We are less than 300km into our trip a road trip that is supposed to be 4,000km long and I have a huge moment. I have just exited a left hander on the four-laned ghat section between Nashik and Dhule near Chandwad. I see a truck ambling ahead in the middle lane. There's nothing blocking its path for kilometres on end, no slow moving bike, rickshaw or tractor. There isn't a pothole in sight either. Clearly, there's no reason for the truck to change lanes. So I get on the throttle to make my overtake. But just as I am about to draw parallel to it, the truck swerves right. I brake hard and the front left wheel locks up. This isn't supposed to happen. This car has ABS.
It was a tough drive, especially when you consider there wasn't a single dual carriageway en route, but plenty of very broken sections.
As the truck tucks back into its lane, I ease off the brakes, but nothing. The left front is still locked and the car continues to be on the brakes as if I am standing on the brake pedal. Now, I am completely off the brakes, but again nothing changes. I am now heading towards the high divider. With the front left tyre sliding on its own molten rubber, I have no steering; just a huge cloud of white smoke, the smell of burnt rubber and a prayer - I don't want the trip to end so soon, and especially not like this...
Back in May when the wheels for our anniversary issue, our 15th, had just begun turning, someone had found a seven-year-old issue of the magazine. After reading our epic Coast to Coast story in the issue, the person had suggested we attempt it again. Last time around we had driven three new sedans the Fiesta, the Aveo and the Verna along with the top seller of the time, the Honda City. We wanted to celebrate the growing popularity of the sedan class at the time with a test that challenged both the man and the machine. It was an easy trip to plan too; since we had no idea how good or bad the roads might be, the night halts would be made impromptu. It took us four days, two broken alloy wheels and scuffed bellies (the cars were not ours) to complete the trip. It was a tough drive, especially when you consider there wasn't a single dual carriageway en route, but plenty of very broken sections.
This time, as we plan (again easy to do for we will take it as it comes), all the excitement seems to be around the Ford EcoSport. Its pricing has taken everyone by surprise and almost everyone we know whether they need it or not wants to buy the EcoSport. The Ford then has to be on the trip. But to keep it honest we decide to bring in the competition. We don't want EcoSport's traditional challengers, instead we pick cars which are all powered by diesel engines, are top spec and compete with the EcoSport on pricing at some level. More importantly, they present a whole new alternative. Unlike the EcoSport, which is an SUV, the Chevrolet Enjoy is an MPV, the Mahindra Verito Vibe is a big, small car, and the Honda Amaze is a sedan, which like the EcoSport is proving to be very popular. These are also all-new and mark innovation for their respective makers, just like the EcoSport does.
We drove down to Kolkata from Mumbai covering five states
So with the August issue sent to bake, we depart early in the morning almost three months after the idea was thrown open. We will be driving to Kolkata from Mumbai covering five states. The plan is to be there in three days and then make a quick dash back to Mumbai. And in the course of these 4,000 kilometres, we will hopefully have a clear winner.
I am driving the EcoSport. I have my Samsung connected to SYNC for Bluetooth telephony, my seat adjusted to the lowest possible height setting and the steering pulled close to me. This seat and steering adjustment does make it easy to find a comfortable driving position on the EcoSport. I like the supportive seats and the sorted ride quality; going over the broken Mumbai roads in the wee hours of the morning without a care for the suspension or the car bottoming out is bliss.
I am joined by Alan, Halley and Rishaad driving the Enjoy, Amaze and Vibe, respectively, while Ashok has been entrusted with getting awesome pictures. He will also double up as a reserve driver in case the local food en route gets the better of us. The National Highway 3 (NH3) to Dhule is a four-laned, well-surfaced, quick route. It turns into a six-laned expressway of sorts close to Nashik and bypasses the city with three flyovers tied together as if they were one. One of these is over 5km in length. Within a couple of hours of departing Mumbai, we are already in Nashik. Because we are making such good time, Ashok wants some photographs done at the Sula vineyard. It's a pretty place but at this hour in the morning, there's no one to entertain us. With our plans of taking a tour of the vineyard ruined, we take some quick pictures alongside the grapevines and leave.
