Here’s a pop quiz. Literally. Can you name the singer who wrote these songs – And so it goes, Goodnight Saigon, Only the Good Die Young, Vienna, and Scenes from an Italian Restaurant? Here’s another list of songs from the same artist that you’ll find it easier to recognize – Piano Man, We didn’t start the Fire, and She’s always a Woman.
Now, Billy Joel hasn’t released a studio album since 1993, but chances are more people have heard of songs from the second list than from the first. Still, to understand his genius, you have to listen to songs from the first list. I often tell people that Billy Joel is famous for (by his standard) average songs; most people haven’t heard his best work.
Point is, what is popular is not necessarily the best. Ditto for what is expensive. A couple of years ago, I saw a middle-aged, pan-chewing, uncle-type get into a chauffeur-driven S65 AMG. Funny as the sight was, it doesn’t take much to see how he must have acquired that car. I could picture him go into a Mercedes showroom, ask the staff for the most expensive Mercedes he could buy, write out a cheque, and take delivery. If I know dealers, they probably also charged him a few lakhs to expedite delivery. His chauffeur must be one happy guy.
Last week, a friend of mine who is very keen to buy a car before the end of the year, asked me a simple enough question: “I have a budget of Rs 60-70 lakh. Should I get the ML250 or the ML350?”
“The 250,” I said. “Why not the ML350?” And his question was natural. It makes sense to go for the more expensive variant of a car if you can afford it, right? Not always.
You see, the on-road cost of the ML250 in Mumbai is about Rs 60 lakh. The ML350 costs Rs 73 lakh. In terms of engine spec, for an extra Rs13 lakh, you get two additional cylinders and 50bhp more than you do in the ML250. Which doesn’t make sense to me. Sure, the 350 has some more creature comforts, but it’s not like the 250 isn’t well equipped. Most importantly, in terms of performance, the 250 will do everything the 350 can; not one owner will miss the extra horses.
This theory doesn’t just apply to luxury cars. Look at KTM. The Duke 200 costs about Rs 1.4 lakh in Mumbai, and the Duke 390 costs Rs 60,000 more. Now, I’ve recently ridden the 390 and must say it is brilliant. It’s got 18 more horses than the 200, can reach higher speeds with ease, and has brilliantly sticky Metzeler tyres. Still, I would not recommend it to most people over the 200.
Thing is, if you ride out of the city every chance you get, crave higher speeds, or love taking your bike on a track, perhaps the 390 makes sense. But the brilliance of the 200 is that, spec sheets aside, in the real world, it is just so close to its bigger brother.
For one, below 7,000rpm, the 390 doesn’t feel substantially more powerful than the 200. Second, you can feel the extra 14 kilos when you’re riding it. And third, in heavy city traffic, you will feel the bigger engine’s heat on your legs.
The 200 is just a more fun bike to ride. It’s more flickable, the gear ratios are more fun, and it can be comfortably ridden at 100-120kph. Most importantly, it feels perfectly at home in the city. So it plays the role of a city and highway bike better than the 390.
There are many more examples of cheaper or less popular variants of the same models making more sense. The cheaper Audi 4.2 eight-cylinder R8 is a more sensible choice than the 5.2 V10 R8. The cheaper petrol Skoda Superb 1.8 TSI with the seven-speed DSG auto has always been a more sensible choice than the diesel 2.0 TDI. And the far less popular petrol Fiat Linea T-Jet manages to feel even better than the brilliant 1.3 diesel multi-jet.
So the next time you’re thinking about buying a car or a bike, try to step back a bit and ask yourself if that is the best vehicle for you. And don’t be unduly swayed by its popularity or comparative price.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author.