Riding the Rapid
It’s a segment that has remained largely ignored by most car makers for years since the Honda City, at the top end, and the Maruti Suzuki Swift Dzire, at the entry end, had quite a stranglehold on it. But the last year has seen the arrival of a slew of cars that have threatened these two—it started with the Tata Indigo Manza, the Toyota Etios followed, and suddenly the Dzire wasn’t the absolute choice at the entry point. The City was overtaken by the Volkswagen Vento, and then again by the Hyundai Verna’s latest generation. We’ve also seen the Ford Fiesta and Nissan Sunny join the fray. And it’s not the last of the new launches in this space.
Skoda unleashes its Rapid into the market today. The exact pricing will be announced at the launch, but the car is largely expected to be priced Rs 15,000- 20,000 lower than its cousin, the Vento (priced at Rs 6.99-9.23 lakh), on which it is based. The big difference, though, will be the positioning, as Skoda is very firmly placed just below VW in every market. So the line I am taking these days is that the Rapid will be the Vento at a lower price.
On the go: The Rapid is expected to be priced a little lower than the Vento
And I believe there is really nothing wrong with that.
The good news is that Skoda designers have tried to differentiate the car from its VW alter ego, so you get distinct and sharp crystal-like lines in the rear, and a face borrowed from its sibling—the Fabia. In fact it’s the same story as the Vento and Polo—who also share a face—but the Rapid’s front-end is not 100% identical to the Fabia’s.
On the inside the colour palette is pleasing, and somehow the cabin looks a bit roomier than the Vento’s, thanks to the use of brighter and lighter colours. Equipment levels are similar to the Fabia and Vento, in that you get features like climate control and an inbuilt music system with iPod connectivity. The car has 1.6-litre diesel and petrol variants (yes, no prizes for guessing—the same as the Vento’s), with the petrol also offering an automatic transmission option (again, just like you-know-which-car). The ride is sharp, and the handling is pretty good. None of the drive dynamics came as a surprise to me of course, since they mirror the Vento’s too!
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So with a near-identical car on offer, what’s the VW group thinking? The strategy seems to be to try and get the entry-level Rapid to eat into the share of cars like the new Sunny, and of course the recent best-sellers like the Etios or Swift Dzire. Skoda expects, therefore, to sell larger volumes of the base variants than the top-end ones. And to prove that point, the diesel Vento has just been offered with more premium features like parking sensors, steering-mounted music system controls and a USB interface for music. Perfect timing, and a good attempt at separating the Vento from the Rapid.
Fiesta goes automatic
Speaking of going more high-end, it’s what Ford is doing with the already premium Fiesta. I call it premium because Ford hasn’t really played the aggressive card with its car, which launched about four months ago, even though it has chosen to keep it feature-rich and premium. Now the car will be offered with a segment first: a six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox Ford calls PowerShift. This is mated to the Fiesta’s 1.5-litre petrol engine. Let me add here that most dual-clutch gearboxes are the preserve of much more expensive cars, with the Fiesta’s rivals offering very rudimentary and almost antiquated automatics by comparison. The advantages of a dual-clutch are that it allows for smoother and quicker gear changes, since there are two clutches operating the gears alternately. It also, therefore, enhances fuel efficiency as it lowers the need to rev between gear changes. Ford has tuned the gearbox specifically for the Indian market, so while it may be a little less responsive, fuel efficiency is enhanced to the same levels as a manual one, according to the company. The ride is therefore smooth, and fairly quick, though the engine does at times sound more laboured and strained than it really is. The good news is that all the retuning and recalibration when it comes to the car’s brakes, throttle, suspension and damper settings, has not taken away the Fiesta’s taut, stiff and very-together feel. The automatic Fiesta is just as sprightly and tight around corners as its manual sibling.
Fiesta gets a PowerShift
I have to say, though, that Ford could have really trumped the others by offering a sophisticated dual-clutch paired with the 1.5-litre diesel motor too. After all the only diesel automatic in this class is the Verna’s and it’s just about okay at best. I do understand why Ford has stayed away from doing this—since it’s not globally cost competitive to invest in a diesel automatic. Most markets that like diesel variants to begin with (like Western Europe) have buyers showing a preference for manual transmission anyway. So why develop a diesel auto—which frankly, even in India, would have few takers as it would be an expensive proposition? So just like VW, Skoda and Honda, the petrol is considered smarter to invest in for the auto model—since buyers in markets like the US do show a preference for that combination too. Expect the Fiesta 1.5 TiVCT PowerShift variant to launch at the Delhi Auto Expo in January, with a price tag of around Rs 10.5 lakh.
With this new variant, Ford is also introducing a new colour on the Fiesta called Paprika Red. It’s a rich deep red, and as regular readers would know, I am always glad when car makers throw in some colour—especially a dash of something a bit spicy like this red!
Siddharth Vinayak Patankar is Editor (Auto), NDTV.
Write to Siddharth at firstname.lastname@example.org