Halley, who is leading the convoy with the help of a satnav decides to take an alternate route out of Nasik city. It's a bad idea. The roads are narrow and infested with pedestrians, two-wheelers and cattle, and everyone around is trying to get paint off our cars. In the EcoSport with its chunky A-pillar and unclear edges, I am having a harrowing time. It takes us over an hour to join back NH3. But once we do, we are back up to pace.
The EcoSport's diesel engine isn't the most gutsy, but it works decently on the highway. One can't hear much of the engine on the inside; it's happy cruising at triple digit speeds; and though one does need to work the gearbox a bit to keep the speeds up, it's not as much hard work as the engine's modest output figures suggest. And in this company, even though I am the last car exiting toll booths and making my way through traffic, it doesn't take much to catch up with the rest. What's really impressive about the EcoSport though, is its stability - it feels rock solid in a straight line and around bends and it reacts promptly to steering inputs too.
We are on the ghat section before the turn off at Dhule which will see us join NH6 all the way to Kolkata. I am running a little behind and therefore, driving harder than usual to get the Vibe back in my sight. As the corners keep coming, the gap through the winding section keeps dropping. I am now barely five car lengths behind the Mahindra, and then the fateful left hander arrives.
The left tyre in the EcoSport had to be changed because of the flat spot
There's a truck in the middle lane, an easy prey to overtake. I go for it but it swerves into my lane. I go hard on the brakes and after that there's no looking back. The EcoSport is doing its own thing - locked up wheels, no letting off on the brakes and heading straight for the divider. Something happens, the tyres find grip and the Ford steers left. The divider has been avoided but the SUV has now come to a full stop in the fast lane on a very fast highway. I can see a Bolero pickup in my rear view mirror heading straight for me. I launch the EcoSport into the slowest lane hoping the brakes aren't binding anymore. They aren't. But now I have such a huge flat spot on my left tyre, it's causing the Ford to wobble excessively even at 50kmph.
The EcoSport's ABS problems being tended to at Ford's Nagpur service station
The Ford clearly can't be driven. And it's not just because of the flat spotted tyre, but if the car chooses to brake to a standstill every time the ABS is activated leaving the driver helpless, it's a disaster waiting to happen. We change the tyre and after a few calls to the Ford helpline number it is decided, the car will be rectified in Nagpur. That's still over 500km away over a single carriageway that is undulating and broken in parts. Even if I as much as touch the brakes with vigour on any of these broken sections, the ABS is bound to come on. It's a scary feeling. But, slowly, gently and riding on faith, we get to Akola. And stop. It's already dark and the wet roads, thanks to persistent rains, have made the situation twice as dangerous. It's good then, we did not plan this trip to the tee.
Next morning, seeing my state, Halley decides to take on the EcoSport challenge. Thankfully, less than 100km into the drive and past Amravati, the roads turn gorgeous. It's now a dual carriageway, freshly laid and with hardly any traffic. We are still cautious but making much better progress. I, in the meantime, switch to the Vibe. And immediately, it is clear this is no small car.
The feeling of space is immense; the visibility, tremendous. It's also a very easy car to get used to - the seats are large and the controls aren't too heavy. But, it feels generations behind, especially after the EcoSport. The short dashboard, the quality of plastic and those thin A-pillars, all hint towards a car that needs a major design and quality upgrade. The clutch feel is awful too - it is spongy and the progression is poor. Once I begin driving though, I warm up to the Vibe. The gear shift quality is better than on the EcoSport and one of the best in this group. The engine is the tried and tested Renault dCi unit. It's not the most refined, but it sure has good low and mid range and sticking to three digit speeds isn't tedious on the Mahindra.
The Vibe doesn't corner flat and compared to the EcoSport there's some pitch and wallowing, but it isn't excessive
It's got strong and sound mechanicals too. It rides really well and the odd potholes or broken sections (thanks to heavy rains in these parts) are taken without a bother. I hardly feel anything inside the cabin - noise, vibrations or thuds are conspicuous by their absence. The steering is quick and the brakes, powerful and offer good feel. And on ghat sections like the one just after Talegaon which has eight corners in all but all pretty quick, I take them all without having to use the brakes; well almost. The Vibe doesn't corner flat and compared to the EcoSport there's some pitch and wallowing, but it isn't excessive.
