I'm tired, irritated and just want to go home. But the delightful traffic of aamchi Mumbai isn't going to let that happen any time soon. One hour and I've moved just 300 metres after dropping a fellow journo off at the airport at the end of the Renault Scala automatic drive. Despite the foul mood I can't help but smile at this very smart move by Renault's marketing department. By organising this one day 300 odd km drive to Kashid and back they made sure we left the city at a very convenient 1030am which meant we would return at a most inconvenient half past six in the evening - rush hour.
The whole point of the drive was to experience the claimed smoothness and convenience of the new gearbox in an otherwise identical car. In that regard they've succeeded and how - the gearbox was experienced and most definitely appreciated. So much so, that we just had to know if it is going to be the new automatic of choice in the upper C segment. Enter two other contenders to the crown - the Honda City V automatic and the Skoda Rapid Elegance automatic.
Now our market has always been averse to the concept of an automatic gearbox largely because the few old school gearboxes we are used to in this price range were slow, sapped a lot of power and killed fuel efficiency. Throw our current petrol prices in the picture and a petrol automatic almost seems a mad proposition. But consider this. New age gearboxes are far improved and with serious talks of diesel prices being significantly increased petrol automatics suddenly make a lot of sense.
Especially if you make painful commutes through traffic choked roads that take hours, not because of the distance but simply because of the sheer volume of vehicles. Take a look at the Honda City for example - its performance is almost on par with the manual and our fuel efficiency figures indicate that it is only o.5kmpl less efficient. The actual extra money you end up paying then is just the additional money you would pay to buy the car. In our minds it makes plenty of sense to spend some more on your vehicle if it's going to give you a relatively stress free driving experience.
All three cars have been around for a while and all three are identical to their manual counterparts except for the gearbox. So I'll skip the usual intro on design and style this time. The Scala is the new car here so let's start with it. The big news is that unlike the other two it's a CVT, in fact Renault claims it's the first car in the segment with a CVT but that's not entirely true. The second generation Honda City came with a CVT box mated to their i-DSI engine but reverted to a torque convertor for the current City.
What is a first for the segment however is Renault's claim that (according to ARAI figures) the car is more efficient than its manual sibling. Renault calls it the X-tronic gearbox and it's essentially the same gearbox lifted from the Nissan Sunny that is sold abroad as the Versa or Almera. Renault stressed on the work done to ensure it was smooth and driveable and in that regard they've done an excellent job.
The car launches smoothly from a standstill without any jerks - something the Rapid isn't as accomplished at. It is smooth, quiet and jerk free without too much whine that you normally associate with a CVT. Unlike the other two cars here, there is no option to manually shift through gears (or perceived gears in this case) but there is a small sports button on the side of the gear lever. Pressing this button ensures the engine holds revs when you lift off under hard driving as the revs drop the moment you lift off when in Drive mode.
The box isn't blazingly quick and you will need to plan the occasional overtake. The only downside is the issue that all CVTs face - the rubber band effect. This is essentially the buildup of your engine revs as you accelerate hard. CVT boxes use belts and pulleys to keep the engine at an optimum high rpm as the speeds build up. Floor it and the revs jump up to about 5500rpm where the engine produces most of its power. Find the space and the engine will hold those revs all day long. It's like the noise a Kinetic Honda scooter used to make under hard acceleration.
Listening to this continuous steady high rpm drone under aggressive driving is a bit of a turn off and we preferred driving the car sedately. The 99PS/134Nm 1.5-litre engine results in some decent performance with the 0-100kmph sprint taking 13.58 seconds. Efficiency is also impressive with the car running 11.7km to the litre in the city and pushing that number to 20.3 for an overall figure of 13.85kmpl. Impressive but it doesn't come close to that near unattainable ARAI figure of 17.97kmpl. In real world driving conditions the automatic is slightly less efficient than the manual. But only just.
The Scala has a supple ride for the most part but the car has a tendency to crash through deeper potholes. Light and precise steering allied to the torquey engine and smooth box make it nice to drive in city conditions. It's a decent handler too and will do exactly what you ask of it but won't really excite you much.
The City is the oldest of the three cars here and it's also our current pick of the lot. The car comes with a five-speed torque convertor but this car's USP is the addition of steering-mounted paddle shifters. Like the Scala it isn't a lightning quick box and if you're in regular Drive mode you will have to plan your overtakes. Unlike the Scala however you can get around that by slotting the box into manual mode and using the paddle shifters to choose the right cog. Shifts are offered at the first request and what I particularly liked is that the gearbox will not shift unless you ask it to, even if the engine is banging against the limiter. There's no joy like an obedient automatic box. The City gets the most powerful engine of the lot with 118PS/146Nm and it is. as expected, the quickest car here. It takes 12.4 seconds to 100kmph and tops off at 185kmph. Efficiency stands at 12.07kmpl overall.
The City feels the softest of the three cars and it does tend to understeer at the limit but that's also largely down to the economy focused and skinny 175/65R15 Michelin Energy tyres. It's however still a fun car to drive thanks to the fantastic engine, neutral chassis and quick steering. It also offers the best ride quality of the three.
The Rapid is the only car here with a six-speeder. It's a smooth, progressive gearbox but feels the most sluggish of the three in Drive mode. The car offers you a sport mode that raises shift points and also proper manual mode. The Rapid has a torquey and rev happy 1.6-litre petrol that makes 105PS and 153Nm. In manual or sport mode, when aided with the Vento/Rapid's very capable chassis this car is the most fun to drive. Despite that, it's ironically the slowest taking 14.6 seconds to touch 100kmph and topping off at 178kmph. The Rapid was never a very efficient car and it offers a low overall figure of just 10.4kmpl.
It's very hard to choose between the Rapid and the Scala. The Rapid is a lovely car to drive but it loses out badly to the Scala in terms of efficiency. It's fun to drive when pushed hard but the Scala is nicer to drive in regular city driving conditions. Build quality is very good and the layout and quality of materials on the inside make it look and feel much richer and more up-market than the Scala's plasticky and slightly juvenile looking interiors. The Skoda has a great sound system but is cramped on space in comparison and loses out badly on the all important fuel efficiency stakes. And that hands second place to the Renault.
Renault has assaulted our market like no other manufacturer. In the span of just one and a half years they've launched five cars and opened 100 showrooms. Renault takes India very seriously, they also offer a four year warranty and that should put an end to any fears of after sales service commitment. We estimate that the Scala CVT should cost around Rs 11.4 lakh, on road Mumbai which puts it right in between the Rapid and the City. It has a few nice features like electronically foldable mirrors and an engine start-stop button. However this car's defining feature is the space and the rear seat comfort it offers. It makes for serious consideration if you plan to be chauffeured around - but then the manual makes a lot more sense. There are small issues with build quality which show up in the finer details like the loud clicking noise from the solenoid in the brake that releases the shift lock to allow you to shift from Park to Drive. The Scala's build quality still has some way to go before it reaches Honda or Skoda levels.
Which leaves us with the City. There's a reason this car keeps winning our tests - it's a complete package. The car offers great styling, a fantastic engine mated to a good gearbox, a good ride handling compromise and plenty of space at the rear along with the only fully flat rear floor in the segment. It isn't lacking in the goodies list either, being the only car to offer a sunroof and cruise control. Factor in that it is perceived as a premium product, has a great reputation for reliability and holds a good resale value and the extra 30-50 thousand that you pay makes a lot of sense. Corny as it sounds, the City still rules the city.