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There’s only one real affordable driver’s sedan. We point it out for you

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These are strange times. On one hand, there are extremist groups that have redefined extremism after we all thought extremism couldn’t get any more extreme than it already is. On the other, there were people dying clicking selfies. Now, they’re dying playing Pokemon Go. In between these two extremes is Brexit, Donald Trump and a world that’s looking at medication that’s worse than the disease it’s supposed to cure.

Things aren’t looking too positive with cars, either. Automated cars aren’t perfect, performance cars are going the hybrid and turbo way and cheap cars that are fun to drive have become as difficult to come by as a window in Mumbai that doesn’t open into someone else’s window. The old, rev-happy four-pot 1.3s and 1.6s that were as smooth as an Apple marketing campaign have given way to turbocharged engines that sound like the extra-terrestrial drones in Hollywood movies that swarm in before the big extra-terrestrial invasion party arrives.

Words: Sriram Narayanan | Photography: Parag Parelkar

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Extra-terrestrial reminds me of our roads. In fact, our road surfaces, at present, seem like remnants of geological landmarks that occur once in a millennia, caused by tectonic plate shifts or a continental drift. And on these kind of roads, the Fiat Linea 125 S is astonishingly brilliant. Oh, the 125 S. Candidate number one in our affordable driver’s cars test. This Fiat, with 123bhp, is now the most powerful petrol sedan in its class (if you didn’t already know that).

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And candidate number two is… no. It’s not the second-most powerful petrol car in this segment. It’s the Volkswagen Vento TSI with 103 horses. That number sounds meagre when you consider the Fiat Palio GTX and Ford Fiesta 1.6 S from ages ago used to make 100bhp. Thankfully, like them, the Vento wears its power on its sleeve rather well. What makes it a hoot to drive is the 175Nm of torque and that seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

This transmission alone catapults the Vento three segments ahead of its rival. On an open road, this Rs 12 lakh car knocks on the doors of a Rs 40 lakh BMW 3 Series. The effortlessness, sheer pace and its tendency to stay rooted to a wet expressway at high speeds makes it nothing less than a front-wheel-drive junior German sports sedan.

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But then, the Italians have always had an upper hand when it comes to – ah, I know you hate that word, but it’s true – character. I’m not entirely convinced this facelift has improved the way the Linea looked. The problem is, the Linea’s looks never needed improvement. And the only way to upgrade a good-looking car is to start from the ground-up. Nip-and-tuck jobs work with Bollywood stars and average car designs. Not with stuff like the original Punto and Linea. Which brings me to Fiat’s unhealthy obsession with ground clearance. At 190mm, the Linea has as much GC as a Hyundai Creta. That creates so much vacant space in the wheel wells, a solar system could fit in there. The Italians, who are sticklers for aesthetics, will be shocked at the frumpy demeanour of this Linea.

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What’s not shocking, though, is the interior. The facelift inside was much needed and it’s a pleasure to have simple things like the USB and auxiliary ports where you can access them instead of having to search for them inside the glove box (which, by the way, is less spacious than a supercar’s). In fact, the only car that has less space than the Linea for odds and ends such as phones, wallets and keys, is a Lamborghini Aventador. No. I haven’t been distracted. I will get to the Linea’s character. See, you can’t boast about it in your marketing campaigns. You can’t shout about it in the brochure, but the feel of the pedals, their heft and their travel all add to the experience of a good driver’s car – along with the steering, of course. And the Linea has always made a strong case for itself for the eight years it has been around.

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The 125 S retains all of those pluses. But as it closes in on 100kph, the marvellously weighted, feedback-rich steering slips into cardiac arrest. It goes light, limp and doesn’t respond as eagerly to your inputs as it did at lower speeds. From having the best steering in the business, it takes effort to bring things down to this level.

The engine doesn’t sound great, but it sure has poke. Well, with 123 horses, it should. This Italian veteran has absolutely no problems doing high speeds. That ancient five-speed gearbox with its squiggly shift action doesn’t exactly make life easy, but this car can move. Can it corner? Some things never change. The sun rises from the east, politicians are corrupt, babies are cute and the Linea can corner. Even this new 125 S can. But if you continue pushing it, that excessive amount of ground clearance rears its ugly head with lean that will immediately want to you to back off the throttle. Why, Fiat? Why would you mess up the one thing you did perfectly right?

