I'm thinking of putting a down payment on the Gallardo Superleggera LP570-4, in yellow with the Alacantra leather interiors. Does a scribe get paid that much? Well, no. I may be paying off the EMIs for the rest of my life, and perhaps my son will have that burden on his head as well. But then with petrol at 63 rupees a litre I thought to myself, if I am going to spend a fortune on fuel I may as well burn it in something truly spectacular. What a Facebook statement that would make, "Just bought myself a Lambo!"
Or, I could shift to diesel, buy a premium diesel hatchback and ensure my son does not have to shift to a municipal school where the tuition is free. Yes, diesel hatchbacks are getting quite popular these days. And why wouldn't they? The myth that diesels are noisy, smelly and need a lot of maintenance is going up in smoke. As people move deeper into the suburbs daily commutes are getting longer and it does make sense to invest in diesel. These engines are efficient, not as noisy, require as much if not less maintenance than their petrol siblings, the torque they inherently deliver makes it easier to harness their power and then there's the clincher, diesel is subsidised! So why break the bank when you can bank on a diesel. But which one?
The choice isn't easy, simply because there are plenty of premium diesel hatches to choose from today. Such as the bunch we have here. There's the Fiat Grande Punto 90HP, the Hyundai i20, the Maruti Suzuki Ritz, the Skoda Fabia, the Volkswagen Polo and the reason behind this comparison, the newly launched Nissan Micra. They're all premium hatches, so you get a fair amount of space, luxury and features. But which is the best diesel hatch to buy today? And does the Nissan Micra have it in it to come up a winner? It's a tough ask but let's get down to analysing it.
DESIGN & PACKAGING
Straight to the point the Volkswagen Polo and the Fiat Grande Punto are the smartest looking cars on the outside. Strong Teutonic lines and Italian flair are always attractive and the Polo and the Grande Punto nail the styling. The i20 too has some strong design cues that in some shades, especially white, stand out. The fluid curvy lines and that strong nose characterise the new design ethos that the Korean maker is using to make the world stand up and take notice.
The Fabia, the Ritz and the Micra aren't going to sell on the strength of their styling, and though the Fabia has a sense of solidity the Ritz and Micra feel delicate. The Micra is very attention grabbing, but not in the 'wow my friends are gonna envy me' kind of way as much as for that bright 'caught your eye' metallic orange paint and the rounded contours. The Ritz, well, we've now seen too many of them, which is a good thing for Maruti but it's time for some refreshment.
But leave aside how the exteriors look and you'd realise that most manufacturers lavish time and effort into designing interiors. This is where you spend most of your time so form, comfort, functionality and accessibility are high on designers' priority lists. Based on those aspects only the Polo and the Fabia come close to fulfilling most expectations. The layout in the Polo is simple, operating the controls is easy and you intuitively know where everything sits without having to hunt for anything. It's even simpler in the Fabia though it dials down the premium-ness by a notch compared to the Polo. Both cars also have this typical German sense of style, which may seem a bit clinical and mediocre but aesthetically as long as it does not shock your senses anything is acceptable. Why don't either of these cars come close to perfection? Well, simply because neither offers audio controls on the steering, not even as option. And while the Fabia does provide an aux connector the Polo sticks to an archaic CD player alone.
The latest Jap diesel hatch, the Micra feels odd with its circular themed clusters, the bright and dull grey dual-tone interiors, the chromed door handles and the fake aluminum inserts. It is remarkably different from every other hatch, but it does not feel premium. However the Micra has good fit and finish we simply could find no fault with.
The i20 has a nice interior too but the centre console is a bit cluttered and the new aluminum-like finish lacks the classiness of the older full black panel. The i20 is also loaded with features including steering mounted audio controls and aux-USB connectivity which none of the cars in this segment offer, solidifying its premium status.
Where space utilisation is concerned, the i20 and the Micra score very high. The i20 is clearly the largest and most spacious inside with an enormous boot as well. The Micra on the other hand has well structured and ergonomically sound seats that offer a lot of room. Make note however that the i20 is the only hatch here to offer enough space for three rear passengers at the rear and though the others could also seat three it's just not as comfortable as in the i20.
