The Real Deal

With big dealer discounts and package deals, do these older cars still represent a good deal?

The trouble with cars is that change is the only constant. The race to get bigger-better-faster is remorseless, and inevitably, some cars get relegated to the has-been status every year. And since nobody wants cars that aren’t the epitome of style and performance, the poor mites end up sitting in dealer lots. Which is when dealer discounts, add-on freebies and ‘buy now, pay for the rest of your life’ finance schemes start happening, for a showroom full of unsold cars are no good for anybody. Depending on where your automotive priorities lie, this can sometimes mean a cool bargain or two to be picked up...

Admittedly, the cars we talk about here are a generation or more old. Worldwide, they have either already been replaced with newer versions or are just about to be chopped from their respective manufacturer’s line-up. Then again, these cars have proven strengths and weaknesses and the technology they employ is still serviceable. So are they still worth buying? If you splurge out on one of these, will you be waking up with a smile on your face the next morning? Or will you regret your decision once you see your neighbour’s newer, flashier, more contemporary toy and the all-knowing smirk that goes with it?

Honda Accord 2.3 VTi-L
The Accord’s track record in India has never been very encouraging. When it was launched here two years ago, the car garnered praise for its engine and its super-smooth, slick performance. And drew flak for it bland, uninspiring styling and slightly notchy gearbox. Up against the conspicuous Sonata, the brilliant Mondeo and the elegant C-Class Merc, the Accord came off second best. Largely because it did everything well, but did not have any one outstanding talent, the Accord was largely ignored by the buying public. But there was no getting away from the fact that the big Honda was one competent D-segment car that was ideal for high-powered business execs and their ilk. 

In keeping with the times, Honda launched a new Accord worldwide early this year, and that car is already winning accolades from various automotive publications in Europe. Happily enough, the new car is also slated to come to India within the next 2 to 3 months. And now that that is common knowledge, the inevitable has happened - the ‘old’ Accord can be had for a song. Well, not really, but big discounts are available on the big smoothie now. How does Rs 13,00,000 for a fully-loaded  (leather, alloys, CD-player...) Accord grab you? Not convinced? Consider that you’d be paying something in the vicinity of Rs 17,00,000 for a Vectra or a Mondeo, and Rs 18,50,000 for a Camry before you make up your mind.

The ‘old’ Accord may not be as sharply styled as the new one, and the new i-VTEC engine may perform marginally better than the current 2254 CC VTi-L unit, but this is not enough to offset the current Accord’s all-around competence, reliability, refinement and engine performance. Have a good, hard look at the car and buy one in black.

SECOND OPINION:The ‘Accord’ brand never had the going great in India. First it was Tata Engineering (TELCO then) that wanted to bring the Accord to India in the eighties but that project never really took off. By the time Indian roads got the Accord it had grown into a much bigger automobile and unfortunately had severe competition to battle  with. As far as I am concerned the Accord VTiL is a brilliant buy today, more so since Honda is offering it with a reasonable price tag. Buy one in jet black, complete with alloy wheels and leather upholstery and enjoy either the rear leg room or that smooth as silk V-TEC motor. It is a genuine 200 kph car than can give the CBU entrants like Camry, Mondeo and Vectra a good run for the money. And you can trust it to start, run and be fuel-efficient every time you get behind the wheel. It looks a little old, but tacky it is certainly not.
 Bijoy Kumar Y

Opel Astra 1.6/1.7 TD
They might shout themselves hoarse about Teutonic build-quality, longevity and the generally ‘solid’ feel of these cars, but even Opel themselves would know that the one (and very soon, that’ll be two) generation old Astra they sell here in India is just marking time, barely doddering along until GM finally decides to axe it. That, I suppose, wouldn’t be a very happy thought for those who’ve just bought one of these, or are planning to get one in the near future, but that’s how it is. What’s more is, we don’t even know what it’s going to be replaced with. What with the sometimes-confusing nexus between GM, Opel, Daewoo and Suzuki, and a bunch of once-Korean-now-GM cars in the offing, what finally replaces the age-old Astra in India is anybody’s guess. 

The Astra still has a few things going for it, namely its solidity, ride quality, occupant comfort and fit-and-finish. But given the kind of opposition it’s up against, these virtues are insufficient to offset the fact that the Astra does not feel contemporary anymore. The styling is dated, the car is underpowered (petrol as well as diesel variants) and fuel efficiency is poor. What might sweeten the deal for those who want an Opel, but can’t afford the brilliant new Vectra, is the Astra’s price. Though top-of-the-line Astras still cost close to ten lakhs, the base version (petrol) is now priced at Rs 7,27,000 in Mumbai, which could be tempting for those looking for a ‘big car.’ (When we enquired, the diesel Astra was no longer available in Mumbai, though it’s supposedly still doing the rounds in some southern parts of the country.) The petrol Astra (base model) costs about the same as smaller cars like the Accent CRDi or a Ford Ikon 1.8 (both diesels) or the similarly-sized base model Mitsubishi Lancer GL (petrol). 

