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Premier Rio CRDi 4

Driven October 2012

Premier Rio CRDi 4

The Nano hit showrooms in 2009. But some of us in TopGear were eagerly awaiting another car. The Premier Rio. It was an exciting concept. A small, light and simple SUV. No lockable differentials, no computers to distribute torque between axles and no double-tonne kerb weight.

It was to be a cheap, no-nonsense, off-roader. But after we drove the thing, it felt like George W Bush going up against Usain Bolt for the 100mtrs just because he has the same number of toes as the Jamaican. The car needed improvements on the engine, the chassis, bits of the suspension, the interior.

Going by the scale of improvements needed, Premier should have abandoned it. It is, by the way, a rebadged Zotye 2008 (to commemorate the year of the Beijing Olympics) from China, which is hated by Daihatsu – the Zotye is a copy of its Terios.

But then, Premier, which made and sold the Padmini for decades, isn’t one to give up. It did a cosmetic refresh in March 2012 with a new petrol engine, and now, the Rio gets the 1.3-litre Multijet from old brother-in-arm, Fiat. In terms of improvement, you could say this engine in this car finally makes the Rio worth considering. It’s got all the Multijet traits now. Middling low-end and a strong mid- and high-end. Plus, at idle, it’s quieter than even something as refined as the CRDi in the Hyundai i20.

The interior is the same since that mid-life refresh earlier this year. It’s narrow, the rotary air-con knobs are as hard as loosely-bolted screws and there are no airbags or steering-mounted controls. However, the audio system does have a USB port. Volkswagen? Skoda? Listening? Mechanically, the car has improved quite a bit. Ride is acceptable. It doesn’t wallow about like a ship or a Mahindra.

Nor does it send any jolts to your spine. In fact, exiting Premier’s factory on Pune's outskirts, it seems like a perfectly viable SUV. The gearshifts are fine even if slightly notchy. Nothing is threatening to fall off, the brakes don’t give you a scare, and then you get to a U-turn. Turn the steering full and you’ll hear an almost human voice, groaning very audibly. Let go of the steering a bit and the groaning stops.

Handling has never been the Rio’s forte, and the Multijet engine does nothing to change that. Around mild corners, you’ll feel you’re piloting a bendy bus rather than a compact SUV. Till 80kph, you’ll find nothing wrong in this car. At 100kph, you’ll wish you had taken your Chevy Beat or Maruti A-star. At 120kph, you can feel crosswinds and those bendy bus sensations return. At 150kph, your photographer in the support car behind will phone you to express concern saying you’re struggling to keep to your lane.

Which brings us back to where we started. You’ll need courage, good weather, good visibility and a wide empty road to take the Rio to three figures. Sure, you could argue that the national speed limit is 80kph at which the Rio is perfect. But then…

Frankly, the Rio is much improved from the first version. But it’s still only a four-seater. The rear seats aren’t comfortable as the floor is high and your knees will be at an awkward angle. So what you’re paying for is a vehicle with a good, efficient engine, decent dynamics in the city, and very good ground clearance. Fair enough for a cheap, light, small SUV. Problem is, it isn’t cheap.

At Rs 7.93 lakh (on-road, Mumbai), you could get yourself a premium hatch or a mid-spec sedan that will have safety and creature comforts you’d never find in the Rio. So as Arnab Goswami would say, “The people demand to know, are you paying just for the ground clearance?” Well, we’re not experts when it comes to these things, but if Mr Goswami promises not to holler and make us rue our existence, we’d have to go with “yes”.

The numbers
1248cc, 4-cyl turbodiesel, 70bhp, 183Nm, 5M , RWD, 14.6kpl, 0-100: 15.03secs, 50-70: 5.78secs, 80-0: 2.84s, 28.52m, Weight: 1145kg, Ground clearance: 200mm, Rs 7.93 lakh (on-road Mumbai)

The verdict
Unless you’re pining for ground clearance, there are cheaper, better cars out there.

Sriram Narayanan

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