Our anniversary issues over the years have involved fast and exotic machines. And we've either taken them to racetracks or to fast roads around Rajasthan. So for our 18th birthday, we decided to party in a different style. No, we weren't planning to get sloshed at the hippest pub in Mumbai. We are OVERDRIVE, you see? Party time is behind the wheel of an interesting car. It should arouse sensations that remind us how lucky we are to find ourselves doing a job that we love. But we did not want exotics. What's the point when you are driving less and worrying more about managing the car in the chaos that's Mumbai.
We zeroed in on three cars. Cars that bear names so iconic, you could probably name streets after them. They possess enviable history and a generous dollop of character which is seldom found in cars these days. The Mini Cooper S, Abarth 595 Competizione and the Volkswagen Beetle were ours for few days, and we loved every bit of our time spent with them.
As my eyes fell on the little Abarth 595 Competizione in Fiat India's parking lot, the first word that sprang in my mind was "choo cute". Just look at it. It'll even make a stone-faced army major's heart melt! I have never seen a car that draws so many eyeballs and evokes such myriad reactions, ever. Everywhere I went, people's faces were of disbelief, awe, surprise or inquisitiveness. It's almost as if the car looks extraterrestrial.
The Abarth 595's fat rimmed steering feels good to hold
Based on the Fiat 500, the Abarth 595 is its faster and angrier sibling. A little Mickey Mouse on steroids, if you will. The bumper, side skirts and the lowered ride height give it a proper sporty stance, befitting the scorpion Abarth badge it carries. And those gorgeous wheels, my god. They have to be one of the best alloys in the history of the automobile. They look even better once the car is in motion. I spent a great deal of my time ogling at the car, whether in my garage or while following it when it was driven by Halley or Ashok.
This 595 Competizione was launched in 2013 to commemorate 50 years of the original Abarth 595. Karl Abarth, the founder of the company, took a 13PS Fiat 500 engine and bored it to displace 594cc. He tinkered with it further to liberate double the horsepower than the original, resulting in a near 26PS motor powering a 500kg car. The current 595 then has pretty big shoes to fill in and manages to deliver on most counts.
As I got in, I quite liked the driver-oriented focus. The Sabelt-designed seats hug you tighter than your mummy, but the seats are pretty hard, close to what you'll find in a rally car. I don't mind it. After all, the badge reads Competizione, right? The little boost gauge above the instrument console is a cheeky little number and well within the character of the car.
The chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel is great to hold and offers good feedback. But I discovered that only later. The first hour of my time with the Abarth was spent in fervent prayers every time I spotted one of those nasty potholes that appear on Mumbai's roads every monsoon.
These gorgeous alloy wheels could also adorn the wall in your living room
I was worried about breaking the rims. You see, in this Competizione spec, the 595 Abarth runs on 17-inch, low-profile tyres. One high-speed encounter with a crater and that's the end of it. To add to my worry, the suspension set-up is quite stiff, more suited to the BIC than Andheri (a suburb in Mumbai).
As I drove further towards South Mumbai, the roads improved and finally I got a chance to floor it. The 595's 1.4-litre Turbo's quite the firecracker. With 160PS on tap and a 1,035kg kerb weight, I was expecting the car to rocket to the horizon.
We'd prefer the manual gearbox over this slow-witted AMT
But that wasn't the case. The 5-speed AMT box in the car is a big downer, and I simply can't understand why Fiat India does not offer the 5-speed manual which is available internationally. Upshifts are achingly slow and there is often an irritating pause, when moving from one gear to the next, around a long corner. Engaging the Sport mode does improve the shifts (and sharpens the steering) by a bit, but you miss the manual gearbox. Using the paddle shifts quicken downshifts but upshifts still take an age. It's the only chink in this otherwise beautifully crafted car's armour.
The handling is very entertaining
However, once I got past this, I began to indulge in the car's sure-footed handling. The Copaf front and Koni rear suspension with Frequency Selective Damping (FSD) keep the car planted around the bends, and it's actually quite an entertaining handler. The TTC (Torque Transfer Control) system aids cornering by braking the wheel with too much wheel spin and transfers the torque to the wheel with more grip.
I'm sure there was a lot more that the Abarth could deliver, but I did not have the time nor the roads to fully exploit its capabilities.
The next day, I switched over to the Mini, a car that I personally found pointless for the price, until I got behind the wheel of one. The car you see here may appear as a regular Cooper S this example, particularly, is bereft of the contrasting stripes and paintwork that shout Mini. A proper sleeper is what this one is.
What lurks underneath the hood is the special John Cooper Works tuning kit that injects the car with an additional dose of excitement. Mini sells it as an accessory and has, only recently, begun offering it here in India. While there are a plethora of accessories (some of which are eye-wateringly expensive) that one can choose to customise a Mini, in my opinion the JCW kit is all you need. Allow me to explain. While I was putting the miles on the Abarth, Ashok was having a whale of a time in the Mini. The reluctance to part with the key was evident on his face. When it was my turn to drive, I slowly began to discover why.
The interiors won't look out of place at a posh pub!
The little Mini has the word fun plastered all over itself. The moment I stepped inside the cabin, a sense of occasion took over. The cabin was lit in different hues, courtesy of the LED lights in the footwell and around the doors.
The aircraft-type toggle switches, including the large engine start-stop switch, replete with a red LED ring blinking like a beating heart, are ultra cool to operate. The large dinner plate-sized screen, with an LED ring along its circumference, grabs your attention. The animations are crisp and I spent a few minutes browsing through the menu and various settings. The seats, though sporty buckets, aren't as hard as the 595's. The steering wheel is great to hold and contoured perfectly to fit the human hand. You get a sense of grip even before you've turned the wheels! As I pressed the starter switch, the engine fired up and settled into a nice hum.
