly entertaining, felt unimaginably dull and lifeless after driving the rally VTEC. And though I have neither the talent nor the money to actually go rallying, the VTEC makes me wish – more than ever before – I did. But I have no worries. There’s Star Sports, Ten Sports, ESPN and even DD Metro, and all of them will be showing WRC on television. All I have to do now is run out and get the gooey brownies and the icecream.

Swaminathan, or simply ‘Swami’, is the chief mechanic at Team Chettinad Sporting, and is responsible for keeping their rally cars in fine fettle. Enthusiastic and ever-smiling, this man has been working on race/rally cars ever since he was 14 years old. We cornered him with a few questions.

How and when did you start working on racing cars?
I started with Karivardhan about 15 years ago, when I was 14 years old. We used to race a lot at Sholavaram, and I used to work on everything from Padminis to Maruti 800s to Formula India cars.

Compared with a stock City VTEC, how is the rally car’s engine different?
Group N regulations don’t permit too many mods, but the rally car does have a free-flow exhaust system which I have designed myself. The performance characteristics of this unit can be modified as per requirements of any individual event, and the power/torque can easily be adjusted. The car also runs lubes specially formulated by Gulf Oil for us, and that really helps.

Tell us more. What about chassis/suspension mods?
Springs and dampers have all been changed, and are adjustable for compression and rebound damping.As you can see, a rollcage has been welded on, and there are various struts that have been bolted on for additional chassis rigidity and reduced body flex.

You have been working on race and rally cars for so long. Which ones are your personal favourites?
I like this City VTEC very much, but the old Kari 65 (a Caterham replica produced in the mid-1990s) was also a great car. I learnt much from Karivardhan, and the day he passed away was the saddest day of my life.


One day before they were slated to take part in the MRF Taj Challenge, we spoke to Jiby Maliakkal and his navigator, Nikhil Pai, about what it is like to spend their lives thrashing rally cars.

For how long have the two of you been rallying?
Jiby: It’s been 3 years since I’ve been rallying.
Nikhil: I’ve been navigating for 12 years now. I love dirt rallies, and I love getting sideways. And let me tell you something – when I first drove with Jiby in the year 2000, I thought Jiby was the worst driver I’d ever been with!

Have you ever been scared out of your wits in a rally?
Jiby: Never!
Nikhil: In this rally, I will be scared! There are some horrendously fast tarmac stages on this event, and we’re going to be doing speeds of up to 170 kph... shudder!

What’s next? What’s it that you really want to do now?
Jiby: I want to join a rally school in the UK, but it’s so expensive over there.
Nikhil: Hmm... I haven’t really thought about it. I take things as they come.

What’s your favourite WRC car?
Jiby: I love the Evo VII.
Nikhil: Definitely, the Peugeot 206.

And who’s your fav rally driver then?
Jiby: Whoever has the prettiest girlfriend!
Nikhil: Richard Burns. He’s very adaptable and consistent.