Nagpur arrives and in less than half-an-hour we are at the dealership. Details on how the situation unfolded at the dealership have been documented in a separate box, but the bottom line is, they couldn't sort out the problem. So after a 24-hour wait, we are given a substitute EcoSport; same spec, but white in colour.
It's almost two in the afternoon by the time we leave and Raipur seems like the logical night halt. We are a day behind schedule and Rishaad has a flight to catch from Kolkata. So, we decide to step on it. To our misfortune, exiting Nagpur is a pain-and-a-half. The roads are terrible with craters so large, we had to think twice about negotiating them even in the EcoSport. The traffic is unruly and the truckies here don't think twice about leaving a truck parked in the middle of the road just so they can go make small talk. Eventually, it takes us over an hour to negotiate barely 10km. And then when we think it's over and park by the side to take a breather, a traffic cop comes by and challans us for not wearing a seat belt, in a parked car with the engine switched off. But, head constable Jagdish Jambulkar isn't willing to listen. As he later reveals, since he has a target to meet, he must challan us. There is no time to be egoistic. So we pay, take the receipt and make our way to Raipur. It's mostly dual carriageway all the way from here and Chhattisgarh arrives in no time.
Surprisingly, there's no real change in scenery or road characteristic or surfacing between Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. The transition between states - at least for private owned cars - is seamless too. We are now set in a monotonous cruise. Time then to reflect on the Vibe a little more.
The steering and seat adjustments on this car are minimum, so I just have to accept the driving position and it's not very comfortable. Plus, the list of features on the Vibe, is short. It only gets a driver's side airbag and a basic audio system, but no multifunctional steering wheel or climate control. There's nothing plush or welcoming about its interiors, and the only thing that lends it some modernity is the new central console. It's not a car you'd want to buy for emotional appeal. But the way it handles our roads, it's hugely practical.
The convoy between Maharastra and Chattisgarh
It's past nine at night and Raipur is all but asleep. It's a concrete jungle this and it's clear there are moneyed individuals in this town. We are too tired to explore and instead find a hotel and check-in. And as we do, Ford calls with some good news. Our EcoSport is sorted and is already on its way here. So, by the time we are ready to leave the next day, it will be back as part of our convoy.
Day four and we still have over 850km to do. We have a bit of Chhattisgarh, all of Odisha, and of course, a bit of Jharkhand to contend with. Tough ask? You bet.
Exiting Raipur, the dual carriageway comes to an end. It seems the state government cares about the connectivity of its capital with flourishing Maharashtra, but couldn't care less about Odisha. All the way from Arang to border town Saraipali in Chhattisgarh, the road is nothing short of a car breaker. After short sections of good tarmac luring one into picking up pace, there are a series of potholes so deadly, we can actually see cars, and trucks even, being flung into the air violently.
I am finding the road a lot worse in the Amaze than guys in the Vibe and the Enjoy are. I can tell because they have gone so far ahead I can't even spot them on a kilometer-long straight. I try pushing to close the gap, but the Amaze sends shock waves. Not that the Honda has a terrible ride, but it most certainly has the worst sound deadening in this group. One can hear the road, the gravel, the tyre and even a leaping frog squashing itself into the car's belly inside the cabin. And because I am only carrying CDs, which the Amaze doesn't play, I have no music to drown these noises out with.
In the Amaze, one can hear the road,the tyre and even a leaping frog squashing itself into the car's belly inside the cabin
The Honda's absorption abilities aren't as good as the others either. So, every time I hit a pronounced bump or a pothole, I can hear and feel the suspension taking it badly. If I push any harder, I fear I will break something. At least the steering is light and quick, and the brakes, sharp. So, while I work vigorously turning the steering left and right, and braking hard, and then swerving and swearing to avoid as many ditches as I can, my colleagues have already crossed into Odisha.
It takes me another 20 minutes to get to the border, and then I get stuck. It's barely two lanes, this broken road, and as is with most state border crossings, the trucks line up for kilometres on end as they set about presenting their papers and clearing dues with the authorities. The best thing to do then, is to take the wrong side. And I do but then get stopped by a local. He demands I pay him Rs 50 for taking the wrong side. I am in no mood for a confrontation. So I swerve on to the dirt and take off. Ahead at the border gate, the officials willingly wave me past.
