"So what, according to you, is the most important car at the expo?" For someone covering his sixth Auto Expo, I should have had the answer ready. But I had to think, and think again. Welcome to the eighth Auto Expo which will be remembered for nothing really spectacular.
No Korean major with showgirls and a host of concept cars, no small car wonder that you and me are bound to buy in the near future, no cheap diesel car that runs on patriotism as an alternate fuel.
Instead, a bunch of cars, two-wheelers and truck majors focusing on the tangible. Realistic machines and the variants that should take the Indian automotive scene forward -- slowly but steadily.
But that didn't prevent auto makers from bringing a degree of bling and techno to their pavilions. There was at least one Formula One car, one World Rally Championship contender and a full-blown Grand Prix motorcycle.
Then there was the auto accessory industry, which is riding the shock wave of the Indian automotive revolution -- that meant a host of alloy wheel makers, roof-rack systems, in-car entertainment solutions, graphics people and modified cars present in full flight.
Then there were spanking new trucks and buses... a lot of them. They were very visible, not because they were big and painted yellow, but because they sported contemporary designs. This Auto Expo to commercial vehicles is what the fourth expo was for cars in India. Strap up, as we go on a whirlwind ride through Pragati Maidan.
What they had on display: The most significant car at the Honda pavilion was the new, eighth generation Civic. This is the machine that won "Car Of The Year" for Honda at the Detroit Motor Show earlier this month. The Civic will be slotted against the likes of Toyota Corolla when it hits Indian roads in a few months time.
Compared to the Corolla the Civic has flamboyant styling going for it and a gem of an i-VTEC motor powering it. Also on display was the Insight, Honda's first hybrid, which has an electric motor paired with a lean burn three cylinder petrol engine. The FCX, shown in India for the first time, is the world's first hydrogen-powered vehicle to go on limited sale.
Electric power is generated from a hydrogen-oxygen reaction within the car, and water is the only emission. Then there was Jenson Buttons' Sunday drive, the BAR Honda Formula One car in Lucky Strike colours. This machine can do 0-200 kph in 5.2 seconds and will cross 320 kph given a decent race track straight.
What they didn't bring: The WOW concept that Honda unveiled at Tokyo (meant for those who own dogs) would have been a big hit. Actually, the twin-jet or the Asimo II robot would have been nice too. But seriously, why can't Honda show small car concepts that can take on the likes of the Wagon R and Santro, if not the Maruti 800?
What we think: Honda is investing slowly but steadily in India and it looks like they can sell whatever they can build. The Civic will give the Toyota Corolla a good run with its modern lines and peppy yet efficient i-VTEC engines. But the day when this engineering driven company challenges small car firms is still a decade away.
What they had on display: How Ford could get away with a modified Fiesta and a cheescake Mustang GT for the Expo is a mystery. The InXS was a styling concept by Dilip Chhabria and the Indian design maestro did some parallel thinking to come up with an even more global looking sedan.
Inspiration and design cues came from contemporary American sedans than those from Europe. Brilliant. The V8 powered Mustang GT has close to 300 bhp on tap and is a beautiful representation of the modern day American muscle car. It will be remembered as one of the last "retro" designs initiated by Ford design chief J Mays.
What they didn't bring: We missed the Focus three-box sedan -- a car that we believe has great potential to take on the likes of Toyota Corolla and the upcoming Honda Civic. A WRC Focus would have given added sportiness to the pavilion too.
What we think: Ford is going through terrible times elsewhere in the world and sadly the Indian arm couldn't hide this fact. Still, the Mustang was nice. To see the Ikon, Fusion and the Fiesta under the same roof made us wonder how Ford is going to sell three vehicles in more or less the same segment. All the best, Ford.
What they had on display: Swifts, Swifts and more Swifts. Maruti is so gung-ho about their newest entrant, they filled an entire pavilion with seven of them in every colour on sale. And they had one in yellow too. But that was their JWRC contender with a blown 218 bhp, 1600cc motor that throws up so much mud on weekends you'd think it was an excavator.
Their other motorsport entry was a Formula Suzuki Hayabusa that's powered by the same 1299cc, 173 bhp engine that does duty in the Hayabusa. But it wasn't all fun and games at the Maruti stall, because they also had their newest SUV on display -- the Escudo. The Grand Vitara replacement comes with a 2000cc, 138 bhp engine and should be the next softroader to debut in India.