We suppose running an Astra would still be expensive - parts and service will certainly keep your wallet suitably challenged - but reliability will not be an issue. With its limited availability, and terribly underpowered engine, the diesel Astra is no longer an option. And since the Club version’s price puts it in proximity to Toyota Corolla territory, it just doesn’t deserve a place on your ‘I-want-one’ list. But if you absolutely must have big car prestige on the cheap, the base model Astra just might make sense.

SECOND OPINION:One of the earlier premium cars to be launched in India, the Opel Astra was quite the symbol of an arrived-in-life owner five years ago. Top-end versions cost upwards of Rs 10 lakh at one point. Now, though, Father Time has reworked the numbers and the Astra is yours for a little over two-thirds of that. And this, I feel, is a fair price. The Astra might not be the quickest or the most exciting car around today, but it is a well-built, safe highway-muncher, and with the right accessories, can still turn a few heads at the nightclub. It’s a good enough status upgrade for the B-segmenter looking to get a three-boxer, and though some might think you’re a dot-com-crasher, others will get the impression you’re old money.
Sachin Rao

Mistsubishi Lancer GLXi/d
The one car in India that has at least some International motorsport heritage? Well yes, but before you shout Colin McRae, understand that the link is pretty tenuous. The Lancer bodyshell is somewhat similar to the legendary Mitsubishi Evo raced and rallied worldwide, but the similarity ends there. The Indian Lancer’s engines, petrol as well as diesel, have always been.... er, rather pedestrian. The 1498 CC petrol is a three-valve-per-cylinder unit, and puts out 85 horsepower, while the 1998 CC diesel makes do with a miserly 65 bhp, inadequate for propelling the poor Lancer. Not only are the engines inadequate, the interiors too look and feel dated and dull. 

On the move, the petrol Lancer feels sluggish (especially when compared with the likes of the Baleno or the City), and that feeling is amplified in the diesel. Given its 13-inch wheels and soft-ish suspension setup, the Lancer offers adequate ride comfort, though the handling is merely benign, rather than sharp and involving. To its credit, the Lancer doesn’t get out of shape too easily if thrown around hard, but the engine and chassis dynamics are optimised to make it feel like a mild old execommuter rather than something you’d get all excited about. 

Do the ‘new’ prices for these ‘old’ cars make them a viable proposition? Let’s see now. The base version (petrol) Lancer GL starts at Rs 7,16,000 (ex-showroom), while the base model (diesel) GL D sells for around Rs 8,21,000 (ex-showroom) here in Mumbai. But before you get all worked up and rush to get the cheque book out, remember to add at least another Rs 50,000 to these figures to come to the cars’ on-road prices. That makes the Lancer GL more expensive than either the City 1.3 or the Baleno, both of which are more powerful and feel more contemporary. And as for the really sluggish Lancer GL D, wouldn’t you rather look at the recently-launched Weekend Adventure (diesel) from Fiat...?

If your heart is still set on buying a Mitsubishi, then I’d recommend the base model Lancer. The cosmetically dolled-up (and hence more expensive) variants are to be avoided - buy your own seat covers, stereo upgrades and alloy wheels etc, as and when and how you want to do up your car. But better still, wait for the new 1800 CC petrol-engined Lancer that seems to be waiting in the wings...

SECOND OPINION:Draw up a SWOT chart and plot the City, Baleno and the Astra, and then fill in the Lancer’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. And you’ll notice that the Lancer fits in the middle of the other three cars. It may not be as perky as the other two Japanese models, and may not have build quality to challenge the Astra, but it has a modicum of each of those qualities. As far as build quality goes, it comes closest to the Europeans, and the engine, though not powerful, is a free revving and unstressed Japanese unit. In other words, it’s as European as Japanese cars can get and as Japanese as European cars can get. That means the Lancer is a jack of all trades and a master of none. Go for it if you can figure this out, and also the variants list that Hindustan Motors has been flogging this far.
Srinivas Krishnan

