Cars (And a Bike) That Surprised Me - 2014
It's the last day of 2014 and there's no better day to reflect upon the best motoring moments I experienced than today. The automotive market saw many products getting launched - from absolutely fantastic to spectacularly rubbish. There've been a few products that genuinely surprised me and that's exactly what I'm going to write about here.
Maruti Suzuki Celerio AMT
Ironically, I'd driven the Zest AMT before I got my chance behind the wheel of the Celerio AMT. I didn't quite like performance of the automated-manual transmission in the Zest - but that's mated to a diesel, and the driving character of a diesel versus a petrol engine is completely different.
The Celerio comes with a 1-litre, 3-cylinder petrol engine and the AMT works extremely well here. The shifts are relatively smooth and also quite prompt. Most traditional automatic gearboxes are hesitant to downshifting, but the AMT in the Celerio (although not a completely automatic gearbox) didn't seem to mind aggressive downshifts (though you'd have to take care of being in the operating rev range of the particular ratio). It's not a terribly powerful car, but it sure is a good smile-forming machine - and that's good enough for me.
Let's be straight - I'm not talking about a performance Ford van here, neither am I suggesting that it's a Mugen tuned Honda. It's just a simple MPV - and that's what makes this a stand-out product for me. Honda launched its super-seller City this year as well, and it drives fine.
But then, you expect the City to drive well. You don't, however, expect an MPV to go around corners with much eagerness. The Mobilio does, and that's what makes you sit up and start enjoying it. The diesel Mobilio isn't as much fun as the petrol one - the noise is loud and ungainly. You're best advised to keep the engine rpm ticking under 3000 if you want to have a conversation in the car; and even at that level, you'd have to be fairly loud while talking.
The 1.5-litre, 118bhp petrol engine not only loves the heavy-foot treatment, it also translates that treatment into rapid progress. But the main talking point is the way the Mobilio handles. It's so sedan-like that you'd be hard-pressed not to prefer it to even the City. The handling is nothing short of spookily good for an MPV, it also communicates the feedback in a very progressive way through its steering. A top-trump play by Honda, this car.
Mercedes CLA 45 AMG
Jaguar launched its F-Type R Coupe in India this year. It's a 5-litre, 542bhp, 4.5 metres of metal madness that'll blow your socks off. I drove it around some awesome roads in Spain, and then drove it on a couple of racetracks too. It's like an angry bear. It's also quite a handful. That would've been the default choice for me in the 'performance car' spectrum, but it's not. That's because Mercedes launched its madder version of the regular CLA - the CLA 45 AMG.
Firstly, the CLA looks absolutely gorgeous - no two ways about it. And that alone makes it very special. Standard things include all-wheel drive, 2-litre, 355bhp motor (which is the most powerful 4-pot in the world) and bags-full of character. The steering is dead-precise, the body-roll is next to negligible and the entire car feels like you wear it - like it's a part of you. Great speed is a default but the striking fact is that even an idiot can drive the CLA 45 fast. If you know AMG, you'd know that it makes tyre-murdering, massive power-possessed cars that involve you in everlasting counter-steering way of driving - all that's great fun, but also a lot of hard work. The CLA 45 is on the opposite side of the spectrum. It's well controlled and its inherent handling nature is predictable understeer that can be negated by just a light lift of the throttle pedal. Quite a gem, this one.
Triumph Daytona 675R
I've ridden a few Triumphs over time, but, incidentally, this was my first time on the Daytona. The first thing that makes it special for me is the name itself - Daytona. I've romanced it from my salad years in my dreams. The middle-weight sports bike that I'd always loved was the 2006 Yamaha R6 - it was awesome fun, handled brilliantly and was brutally fast. But there was a big problem with it - you had to rev it hard to get anything out of the engine.
That's where the Daytona shines. Even the low-to-mid range in the 675R is very strong and you can ride it all day long at either 40km/h in third, or just ring the throttle open and in no time you'd be doing 140km/h - in the same gear! The flexibility of the engine is great, but the most special thing about the bike is the way it changes direction. The steering is quick and the feedback from the forks and the handlebar is extremely good. The damping even in its stock form is good enough to battle our typical city roads and you could take it to the track and not really feel shortchanged. I rode several other superbikes too - even the super-powerful Kawasaki ZX-14R - but I felt the most connected to the Daytona. It's perhaps that one sportsbike I'd love to own. I should concentrate on saving more.