What they didn't bring: The ever faithful Esteems and Zens. Actually they did bring them on display, but we weren't really too impressed with those. Maruti also left out the SX4, maybe because they didn't have any space left.
What we think: The fact that they rented out the entire pavilion was a much required show of strength for the market leader. Also, given that almost every other car sold today is still a Maruti, we think their plan to launch one car every year for the next five years will only consolidate their position.
What they had on display: HM actually had one of the few "real" launches of the show. The Lancer Cedia will finally be filling up Mitsubishi showrooms soon and will be available in two variants, Elegance and Sport. Strangely, both these versions will cost Rs 9.87 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi).
The Cedia comes with a 2000cc, 115 bhp engine and includes airbags and ABS as standard. While the Elegance comes with standard two-tone interiors, the Cedia Sport is available in 'Aussie Yellow' and gets a spoiler too. Mitsubishi also got the mind-blowing Evolution IX but for some reason kept saying that it wasn't on sale.
What they didn't bring: The good ol' Amby was absent. Given that the Montero is about to go on sale soon, this would have been a good opportunity to show it off.
What we think: Everyone's seen the Cedia by now but it sure got more than its share of attention. Just the kind of thing Mitsubishi need. Maybe someday you will be able to drive out of a Mitsubishi showroom in a real 300 bhp Lancer instead.
What they had on display: The only player from the premium league, Audi put the expo to good use by launching the A4. If you've been eyeing your neighbour's C-class, here's your chance to get even.
The Audi is available with a 2000cc, 140 bhp turbodiesel or a 1800cc, 163 bhp turbocharged petrol (haven't we seen that engine before?). It'll be on sale at a dealer near you by the time you read this and should set you back by around Rs 25 lakh. The diesel version will be a further Rs 2 lakh.
But if your neighbour has a Cayenne in the driveway, it's the Q7 that you need to be saving for. Audi's first SUV that's set to go on sale in the fourth quarter of 2006 made for quite a crowd puller at the Audi pavilion and was probably the star of the show.
What they didn't bring: The Q7 certainly brought in the crowds but we would have loved an R10 in flesh. Pity they left out the TT and the 400 bhp RS4.
What we think: The Audi pavilion was the most relevant of the lot and by far the most impressive too.
What they had on display: Mahindra's outing at the Expo turned out to be a concept special. Most of their cars were out in full kit that included bull bars, bling wheels and so many fog lamps they would've been the best substitute for daylight. There was the Inspira -- a short wheelbase Bolero that seemed to have got its inspiration from a Wrangler Jeep while the HEV demonstrated Mahindra's first hybrid electric engine.
What they didn't bring: The facelifted Scorpio that should be out soon.
What we think: The concepts look fantastic and Mahindra should seriously consider putting a few on the production line. It would certainly work wonders for their image.
What they had on display: Skoda made it to yet another Auto Expo and this time promised to launch six new models in 2006. No, not the long legged lasses from the TV commercials but some seriously fast machines.
For starters, the 2000cc, 200 bhp Laura RS. The RS could also be India's first tryst with a direct injection petrol engine and will inherit the performance throne from the current 1800cc turbopetrol Octavia.
This is one car we certainly can't wait to drive. The Fabia also made yet another appearance at the expo but we think it will figure somewhere in Skoda's six-model plan. The Yeti was there too and it looked as good in flesh as it did in the pictures.
What they didn't bring: The WRC Skoda would have been nice since it attracts crowds. We are sure Skoda could've managed to get one in, especially since it's out of work now.
What we think: Everyone who's been to Pragati Maidan in the last six years knows that Skoda make the Fabia. It's high time they sold one now.
What they had on display: Tata's alliance with Fiat finally came out in the open. At the time of going to press, most of their cars were under wraps but we did manage to geta glimpse of a covered Palio and an Alfa Romeo Competicione concept car. The other stunner was the Indica Silhouette, an Indica cup racer that's powered by a rear-engined in-line six cylinder motor. This is one Indica that won't require a V2 version.
