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Versatile Versa

THE LAUNCH of the Maruti Versa introduces one more to the Indian multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) sweep stakes albeit the most modern, based as it is on the Suzuki Every that saw its Japanese launch in 1999. It is likely to be the most successful at least in volume terms, although one can never say what the entry of the advanced Mahindra Scorpio early next year or the, rumoured, launch of the Ford Escape six months later will do to this niche market. The continuing popularity of its earlier entrant in this market, now the Omni, may be a harbinger of happier times for Maruti with the Versa.

Many will see the Versa as a grown up Wagon R although to my eyes it resembles a smaller, slightly better looking, Qualis. Incidentally, the boxy Wagon R is the best selling Suzuki model in Europe's largest car market, Germany. Do the Germans know something that we do not and appreciate its immense practicality especially for small families?

Space efficient design

The Versa is 3675 mm long (about the same as a Tata Indica) and at 1475 mm wide, is actually 150 mm (about six inches) narrower than the Indica! In spite of this small exterior, it can easily seat seven even in its luxurious SDX version. The efficient packaging is thanks to the engine being mounted below the driver and front passenger thereby taking up little internal space.Although the Maruti Van pioneered this in India in 1984, the Versa has refined the concept considerably.For example, safety and convenience have been enhanced with a front``crumple zone''that simultaneously protects the occupants against frontal collisions and houses the radiator, coolant tank, brake fluid reservoir, jack and wheel spanner. Access to the battery has also been improved considerably by mounting it under the front passenger seat next to the canted cylinder head. One hopes, however, that the new arrangement does not reduce the battery's performance.

This efficiency in design extends to the air conditioning condenser that is mounted just below the roof at the back of the vehicle.The tall boy design of the Versa (at 1905mm it is among the tallest in India) easily allows this without infringing on useful passenger space. The two``top''versions, the DX2 and SDX, are fitted with twin zone air-conditioning with separate front and rear blowers, a la the Qualis, that enables front and rear passengers to choose their particular comfort levels without the others being roasted or frozen.

The Versa is powered by the reliable multi-point fuel injection (MPFI), 1300 cc engine first seen in the Esteem and the Gypsy. This engine has been tuned for its new home and a short first test seems to show that it is up to its job. When fully laden, the ride is almost up to the standards of the semi luxury cars we see on our roads and initial straight line acceleration is better than cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer!

The one area where the Versa, like many MPVs, is found wanting is in luggage space with all the seats upright. Folding the last row of seats, a task easily and quickly accomplished, frees up adequate luggage space, but one hopes that Maruti will quickly introduce a split-folding rear seat to allow for more flexibility with different passenger/luggage combinations.

Now that Maruti has launched the Versa in 2001, what will 2002 bring? My guess is that it will be the Suzuki Ignis SUV, a relatively small car that looks a bit like the Tata Safari. In all wheel drive form, the Ignis is even capable of taking on the forthcoming Tribute and the Scorpio.

Luxury without snobbery

Skoda's Indian launch last week of its Octavia in the luxury mid-size segment makes for useful competition in this sector. The Octavia is approximately the same size as the C-Class Mercedes (about 20mm shorter but slightly wider) and is handsome in a muscular, central European mould.A transversely mounted engine and front wheel drive allow it to offer significantly more passenger room than the``C''and its boot ("dickey") is truly cavernous. Rear passenger leg room is even better now (by over 20 mm) thanks to the scooped out front seat backs in the recently face lifted version.

Incidentally, the Octavia and its smaller sibling, the lovely Fabia, were recently styled by Dirk van Braekel after Volkswagen took over control of Skoda and introduced its high standards of quality. Mr. Braekel's efforts so impressed Ferdinand Piech, the Volkswagen group chairman, that he is now the chief designer of another group company, Bentley.

The Octavia will initially be available only in Delhi, Goa and Mumbai at an ex-show room price of Rs. 10.60 lakhs for the 115 bhp petrol and 90 bhp diesel versions. At about half the price of the Mercedes C, this is competitive indeed while giving nothing away in terms of space, comfort or handling. Its entry will truly set this segment on fire dominated as it is by the slightly larger Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata and the forthcoming Ford Mondeo. It would be surprising if the Octavia's launch doesn't effectively kill the``luxury''versions of the Opel Astra and Mitsubishi Lancer.

If you can afford one and need the luxury and performance of the Octavia, rush out and buy one soon _ Skoda will find it difficult to maintain the low prices after paying more than 100 per cent as import duty.

C. Manmohan Reddy

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