The Business Standard Motoring Car Of The Year 2009 - the Honda City!
Oops, sorry if that lead picture made you gulp down your cup of steaming coffee. Yes, it is not a small car that has won our Car Of The Year award this time around.
Change, as they say, is here to stay. The game has moved a long way since Business Standard Motoring introduced the concept of Car Of The Year to India more than a decade ago. When we gave a formal structure to the COTY evaluation process, it was done in such a way that cars that are affordable to buy and run got the preference over everything else. That meant our enthusiast blood didn’t have much of a say in the matters, with the points structure leaning heavily towards cars that stretched a litre and cost less to own. That meant a series of small cars winning the honours. Maruti Suzuki Alto, Hyundai Santro, Maruti Suzuki Swift, Chevrolet Aveo U-VA, Hyundai i10… all are present in the winners’ rostrum. Sure, the occasional SUV (Mahindra Scorpio) and the sedan (Honda City) did win the honours, still.
Times have changed, buying preferences have changed, we do have a more educated customer base and we thought it was time we revised our COTY evaluation process too. So out goes the “weightage” system and in comes a crisp and clear voting format based on the European and Indian Car Of The Year awards. And as the coffee that burned the innards of your mouth would attest, we have a relatively big car taking the honours for 2009.
The system and the jury
As per the new system, a six member jury voted for seven finalists shortlisted from all the cars launched in the calendar year 2008. The elimination process ensured that imported cars and super luxury cars were sorted away to compete for other awards. Cars that are truly made in India and ones that take the game forward when it comes to design, performance, comfort and safety (not necessarily in that order) featured in the final contenders’ list.
Each member of the jury was allowed a total of 25 votes which he had to divide between a minimum of five cars after extensively driving the final contenders. But the maximum that each jury member could allot to a single car was restricted to 10 points.
The six member jury consisted of three road-testers, who keep thrashing new cars for a living, one travel writer, who subjects cars to real-life torture on varied terrain around the world, a former rally champion, who can terrorise cars by merely getting behind the wheel, and a seasoned enthusiast who owns, rides and drives everything from Kinetics to a Rolls-Royce (yes, his other car is a Rolls-Royce!). Time to get on with the evaluation then.
Given a chance, it would have taken only a nano second to arrive at the winner — the Audi R8 is the stuff dreams of boys are made of. Alas, it happens to be a fully imported car, that too in rarefied numbers. Ditto the brilliant Audi TT and the eminently huggable Fiat 500. All three, sadly, got eliminated in the first round itself.
Amongst the luxury cars were the Honda Accord, which seems to do nothing wrong, the fresh-off-the-oven Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and the Audi A4 that screams “sporty” standing still. These cars were important and would compete for the Business Standard Motoring Premium Car Of The Year 2009 award.
2008 Hyundai i10
2007 Chevrolet Aveo U-VA
2006 Suzuki Swift
2005 Hyundai Getz
2004 Honda City
A handful of SUVs, starting from the ever-so-tangible Sumo Grande (an improvement, but not a revolution over the previous model), the Chevrolet Captiva, that is a splendid diesel alternative to the Honda CR-V, and the refreshingly mould-breaking Mitsubishi Outlander were present too. None of them made it to the final shortlist however, though the Captiva did manage to take home some honours (See story: Need some fizz?). That left us with seven finalists.
The Skoda Fabia is arguably the best built large hatchback money can buy in India today. Get into one blindfolded, and you will be certain that you are driving a sedan rather than a stubby hatch. Add to that brilliant ride quality over bad terrain and refinement akin to that of far more expensive machinery and you smell a winner. What ruined the equation for the Fabia, though, is the price. Sure, there is a basic version, but that is way too underpowered and not as refined. Even the premium image the Skoda brand enjoys in India did not find favour with the jury as it plummeted to the sixth and final slot that it shared with the Tata Indica Vista. Unfortunate, since the Fabia is a far better car than the new Indica.
The Indica Vista is a very important car for Tata Motors. The Fiat-derived multijet motor is leagues ahead of the engines that have powered the Indica in the past, and overall, the build quality has improved vastly. Tata never had an issue with ride quality, and the Vista handles well at the speeds it is capable of achieving. One has got to wait a while to know if the Vista is as reliable as its contemporaries, but we do know that it is economical to run. To quote the jury: “The future of the Tata hatchback looks promising if we can take the Vista as a starting point. The jury was suitably impressed (See story: Need some fizz?), but not enough to elevate it to the fifth slot.”
The Volkswagen Jetta was included in the shortlist since it impressed almost every road- tester who drove it. But a very high level of import content means a nasty price tag that spoils the Jetta story in India. As an automotive package, there are not many cars in India that can beat the Jetta — it has the right size, right engine (the diesel option) and right dynamics going for it. To quote the jury: “Fifth among seven finalists looks like a raw deal for such an excellent car, but then, one glance at the on-road price of the diesel model (Rs 17 lakh!) and you know why the Volkswagen scored poorly.”
A new Toyota Corolla is like another X’mas — full of cheer but you already know the ingredients. Its dictionary meaning should read “reliable” instead of “part of a flower” and there is little that you can fault with the car. The biggest issue with the Toyota is its competition from Japan — the Honda Civic, which looks like a concept car on the road when seen next to the sedate, Camry-inspired Corolla Altis. To quote the jury: “There are no negatives with the Corolla Altis, but there aren’t any significant strengths either. All said and done, this is not the kind of car that you will wake up on a lazy Sunday morning to drive.” Hence the fourth spot.
Hyundai sprang a surprise on us by announcing that they were launching the i20 in the last week of December, and then dropped our jaws by sending in a test car for the COTY evaluations. That meant almost all of the jury drove the i20 for the first time during our evaluations. A hurried road test revealed that the Kappa engine is not exactly energetic enough for the sorted-out dynamics of the new car. It certainly is economical and pretty stylish to look at too. To quote the jury: “This is one car that we will be recommending a lot in the near future. But an F1 inspired nose and a very ‘green’ motor does not make it as compelling a choice as, say, the Hyundai i10. Winning the third spot in a very competitive year is an achievement in itself though.”
The Maruti Suzuki A-Star is indeed the new Alto. And the entire Alto family (minus the original Zen) is selling well in India. The new small car is indeed a new benchmark when it comes to design, packaging and performance (the little 1000 cc motor revs to the moon to keep you entertained!). Add to that safety features available in top-end models and you know that the A-Star would have won handsomely had we retained the old rating system. To quote the jury: “This is as brilliant as small cars get. It’s affordable,economical and safe. Despite the small engine size, the A-Star is fun to pilot too. The first runner-up slot sadly does not communicate the ability of this car, but it has to be content with it.”
And the winner is...
That, ladies and gentlemen, gets us to this year’s winner. The new Honda City looks stunningly good, is brilliantly packaged and has one of the best engines meant for a car in its class powering it. Reliability and refinement can be taken for granted too. What is new is Honda’s nod to safety features for its best-selling sedan. Besides this, the new City can return 14 kpl even in traffic and deliver decent 150 kph plus performance when you demand it. To quote the jury: “The new City promises the sky with the i-VTEC engine and delivers it too. With one clean stroke, the new Honda sedan has raised the bar and the resulting car is worth every penny you spend on it. An exciting, quality car does not just deserve top honours, it demands it.” Congratulations, Honda Siel, for another spectacular win!