Navigating the narrow bylanes of Chattisgarh
Odisha, after Chhattisgarh, feels heavenly. It welcomes you with a four-laned highway. It's still incomplete but the work is on in full gusto. And the road surface is great. There's hardly any construction alongside the highway either. So all you see are cute mud houses, bright green fields extending to the horizon and locals, who are simply dressed, but don't look half as malnourished as they did last time we were here. Prosperity has certainly blessed Odisha as well.
Bargarh though, the first proper Odisha town on our route, proves to be a pain. It's a busy town and everyone seems to be on the road. It's much more developed and well off than I remember it. There are motorcycles everywhere. Cars even. And there are stores along the way that deal in more than just basic amenities. As we drive on, the suspense of when the bad roads will actually arrive is killing me. I pull over and ask a truck chap. According to him, the worst is behind us. It's all smooth sailing from here on. And the roads in Odisha in particular are 'taka tak'. Hard to believe, but it's all we needed to hear.
So with a renewed enthusiasm, we press on and into the jungle we hit the first proper ghat section. Now the roads in Odisha in general are a good mix of long straights with blind crests and enough winding sections to keep you on your toes. But this one, with corners of all sorts - tightening radius, S-bends, off camber bends and the like - is proving to be even more enjoyable. It's called the Kanjipani ghat which starts at Siriabahal. The surface all through is lovely too.
The roads in Odisha in particular are 'taka tak
I am finally beginning to enjoy the Honda. It is nicely balanced, turns into corners without much coaxing and depending on your steering input, it doesn't mind oversteering into corner entries. Body roll is well controlled too. And did I mention it's raining? Well, it is, and the surface is a bit slippery, but the tyres aren't letting go. Also, the under 4m length and its wheel at the edges design means the Amaze is quite willing and easy to make quick direction changes from one tight corner to the other. And a pretty fair clip, mind you. The steering is precise which helps when the going gets quick, but yes, it does lack feel and weight. If properly tuned, the Honda would have been a lot more fun, no doubt.
The all-aluminium diesel engine meanwhile is proving to be a star. Besides the noise, I had been enjoying it thus far as well. It gets up to speed easily and without me having to downshift every other second thanks to well judged spread of torque all across the rev range. It also keeps the turbo lag down to a bare minimum. On this twisty section, it is continuing to show its strength. The engine is helping the Honda pull out of corners beautifully. In fact, I have to back off the throttle to avoid the car's inside front tyre spin relentlessly exiting tighter corners at times.
Soon I catch up with the Enjoy, and it's déjà vu. Three days earlier while tackling the ghat leading up to Igatpuri before Nasik on NH3, the Chevrolet was doing exactly the same thing. It was oversteering into and out of corners. It was wet then, as it is now. But it was Alan behind the wheel at Igatpuri and now it's Rishaad. Alan didn't confess about having fun drifting the MPV out of corners, and now I can see Rishaad throwing his hands up in the air, and not out of joy. He later tells me, he wasn't trying to drift the Enjoy but it was impossible to make it stop if he went even a wee bit fast. But fast he continues to go.
I don't buy it. It just looks so much fun from the outside that I have to give it a go myself. So, as soon as the ghat ends, I swap cars with Rishaad. And immediately, I feel I have gone back in time. After the Amaze, the Enjoy's insides feel old school and low key. It seems as if the MPV has been built with very stringent cost targets in mind. The plastic looks and feels cheap, and the operability of the switches and knobs, and of the wiper stalk, in particular, has no real tactility to speak of. The driving position isn't good or vastly adjustable, the air con struggles to cool properly, and besides driver and passenger airbags and ABS, it isn't feature packed either.