6-speed automatic is perfectly in sync with the engine
I instinctively shifted into Sports mode, and the words Maximum Go-Kart Feel popped up on the central display. Oh yeah! I floored the throttle pedal and the Mini leaped forward with an unexpected ferocity. You don't expect a car this small to go this fast, do you? A quick look at the specs revealed that the four-cylinder motor churns out 192PS and 280Nm. Those are impressive figures.
After a few metres, a right into left chicane came up, and that's when I discovered what that message on the display truly meant. The corners were dispatched with a poise that's usually seen in a ballerina.
The Mini exemplifies the term cornering on rails, and I was hooked. Rahul, who was following in the 595 Abarth, was watching the Mini in action. "I noticed how composed the Mini is, even while encountering mid-corner bumps," he said as we pulled over after a good cornering session.
The Mini has always been regarded as the go-kart for the road. Launched in 1959 and christened the Mark 1, the car gained popularity due to its unique styling and peppy character. There were several iterations further down the years, each model surpassing the previous one. The Mini also has a number of rally wins under its tiny belt. The car has also featured in many movies like the Italian Job (1969, 2003).
Remember the John Cooper Works kit I told you about? Halley introduced me to the trick button, encased in a case that sat in the cup holder. Double pressing the button deactivates the baffles in the exhaust via Bluetooth, giving the Mini a sporty growl at idle. This tone graduates to a raspy snarl as the revs increase, and I immediately knew what I wanted to do next find a tunnel and floor it!
Later that day, I left office earlier than usual and asked my wife and brother-in-law to join me for a quick drive to Pune and back via the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. The 95km stretch between the two cities has about five tunnels, and I along with my family was treated to one of the best automotive sounds this side of a Rs 40 lakh car. The pops and crackles from the exhaust as you lift off the accelerator and the braaap as you upshift is hilariously addictive. The sound, ricocheting off the tunnel walls, is duly captured in my memory and the cell phone recorder. Yes, I still listen to it.
Another revelation was the high-speed stability and grip of the Mini. It's almost physics defying. "Oh wow" was a common expression on my face as the Mini darted to ludicrous speeds. 160kmph comes up in no time, and sustained speeds of above 200kmph are like a usual day in office for the Mini.
Later, the fast corners of the Khandala ghat section of the expressway arrived and I enjoyed the supreme handling of the Mini. I have never driven a car that corners so flat, ever. And the confidence in the wet is something else. The car is superglued through a corner, and the steering offers feedback that is better felt than spoken of. I was giggling and laughing the whole time, amazed at what this car was doing. " I'm not feeling afraid in this car at all, despite the high speeds," my wife said.
The Mini Cooper S is the best driver's car in this group
Great chassis, communication, ride and handling have always trumped other aspects in my feeling of either love or loathe for a car. The Mini in my books is a gem, and the best car I've driven in my short time as an auto journalist.
I wish I could buy myself a Mini. It's a sentiment that echoes within the office too. Lijo Mathai is famous for his I-am-hard-to-please persona. But the Mini has struck a chord with him. Our resident off-road guy, Rahul Richard, has given up on the idea of buying the Isuzu D-Max V-Cross. "Ah, what do I do to collect the money to get myself a Mini?" he keeps repeating with a smile on his face.
Although grown up, the shape is unmistakably Beetle
The next day, I got behind the wheel of the cheerful, bright orange Volkswagen Beetle . This car is, by far, one of the most recognisable shapes in automotive history. Conceived as the people's car, the original Beetle was built from 1938 to 2003. Although, mass production only began post 1945 after the Second World War, the Beetle's strong build, reliability and distinct shape saw its popularity soar through the roof. The current Beetle you see in these pages, however, is anything but affordable at Rs 34 lakh. But I'd buy it for its history. It is after all the descendent of a legend.
Body coloured dashboard is reminiscent of old Beetles
The VW Beetle feels the most spacious of this lot as well as the most comfortable. It is relatively easy to drive too. The 16-inch wheels with generous sidewall on the tyres means you don't have to quiver in fear every time you spot a bad stretch. And since the Beetle is manufactured by Volkswagen, the quality of materials, fit and finish is excellent. I particularly like the colour co-ordinated interior that adds a dash of retro and is reminiscent of old Beetles.
Large spoiler can double up as a picnic table on a date!
The charm of the Beetle was evident as I drove around town. I saw a lot of people break into an involuntary smile, the office gatekeeper included, upon spotting the car. Its pleasing personality fits the take-home-and-show-the-parents kind to the T.
As our time with the cars came to an end, I grew to like all the three cars, for different reasons. There are no winners or losers here. What we wanted to do is experience the latest versions of historic cars, and they have left an indelible impression on us. The Abarth 595 gets my vote as the best-looking car here. It's heart-achingly beautiful and a collector's item for sure. The Volkswagen Beetle, in its current guise, may be all grown up, but the lines, bulging fenders, the bug face and that butt make it so endearing. And lastly, the Mini. Never has a car left me feeling so alive. Every kilometre covered in it was momentous. I cannot comprehend how the Mini manages to keep you entertained always. It's arguably the proper enthusiast car you would ever need. Sure, there are cars that offer far more luxury and comfort at the price these trio command. But think about this. Can those cars match the charisma of the Abarth, Beetle or the Mini? Not.
Images by Ashok George