The Fabia is more spacious than the Polo which sounds strange since they both share the same platform with near identical wheelbase and width. The reason? The seats in the Fabia are a bit more upright than the Polo which enhances rear knee room plus the taller design makes more head room available. The Punto also has a fair amount of space and a very comfortable rear bench though the front seats are fairly large and are not very supportive.
Overall the i20 and the Polo score very high marks, the former for the amount of space and features it provides and the latter for a sporty, upmarket, quality feel.
If you are the sort that loves to drive and look forward to every commute as your own personal proving ground the Polo will satisfy all your racer boy aspirations. It's stable, articulate when weaving rapidly through traffic and thanks to immense steering precision can turn any mundane drive into a sensational one just by dropping a gear and whipping the turbo. The ride too is immensely superior to anything else in this test though there are times when it does feel a bit stiff.
Same for the Fabia. It isn't as accomplished a handler as the Polo but make the driving duties subservient and perch yourself in the rear bench and you can enjoy the immensely luxurious ride it has to offer.
The only other car to balance ride and handling nearly as well as the Polo is the Ritz. The steering is fantastic, it lightens up in the city and on the highway gets heavier and more communicative which is just the way we like it. Its ride too is quite brilliant and though Maruti isn't popular for making cars that have particularly compliant damping, I'd certainly say the Ritz is comfortable on any roads you throw at it.
The Micra has a bit of a jittery and stiff ride though it has a light and precise steering and fairly accomplished dynamics. The Punto on the other hand offers great ride comfort but washes its hands clean when the driving gets a bit aggressive because of immense body roll. The i20 also focuses more on comfort rather than dynamics and though its steering is fantastic in the city, that light, often dull and lifeless sensation carries on at expressway speeds which can be a
The bottom line for any hatch is economy, more so with diesels. How fast, how refined, how responsive are soon going to be elementary aspects of an engine. So it makes sense for manufacturers to invest, develop and offer small capacity engines in the interests of efficiency, and not just because it gives them some excise benefits.
Of course for diesels anything under 1.5 litres attracts excise duty benefits and so we see diverse displacement engines powering these hatches. So the Polo and the Fabia share a 1.2-litre engine, the Grande Punto and the Ritz share the 1.3-litre diesel and the i20 and the Micra have the largest 1.4-litre diesels. What's also interesting is that the power and torque ratings for the cars vary by large margins and this has no relation whatsoever to how large their engines are.
So where and how does each of these engines fare? First off the Fiat Grande Punto. This engine dubbed the Multijet 90HP represents the max power coming out of its pipes. On paper it makes 93PS of max power which is a remarkable increase over the older 1.3 Multijet diesel. This also makes it the most powerful diesel engine in a hatchback and with 209Nm of max torque and 78.15PS per tonne, the highest power-to-weight ratio here. The Grande Punto is also an effortless car to drive. But what defines this engine is its variable geometry turbo whose addition in the drivetrain is solely responsible for the power hike. Thanks to the turbo the engine is quick but what you can appreciate more is the driveability it offers.
The Grande Punto is also the most technology equipped hatch in the segment. Apart from the several comfort features it has, it also has drive-by-wire which enhances engine responses. The Grande Punto's transmission however isn't the slickest around. It feels sticky, but is accurate and easy to operate when not rushed through the motions.
The Grande Punto does 100kmph in 15.75 seconds which is nearly 3 seconds quicker than its lower powered variant. It is also the fourth fastest in this test, faster even than the Polo and the Fabia. But this diesel isn't as fuel efficient as we expected it to be. ARAI claims that the Grande Punto gets an overall mileage of 20kmpl but in our test cycles the best we could manage was just a little over 16kmpl.
The Hyundai i20 is the next most powerful engine in this test with 90PS of max power and at 224Nm it's the car with the most torque. It has a standard turbocharger and is absolutely explosive once the turbo kicks in. But this engine also has a weak bottom end reminding me a lot of how the Verna used to behave. One second you're plodding through traffic waiting for the revs to build up and the instant the turbo kicks in the i20 plants itself in the boot of the car ahead. So while it is a terrific highway runner, it's a bit dreary to drive as a commuter in everyday traffic. The one grouse with this engine is the amount of engine clatter, which while it isn't the loudest, is still quite disturbing especially with the engine climbing into the powerband.