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You see, the Linea was never a car for everybody. Like Fiat says these days, its cars are “Crafted for car lovers”. I’d say they used to be crafted for car lovers. Now it’s crafted for ground clearance lovers, potholed-road lovers and things people aren’t sure they love or not. The Linea always had its quirks: badly-lit dials in the day, a messy arrangement of numbers and markings on the instrument console, a squiggly gearbox and more. But it used to be so brilliant to drive, you’d forgive it every folly. Just like you would your own child of all his/her mischief because he/she was so cloyingly cute. But now, the Linea, while good, isn’t great to drive. And if you try slowing down at a sharp hairpin and accelerating out of it, there’s a surge of torque steer that will have you wrestling with the steering to simply keep it pointing in the right direction.

Honestly, it’s not that the Linea will be pushed to such extremes, but it’s just that the original Linea could be. This one, with the raised suspension and altered steering, doesn’t meet the standards Fiat set itself with the first one. It’s still a better driver’s car than the Honda City, Hyundai Verna and even the Maruti Ciaz. The question is, is it better than the Vento?

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The Vento’s pedals don’t have the same feel as the Linea’s. It rides well, but then, the Linea seems to enjoy pulverising potholes in a way no other car can. So, Round 1 and 2 to the Linea. But on every other front, the Vento TSI takes the rulebook of fun, dynamically sorted cars, dots every i, crosses every t, and does everything by the book. The Vento is the car you can corner hard in. The Vento is what you’d want to bridge distant horizons with. The Vento is utterly, marvellously and clinically complete. And that gearbox is lovely.

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So, is it the best affordable driver’s car at the moment? Yes. Is it the best affordable driver’s car ever? No. The reason? That turbo engine. It’s superb, but the sound it makes, isn’t. And that lovely gearbox is perfect, but it’s not a manual. Automatic gearboxes these days fall an inch short of reading the driver’s mind. But nothing, absolutely nothing, can match the joy of foot off the throttle, on the clutch, shift, foot off the clutch and back on the throttle. Perhaps manuals are a handful in 500+bhp cars, but in a properly set-up car with 100-odd bhp, nothing is as good as a six-speed manual. Till that comes along, the Vento TSI is, by many miles, the best affordable driver’s car. Sure, we live in strange times, where an automatic is the driver’s ultimate go-to. But strange times do call for unpredictable solutions.

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VW Vento TSI
Price: Rs 11.34 lakh (ex-Delhi)
Engine: 1197cc, 4cyl, turbo-petrol
Power: 103bhp at 5000rpm
Torque: 175Nm at 1500-4100rpm
Transmission: 7A, FWD
Weight: 1178kg
Score: 8/10

TG Performance
0-100kph: 11.59secs
30-50kph: 1.9secs
50-70kph: 2.3 secs
80-0kph: 26.3m, 2.54secs
Kpl: 11 (city), 13.9 (highway)

Pros: Pace, gearbox, handling, steering feel
Cons: No reverse cam, no manual, turbo drone

Bottomline: This car is a six-speed manual away from perfection.

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Fiat Linea 125 S
Price: Rs 9.9 lakh (ex-Delhi)
Engine: 1368cc, 4cyl, turbo-petrol
Power: 123bhp at 5000rpm
Torque: 209Nm at 2000-3500rpm
Transmission: 5M, FWD
Weight: 1258kg
Score: 7/10

TG Performance
0-100kph: 10.28secs
30-50kph (3rd gear): 3.6secs, (4th gear): 6.7secs
50-70kph (5th gear): 7.9secs
80-0kph: 28.2m, 2.8secs
Kpl: 11.9 (city), 14.2 (highway)

Pros: Ride quality, pedal feel, auto wipers, auto headlamps
Cons: No reverse cam, steering feel, ground clearance ruins cornering, gearbox, turbo drone

Bottomline:
From being the best driver’s car, the Linea is now not sure about what it wants to be.

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