And if I had a buck for every time people disagreed with me I’d have enough to buy all these cars! Anyway, if you didn’t read last month’s column, this is what my list of favourites looks like, bottom to top: Tata Sierra, Standard 2000, Peugeot 309, Hindustan Contessa, Rover Montego, Ford Ikon and Maruti Zen. Now for the top three.
3. Honda City 1.5: Yes, I’m talking about the 1997, first-gen 1.5-litre City. It had a certain visual tautness that was lost in the bigger-looking 1999 face-lifted version. And even the cheap interior, cheap seat fabric and horrid sound system couldn’t keep buyers away. Mostly because people loved the Honda brand. But also because its brilliant “Hyper 16” engine produced 100bhp at a time when the competition was a 58bhp Ford Escort, a 75bhp Opel Astra and an 88bhp Mitsubishi Lancer.
People who’ve not driven the first-gen City wonder what made it so special. As one acquaintance articulately put it – “The current City makes 118bhp so why all the hoo haa for an old 100bhp engine?” Well, because the old 100bhp engine felt free and rev-happy and quick. The current 118bhp engine feels like it’s struggling on a tight leash.
It wasn’t only the engine, of course. The driver’s seat was the best place to be in – excellent ergonomics and great all-round visibility. The perfect pocket rocket despite the boot. Beautiful handler, perfect steering and gearshift. But most of all, it introduced fun motoring to an otherwise dull market.
2. Fiat Palio 1.6: Some people will find it silly to rate a Fiat Palio over a Honda City. And there are other good cars like the Opel Astra, Mitsubishi Lancer and the Chevrolet Forester that could’ve been at second spot. But at the end of its unsuccessful Indian life, the Palio was selling for less than Rs 5 lakh. 100bhp. Fully loaded.
In the last decade, when 100bhp actually felt like 100bhp, Fiat did what no one else had the courage to do. It put its brilliant 1.6 engine into a hatch. And it was a blast! No other budget car in the country had better ride and handling. The Palio (and the Petra for that matter) felt secure and planted even at 180kph. It felt wonderful on what was then the best road in the country – the Bombay-Pune Expressway. And it felt wonderful on some of the worst roads in the county – Bombay city roads.
The legacy lives on, with the Punto and the Linea, both remarkable cars doomed to go the Palio / Petra way.
1. Mercedes-Benz E220 W124: The W124 E-Class was launched in India in 1995, when it had been discontinued pretty much everywhere else in the world. Prospective owners in India didn’t appreciate getting an ‘outdated’ model and it didn’t do very well. In 1998, Mercedes brought in the W210, the E with those four round headlights. And that sold well.
The W124 was special not because it was the most expensive car, or the most powerful, when it was launched in India. It was special because the world acknowledged it as the best mid-size sedan Merc had ever built. It felt like a tank. It glided over bumps and potholes. And it felt brilliantly safe and secure at highway speeds. It may have been at the end of its life, but in India, it was far ahead of anything else we’d ever seen.
It had real leather seats and real wood on the dash. It had comfort like we’d never known before. And it had soul. Today, you can buy a used W124 for Rs 2 lakh. And then spend about thrice as much restoring it to its former glory. If you are a Mercedes fan with spare cash and lots of time and patience, refurbishing a W124 can be a rewarding experience. Like I said at the start, if I can figure out a way to make people pay for disagreeing with me, I’ll have enough to restore a W124. Hmm... maybe I should join the government.