The i20 gets to a 100kmph in just 13.4 seconds the quickest in this bunch and nearly as quick if not quicker than most competitive petrol hatchbacks. However all that exhilaration is saved purely for an initial burst and
its top speed peters out at 157kmph. The i20 is also highly efficient in any driving cycle, be it highway or city returning an overall efficiency of 18.85kmpl on our runs against a claimed 20.2kmpl.
That brings us to the Ritz which still has one of the nicest diesel engines amongst all the diesel hatches. Though it's technology was acquired from Fiat and is the same engine used by the Grande Punto, Suzuki has tuned it to be infinitely more refined, responsive and efficient. Part of the responsiveness and efficiency comes from the superb gearbox. The ratios keep the engine ticking over optimally in the meat of the torque curve so at any moment you're instantly on the boil. This
also makes it a fairly efficient car to drive both in the city or on the highway since there is hardly any turbo lag to keep it bogged down.
So, despite kicking out less horsepower, the Ritz is quicker than the Grande Punto to 100kmph by three-tenths of a second and is also geared to get to a higher top speed which is 163kmph. But performance aside the Ritz also has excellent efficiency and it's the only car to deliver immensely good efficiency on any roads, urban or highway. ARAI claims that the Ritz is one of the most efficient diesel hatches available in the market with an overall mileage of 21.1kmpl.
The Polo and the Fabia share the same 1.2-litre diesel with 3 cylinders unlike the 4-cylinder oil burners used by the others. Both cars make the same amount of power and torque but have slightly different power-to-weight ratios. The Polo is slightly better than the Fabia since it is about 60kg lighter. Both also share the same transmission and that means they have near identical performance and efficiency. But both cars aren't the easiest to drive in their focused area, the city. Both cars make the bulk of their torque higher up the rev band, and it's only once the turbo kicks in at around 1800rpm that they feel sporty. Below that they just don't have the energy to make rapid strides in traffic and you have to downshift regularly to ensure the turbo is busy kicking the engine to life.
The Fabia and the Polo are the slowest cars in this test, each taking more than 16 seconds to get to a 100kmph. One of the reasons is that you can't make full-bore standing starts using all the revs with the engine not revving above 3000rpm at rest. Where efficiency is concerned the Polo thanks to a better power-to-weight ratio than the
Fabia manages superb highway economy though in the city it too falters because of the lack of low rpm grunt and requiring lots of gear shifting. The Polo has an overall efficiency of 17kmpl with the Fabia managing just about 16kmpl.
That brings us to the most recent engine, the Nissan Micra's K9K diesel. Now this engine isn't new to the Indian market, being already available in the Renault Logan in the very same state of tune. This engine was co-developed with Renault and is currently assembled at Nissan's manufacturing facility in Chennai. This engine isn't contemporary by any measure and it uses a dated single overhead camshaft with a 2-valves-per-cylinder layout and perhaps a more contemporary architecture could have given it better efficiencies and performance.
That isn't to say that this engine is a slouch. If anything it's a highly refined engine and puts a whole lot of effort and energy in doing its business. This 1461cc engine makes 64.5PS of max power at 4000rpm and 160Nm of max torque at 2000rpm. The diesel Micra unlike its petrol counterpart is heavier by nearly 78kg, but still is lighter than the other hatches here. The kerb weight pulls the power-to-weight ratio down to 63.98PS per tonne, less than what the others make and slightly better than only the
Fabia. It nevertheless responds quickly to throttle inputs, is silent at idle and low revs and is fairly nice to drive both in the city
The Micra diesel manages a respectable 15.2 seconds to 100kmph. On the fuel efficiency front it can really stretch a litre on the highway and isn't too bad in the city either. Overall it does 17.5 kilometres on a litre with official claims putting it at 18.06kmpl.
So where efficiencies are concerned,
research shows that diesels are clearly more efficient in any situation. Every diesel
engine outperforms its petrol counterpart by at least 3kmpl. But take a look at our
spec sheet and you'd also notice that
almost every car provides fantastic efficiency on the highway where their engines require little fuel to maintain a steady 80kmph. But place them in urban driving cycles
and you notice how much more effort is required to keep these engines running efficiently, the Ritz and the i20 being the only exceptions here.