Captain seats in the Chevrolet Enjoy seats six comfortably
The road opens up and I find myself struggling with the Enjoy's drivetrain as well. The gear shift quality is the worst in this bunch; it's vague and the throws are seriously long. The engine isn't noteworthy - it's noisy inside the cabin and it generates so much booming effect, headache is guaranteed after long hours spent driving it. The Chevy refuses to accelerate quickly from a standstill and even after I am working the gearbox excessively, the turn of speed is average at best. Then there are the brakes. There's very little progression and the bite comes in pretty late. So late in fact that I am calling on the ABS unintentionally almost all the time. Thank god, we do not have the EcoSport problem on the Chevrolet.
My wait ends, and as soon as we get past Bisoi, another ghat section awaits us. It's still raining and the roads are still wet. I come up to this wide and open left hander, almost a 180 degree bend if you like. I am not fast, wanting to get acquainted with the car first. But, not even half way through the corner, even before I have reached for the throttle, the Enjoy's rear swings out quite dramatically. I catch it and realise the culprit was a slight change in road surface. Then the corners start flying in thick and fast, and without me intending to, the Enjoy is oversteering all over. At turn ins, at exits and even mid corners. This isn't silly, it is dangerous. My corner speeds drop dramatically and I begin playing the waiting game; waiting for the Enjoy to oversteer on me at the least expected moment, which continues to happen bend after bend till the ghat ends. Now, I have new found respect for Alan and Rishaad's driving abilities.
2013 Ford EcoSport TDCI vs Chevrolet Enjoy LTZ TCDI
A few hours later, I have new found respect for the Enjoy too. Yes, I find something to like in the Enjoy. We have crossed into Jharkhand and nothing has changed from seven years ago. There's still no sign of a road; it's just crater after crater. And whatever little tarmac there is, it's so badly scarred, if I were in the Amaze right now, I would just be crashing into everything and cursing my stars. But in the Enjoy, I am steam rolling over almost everything. The rear does bounce over a few larger bumps and ditches but there's no sign of complain from the MPV's hardware. It doesn't even bottom out anywhere. I am through the nightmare that is Jharkhand and into West Bengal in no time and await the last of our cars, the Amaze, to arrive. Now, it's a dual carriageway run to the city of joy a little under 200km away.
The sumptuous buffet that we were served in Nagpur
We reach Kolkata close to 10pm. And as I follow the EcoSport, the Amaze and the Vibe in the Enjoy, in a quest to find a hotel, I realise how much the road infrastructure has changed in the last seven years. The traffic has gone up too but there's four-laning for almost 40 per cent of the route. Seven years back, it was only Kolkata that was four-laned. This drive isn't as challenging as before, and is now worth attempting.
However, one question remains to be answered: How to rate the cars? Not just for such a trip, but to live with on an everyday basis. And the answer, coincidentally, lies in the way the cars are lined up right now (see pic below).
The Enjoy finished last. It may have seven seats, and it may be the most spacious, and it may ride the rough really well, but it's not built as well as the others. The quality is iffy, equipment is sparse and the dynamics, though appreciable in the dry, go completely haywire in the wet.
The Vibe is next. It too is spacious and it has a fantastic ride as well. Moreover, it is built to last. In fact, the Mahindra was so impressive on the drive, it won our hearts. No matter what the road threw at it, it went about its business with the least amount of fuss and gave us no reason to complain. But the more time we spent driving it inside Kolkata, the more its shortcomings came to the fore. There's no escaping its old design, its faulty ergonomics at places and its lack of features. And although we all fell in love with the Vibe, no one wants to buy it over the EcoSport or even the Amaze.
Back to aamchi Mumbai then
The Amaze, though, did find a few fans, and understandably so; it is a brilliant city car, after all. And even on this drive, apart from its ride and in-cabin noise, it impressed us hugely. It's spacious, has comfy seats, has decent equipment and is by far the most fuel-efficient and driveable car of the lot.
But, our winner is the EcoSport. Yes, it's not brilliantly put together, and as we saw with the ABS issue, Ford also needs to improve its service staff in a hurry. But as a product, it stands out. It handled the good and the bad; the straight and the twisty; and even the wet and gravely roads almost as well as the Vibe. It wasn't too far behind the Amaze in fuel-efficiency stakes. But what really sets it apart is its modernity and how well it comes together as a package. It looks good, has the most equipment, has comfortable seats, rides and handles well, and apart from a small boot, there's nothing much wrong with it.