The third-generation Suzuki Swift is rightfully sweeping all the awards but which were the cars that surprised me this year? By Kushan Mitra
The Maruti-Suzuki Swift won most of the ‘Car of the Year’ awards, even the ones that I take seriously, and it thoroughly deserved to, despite strong competition from the Hyundai Santro, which is a more than a capable bearer of the brand-name and the second-generation Honda Amaze, whose excellent diesel continuously-variable transmission (CVT) was a surprising revelation to me. Of course, none of these cars was the best car launched in India this year, but the ‘Car of the Year’ awards have to factor in affordability and the market segments that the vehicles operate in. The new BMW M2 Competition is by far and away the most exciting car that came to Indian shores this year but an 85-lakh car won’t win too many awards. Nor will the utterly brilliant Volvo XC40, which is by far and away the best entry-level luxury SUV out there, albeit one without a much-needed petrol engine for now. In fact, the entire revamped Volvo range is exciting and with the new S60 due next year, the luxury segment is definitely going to hot up particularly as BMW brings in its new 3-series.
Of course, my work has led me to drive a lot of these cars around India and across the world and many of them have been quite exciting indeed. There have been some surprising advances in automotive technology that I expect will become even more pronounced in the coming year. There is also a fear which I have that India might lose out on some important emerging technologies because of poor traffic enforcement and policy writing. One of those technologies that I believe will become more widespread in the coming year is hybrid technology, where a car uses a combination of battery-electric power and the internal combustion engine to propel itself.
So far in India only BMW, Honda, Toyota and Volvo have brought in proper hybrids, where the car can run completely on battery power. A lot of cars feature ‘Mild Hybrid’ technology, and as car makers move from a 12 Volt electrical system to a 48-Volt electrical system on their cars, this will become even more prevalent. Even a ‘Mild Hybrid’ vehicle can dramatically enhance fuel efficiency as the battery powers the start-stop system at traffic signals and ‘fills in’ additional power and torque between the gears. For example, I have been driving the new second-generation Ertiga, another vehicle that has surprised me this year and this long people-carrier is returning in excess of 14 km per litre on a petrol engine, which is remarkable in the mixed-conditions that I drive in. The additional two km per litre at the minimum that the car gives is 15 per cent more bang for the buck.
One of the first cars that I will drive in 2019 will be the new Toyota Camry Hybrid and the Maruti-Suzuki Chairman R.C Bhargava promised that the company will bring in ‘Strong Hybrid’ technology among other things in 2019. These new hybrids will be at least 30-40 percent more fuel-efficient than their petrol-only counterparts. With the impending Bharat Stage 6 rules effectively killing off small diesel cars, petrol-hybrids will be the only route to save money. And one could argue that they should even become mandatory, at least making it essential in ‘start-stop’ technology in cars that will save money both for the consumer but also the government. But even without forcing this on consumers, Indians are choosing more efficient vehicles and even natural-gas vehicles, sales of which have climbed 50 per cent in the past year despite problems in building new compressed natural gas stations. And in 2019, there will be more hybrids, both mild and strong, alongside more gas-powered cars sold than ever before.
And these will definitely help India get over the hump when it comes to reducing vehicular emissions, both of carbon as well as particulate matter and NOx. While moving down an electric path should continue to be the goal, the fact is that the infrastructure for electric vehicles and the basic power supply does not exist yet, although some smart policy around charging stations and allowing anyone and everyone to build charging stations is a step forward. But challenges remain, especially the fact that by not having battery-manufacturing facilities in India and the fact that the batteries are 60 per cent of a battery-electric vehicles cost, we have to also consider the impact on jobs and manufacturing. At the same time, India’s energy mix for electricity generation is still far too focussed on cheap and dirty thermal power and and that will have to change if battery-electric vehicles are to have a lower carbon impact on the nation.
But while India will have to grapple with energy issues around vehicular transport, we risk losing out when it comes to vehicular automation. This past year several vehicles have been launched in India, including the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, that have features like adaptive cruise control and lane assist. Even the far cheaper Volvo XC40 has these features. But in the chaos of city traffic with badly behaved drivers driving everything from cycles to multi-axle trucks, automatic braking is more of a bane than a boon unless you are careful. And lane assist only works when lane markings are well-defined and correct. Many residential colonies in South Delhi have double white diving lines, I wonder how many of you know what a double-white line means? That is all a matter of conjecture and I’m sure some sort of order will be imposed on Indian roads going forward.
So which was the best car I drove this year? I’d have to say it is a toss-up between the BMW i8 Roadster I zoomed around the island of Mallorca back in May and the surprising Roewe Marvel X battery-electric car I experienced for far too little time during a visit to China. The BMW was a mild-blowing representation of what a hybrid car can do and the Roewe proof that the Chinese car industry is coming to India and our industry should be worried because our neighbor has cracked the electric car manufacturing code.
Lastly, have a great 2019 and drive safe whenever you drive. Follow the rules, wear your seatbelts and helmets and don’t drive drunk or stoned. Have a great new year and see you on the other side. Read more posts…
Friday, 28 December 2018 | Kushan Mitra—
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