What they didn't bring: The much-hyped Rs 1-lakh prototype, what else!
What we think: The Fiat-Tata alliance seems like one venture that should benefit both of them equally. Oh, and we can't wait to get behind the wheel of the Silhouette.
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What they had on display: These guys have been making tractors for some time now and they say they can build an SUV that will be better and cheaper than the current lot. All we can say is that their first prototypes looked impressive and the plant footage we saw even more so. The Rhino comes with a 2000cc, 75 bhp engine and the vehicle has been developed with help from MG Rover from UK.
What they didn't bring: Tractors!
What we think: The fact that the Rhino looks so much like the now defunct Qualis will only help them.
The best of two-wheelers at the expo
The eighth Auto Expo saw more than a few two-wheeler manufacturers conspicuous by their absence. Honda, LML, Kinetic and Royal Enfield decided not to come to the show grounds, and that should have been a dampener.
There certainly was a lot of eye-candy at the Expo, starting from the glossy lineup of Yamaha and Suzuki 'reference' models and extending in a colourful streak to the girls helpfully pointing out to the printed spec sheets.
However, the Expo did not disappoint. Here's why.
What they had on display: If the crowds were any indication, Bajaj was the clear leader in spectator traffic, at least in the motorcycle booths. Bajaj had some advanced, even concept-ish motorcycles on display, though none were teasers.
When we'd finished ogling the bigger than Pulsar 180 machine, which sported fuel injection (to called DTS-Fi), projector headlamp, an oil-cooler, rear disc brake, LED taillamps -- each one an India first -- they told us they'd launch it, lock, stock and smoking barrel.
Next to the big Pulsar was the aggressive and wedgy new Pulsar 180, also due for launch within the calendar year. Bajaj showed off a new platform called the Sonic, meant to be a sporty machine for the college kid, which looked very stylish and sported all the right bits.
The scooters were represented by the Wave, the current in-production scooter, the Kristal -- another 2006 launch intended for the college-going girl, and the superb Blade, which aims squarely at the more macho, Italian style of scooters. The Blade sported disc brakes, alloy wheels, fat telescopic forks and looked very, very good.
What they didn't bring: Despite showing off four new machines, Rajiv Bajaj told the media that this was not all that would get launched in 2006! Bajaj did not show, for instance, the executive-class machine they intend to launch very shortly. Or for that matter, the plethora of unobtainable eye-candy from the Kawasaki stable.
What we think: Among the two-wheeler displays, Bajaj's booth was head and shoulders above the rest for looking forward pointedly, and still staying grounded and realistic. The point to note is that Bajaj showed off production-ready technologies that another two-wheeler maker had put on display to gauge audience responses.
What they had on display: Yamaha pulled out all the stops when it came to their pavilion. Practically every model we've drooled over in the past six months made an appearance -- the 50th anniversary R1, the storming new 17,000 rpm R6, the eclectic but potent M1, the Star cruiser line's first bike, the Stratoliner, FZs 1 and 6... they were all there.
And the bike stealing the show from right under their vast arsenal was the famous blue number 46 YZR-M1, which took centrestage. Yamaha and Rossi's landmark achievement was the centre of attraction, just where it belongs.
The India-specific display was restricted to two concepts, both called Gladiator. The idea was to judge Indian responses to their styling. Engine specifications and details were kept hush-hush, although Yamaha's new chief Tomohaka Ishikawa did say that they would be launching something soon, and another product lies just this side of Diwali.
What they didn't bring: While Yamaha is known to be mulling its scooter entry, there wasn't anything serious like the 500cc T-Max, except for the city loungeabout, Maxam. More to the point, we were all expecting a more concrete set of Indian models, not the twin Gladiators.
What we think:The trail of wistful dreams said loud and clear that Yamaha, once more, did not have something that the Indian enthusiast, or for that matter, the commuter could look forward to.
However, Yamaha officials were bullish about the aggressive new face of their company we're about to see. We're polishing our dancing shoes already, the Yamaha party is just around the corner now.
What they had on display: Like Yamaha, Suzuki too were out in a show of force. The booth had a row of bikes as long as your commute and encompassed everything from the de rigeur Hayabusa, the just-debuted Stratosphere six-cylinder concept, the '06 GSX-R1000, the spanking new GSR600, the SV1000S, a couple of scooters and one quad.