Overall I recommend the i20 Diesel for its ability to offer a superb blend of performance and efficiency.
While the Micra diesel is a fairly competent car it does not move the game forward for this class. It brings nothing new to the table and while it does some things very well, there is always another car that does it better. It is a middle order car and not outstanding like say the i20. And then until you can be assured of a wide spread service network it really does not make sense to invest in a Nissan.
Hyundai then has for all purposes provided a car that makes perfect sense to an accountant. Yes, it is more expensive than everything else by nearly a lakh at the very least, but then look at the package and you can't ignore the fact that the i20 is a proper premium hatch. It's immensely spacious, is feature packed and the engine is one of the most fuel efficient you can get. Then there's the Hyundai network which is pretty large and comprehensive.
Of course if you did want to save some or a lot more money you could buy the Ritz, which though not as premium as the i20, at nearly 2 lakh rupees cheaper is still a very economical yet fun-to-drive diesel hatch. It was after all our choice of car when we drove it to Ladakh where it excelled in some of the most versatile terrain and weather known to man.
But then we aren't driven by the economy, we are a bit of a passionate bunch and the car we'd recommend is the one that makes all the right moves. And those begin at the start of a twisty and end where the road straightens out. For that there is nothing but the VW Polo that can bring a smile to your face. But then the Polo is not all fun and games and it does take its work very seriously which among other things is to return good economy. So the Polo was and still remains our choice of diesel hatchback in these trying times.
LIVING WITH IT
The escalating demand for diesels is artificially based on the fact that diesels are nearly as affordable as petrols. The truth is that diesels are still very expensive to purchase and own. Here is the simple math behind why petrols are still a better choice for personal cars and why diesels make sense for tour operations or taxis. I'm using my driving cycles as an example and though I consider my usage slightly above the average, it's not too large.
So like me if you had to drive at least 50 clicks every day to work and back your monthly mileage works out to around 1200km. Annually that adds up to 14,400km and say over a three-year cycle by which time I might want to buy a new car I'd have travelled a distance of 43,200km.
Now the average efficiency for a diesel is around 18kmpl (this isn't an ambiguous figure but comes from our test cycles), so over a period of three years I'd need 2400 litres of diesel which would at existing prices cost me around 98,400 rupees.
Take the petrol equivalent whose average efficiency is around 13kmpl, do the math and I'd end having spent some 2,10,000 rupees fuelling it.
So effectively you'd save around 1,10,000 rupees on fuel. Now factor in the money you paid to buy the car, a diesel is on average at least a lakh of rupees dearer than its equivalent petrol. Take out the difference and you'd end up saving just around 10,000 rupees having used diesel.
Now add in the service or cost of ownership. Given that consumables such as oils and labour costs are nearly the same for petrol or diesel, the biggest price difference crops up with the cost of spares. Going by the book, the service book that is, all diesel parts consumed during an average scheduled maintenance cost nearly twice as much as what it would for petrol. However the parts replacement periods are also nearly the same for either type of car which in most cases happens to be roughly between 15,000 and 20,000km. So for example if a petrol fuel filter, oil filter and air filter costs around 2000 rupees overall for a petrol car the cost of diesel parts is nearly 5000 rupees. So I'd need to change the consumable parts say twice in my car's life cycle. The difference between the two would work out to roughly around 6000 rupees more spent on the diesel. Deduct the 6,000 from the 10,000 rupees I'd saved on fuel which results in a saving of just 4000 rupees after having used a diesel car for three years.
Add to that if the car is purchased on credit I will have spent more money on EMIs servicing the loan. And if any part had to be replaced out of warranty (with diesel components nearly twice as expensive) I'd exhaust any saving at the pumps.
So by that reasoning anything less than around 50km a day and a diesel would no longer be more economical. That is why taxi operators who clock huge mileage on cars every day prefer diesels. For most urban commuters a more refined, peppy, and silent petrol is more sensible, even if the fuel is way more expensive.