Honda City 1.3/1.5/VTEC
The Honda City. Hmmm... the object of so many people’s (including mine!) affections, this car has been put in the shadow of late. What with the bigger Octavia and the contemporary (and devastatingly competent) Corolla having stolen some of its thunder, the City trio has gradually moved down in life. And since rumours of an all-new City replacing the current one have been doing the rounds for some time now, things are not too bright for the car that was once lusted after by execs, techno-heads, geeks and enthusiasts alike.
The City’s free-revving, lusty engine was always its high point. Whether it was the 90-horse 1.3, the 100 bhp 1.5 or the rather high-strung 106-horse VTEC, we loved the City powerplants, and if sales figures are anything to go by, so did you. In other departments, the City gave way to other cars by a fair old margin. Ride comfort was not very good, handling was good but not as crisp and direct as, say, an Ikon 1.6 and interiors felt a tad low-rent. The City is a one-trick pony - brilliant engine, but a chassis that lags behind, and suspension that can feel a bit unrefined at times. Oh, and the styling’s also now begining to feel old hat. (Amazing, what a drive or two in one of those new Corollas will do to the way you think about cars!)
So what have we, here? A once-brilliant car that has not been keeping pace with the times? Then again, bring pricing into the equation and the City bounces right back. In Mumbai, you can get your hands on the mighty VTEC for all of Rs 9,35,000, the brilliant 1.5 costs about Rs 8,30,000 and the very competent 1.3 goes for Rs 7,30,000. I’d say that the VTEC is a bit of a has-been. Performance-wise, it’s only 6-horsepower up on the City 1.5, and the massive difference in price is just not justified. The 1.5 is a reasonably good deal at the price at which it’s now available, but the real surprise package could be the 1.3. The latter offers about 90-percent of the VTEC’s performance at a substantially lower price, which can only be a good thing. If you are willing to compromise on ride comfort and sacrifice some space, you get supreme reliability and sparkling engine performance which similarly-priced Lancers and Astras just can’t match. There’s life in the old dog yet!

SECOND OPINION:With its high revving nature, the Honda City is one helluva restless car. Both the 1.3 and the 1.5 are great engines and make driving a true pleasure in our country - you can’t say that of almost all other cars around. But the key word is engine - as a car goes, the City is essentially a drivetrain with some sheetmetal around it, but one shouldn’t forget its excellent steering set-up. If you are willing to forgo luxuries and a pampering ride quality, the City makes great sense. Its lines are dated, its interiors are unfashionable, but at the same time you get a brilliant performing engine which takes the grind away from the daily office commute, and yet gives you an insurance against rising petrol prices. The 90 bhp of the 1.3 is more than adequate, and the 1.5 goes on to give you 10 extra bhp of fun. The Honda City makes the chauffeur redundant.
Srinivas Krishnan

Maruti Baleno/Altura 
I often refer to the Baleno as the unloved child. First of all, Maruti were late in launching this car, and even when they finally did get around to bringing it here, the Baleno never seemed to get the attention it deserved. Worldwide, the car was first launched in 1995, and got a major revamp in 1998 and this revamped version was the one that came to India, and the Baleno sedan was followed by an estate version based on it, the Altura. As is the case with cars like the Corsa and the Siena, the Baleno’s estate version actually looked better than the sedan itself, though it never really sold well due to its sky-high price-tag. The Baleno’s styling looked contemporary when the car came here, and even now, the car doesn’t really look too dated, except perhaps for the tail-lamp treatment and the insipid, plasticky interiors.  

Surprisingly enough, it seems the majority of buyers never saw the Baleno as a viable alternative to cars like the City, Lancer or the Astra. This despite the fact that the Baleno pretty much equalled or exceeded the others in most areas. Largely an image problem then, for the name ‘Maruti’ was ineviatably associated with humble little 800s, and in premium car circles, that just wouldn’t do. A pity, for the Baleno’s 94-horsepower 1590 CC mill is actually quite entertaining, and though there is torque steer aplenty, and the chassis/suspension aren’t inclined to keeping up with the energetic engine, this isn’t such a bad car after all. And now, with the new-and-improved pricing (read ‘prices slashed because we can’t sell the damned things!’) of Rs 6,96,000 for the Baleno, and Rs 7,47,000 for the Altura (a reduction of about Rs 1,50,000 in each case!), the cars may actually represent a good deal. The Baleno offers better ride quality than the City, better engine performance than either the Lancer or the Astra, and Suzuki-spec reliability. That, plus the vast Maruti service network, have got to account for something, wouldn’t you agree? If you are looking for something that’s big, well-built, aggressively-styled car and reasonably-priced, and that’ll still keep up with most of the current (and forthcoming) crop of contemporary cars in India, I recommend the Altura. You’ll enjoy the intrigued look on your neighbour’s face...

SECOND OPINION:The only car that I have ever driven on Japanese roads is a Baleno Altura. It kept pace with the rest of the traffic in the freeway and took me to some very interesting small towns in and around Hamamatsu. Back in India the Baleno experience has not been all that great - partly because we never really had a long term car for testing. But I distinctly remember the mid-size shoot out that the Baleno won by a whisker - beating nothing short of the rev-happy Honda City. Spec to spec, numbers to numbers the Baleno still is a better buy than the City and especially so with the  huge dealer discounts that are now available. The sedan looks tired as far as design goes but te Altura  rocks and is arguably the best looking estate in town. Go for it if all you want is reliable, ‘peppy, if not spiritred’ motoring for the next seven odd years. 
Bijoy Kumar Y