Suzuki kept the suspense up by delaying the reveal of their first India-specific models to the second day of the show. Two bikes took centrestage -- the Heat 125, a commuter and the mildly faired Zeus 125X. Though the Zeus looks quite contemporary, the Heat does not break new ground visually.
The Heat's 125cc motor with 8.71 bhp and about 1 kgm of torque is what the segment average is at. So's the indicative price of Rs 37,900 (ex-showroom Delhi). We expect the Zeus' price to be not more than Rs 3,000 over the Heat. Suzuki expects both bikes to be ready for the market by March this year.
What they didn't bring: We were looking for the DR series of motocrossers, which form the middle ground between the racing RMs and the kiddie crossers. A GSV-R from the MotoGP series and John Hopkins to sign autographs would have been nice as well.
What we think: The stall established that Suzuki was a proper big motorcycle manufacturer. Given the Hayabusa's movie-inspired popularity, Suzuki have had it easy in terms of differentiating the brand from the car chaps.
What they had on display: TVS had about 60-odd Apaches, in all colours of a metallic rainbow and mounted in all sort of ways. Also on the stand were the usual collection of Team TVS Racing's motocrossers, complete with fully kitted out dummies on board.
However, the stunners of the stall were the two concepts, the Predator and the Isotope 200. Strictly non-running concepts, the Predator features some very clean, sinister styling, with a bring-it-here 500cc V-twin motor, while the Isotope was even more welcome, for its minimal but jaw-dropping looks.
The bikes were designed by TVS' new design team, and the Isotope, specifically, was meant to represent a recreational product in a small displacement motorcycle market like ours.
What they didn't bring: Some pizzazz.
What we think: We're just sad that the Predator and the Isotope 200 are both going to remain dreams in sheet metal. TVS is now focusing on a larger displacement machine to back up the premium-segment presence of the Apache.
What they had on display: At least three copies of every bike they currently make. The Pleasure, the new scooter from Hero Honda, dominated proceedings with a DJ chatting up PYTs.
What they didn't bring: Hero Honda's stall revealed nothing about the game plan going forward. One would guess that the Karizma is the oldest un-updated machine, and that would be the logical step, but that's just guessing.
What we think: Hero Honda killed two birds with one stone by not doing anything spectacular. They needed to let the Pleasure take centrestage and establish a link with the girls, and we believe that will happen. And they also neatly skirted around the issue of whatever it is that they have up their sleeve.
What they had on display: Kaanda had as many as six machines on display, all equally significant, considering that all were more or less the same, but with engine capacity differences. The Thunder range kicked off at the Auto Expo with the 100cc machine, and the 125 and 150cc versions are due to follow very shortly.
What they didn't bring: Well, nothing that would blow the lid clear off the motorcycle market and worry the established players.
What we think: The motorcycles are unlikely to move any goal-posts on quality, innovation, looks or motor fronts. However, if the pricing falls as planned in the 100cc entry-level market, then it could, by a thin sliver of a chance, be the only 'different' looking entry-level bike there is.
One of the commercial vehicles Tata Motors showcased was this Globus model that looks like it's got the Volvo B7R market firmly in its sights A rugged and purposeful MAN truck from Force Motors that looks like it's mocking the current Army favourite, the Ashok Leyland Stallion That's probably what you're going to see frequently on our highways soon. That's the contemporary-looking Aero, a concept truck from Ashok Leyland Tatra, the Czech commercial vehicle manufacturer famous for their impressive swinging half-axle trucks, displayed this almost retro-looking tipper-truck based on the Russian Kamaz platform
One of the commercial vehicles Tata Motors showcased was this Globus model that looks like it's got the Volvo B7R market firmly in its sights
A rugged and purposeful MAN truck from Force Motors that looks like it's mocking the current Army favourite, the Ashok Leyland Stallion
That's probably what you're going to see frequently on our highways soon. That's the contemporary-looking Aero, a concept truck from Ashok Leyland
Tatra, the Czech commercial vehicle manufacturer famous for their impressive swinging half-axle trucks, displayed this almost retro-looking tipper-truck based on the Russian Kamaz platform