I was among a group of journalists from India, sitting in a nightclub in the rather infamous Roppongi district of Tokyo. A formidable quantity of sake was being ingested, generic euro pop was on full blast and a dozen or so skimpily-clad Japanese girls were busting some radical dance moves on the stage. And then, a shocker.
Some of the ladies on the stage started taking their tops off and, without missing a beat, got off the stage to sit among us. I cannot, in the interests of maintaining propriety, tell you what happened next, but let’s just say cars weren’t spoken of for the rest of the evening.
So what does any of the above have to do with automobiles and motoring journalism? Well, at that time (this was about 20 years ago), we were in Tokyo on a press trip organised by a major car manufacturer who had taken us to Japan, so we could sample some of their cars, one of which was soon to be launched in India. With a fine selection of automobiles having been sampled during the day, the aforementioned car company decided to lay on entertainment of the non-automotive kind in the evening and nobody was complaining. It wouldn’t happen now, but things were different then.
Car sales are currently declining, and the auto industry is faced with multiple challenges, including tighter emissions norms, more stringent crash safety regulations, and fewer people wanting to drive because of cheap and easy mobility provided by ride-sharing apps. But 20 years ago, it was a time of fresh, new hope. India was being seen as the next big car market and a host of manufacturers were keen on getting a slice of the action. Oldtimers like Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles weren’t equipped to put up a fight and folded quietly. And with newcomers from Korea, Japan, Europe, and the US trooping in, even Maruti had to prepare to go to war. At long last, things were beginning to look up for the Indian car buyer, who would soon be spoilt for choice.
In 2000, on my first day on the job with the now-defunct Indian Auto, vehicles on test included an LML scooter and a diesel-engined Fiat Uno. In the next few months that followed, we got a Hyundai Accent, Maruti Baleno Altura estate, Skoda Octavia, Mercedes-Benz E240, Mitsubishi Lancer, Maruti Wagon R, Mercedes-Benz C180 and C200, and a Daewoo Matiz. There might have been one or two more, which I may not remember now, but that was about it. It wouldn’t be uncommon for car magazines these days to review as many cars in one single month, as we did over a full year back then. There simply weren’t as many manufacturers present in India at that time and the rate of new car launches was nowhere near as unrelenting.
These days, new car and motorcycle launches happen every month and test drives organised for the media are a veritable circus, with up to 50-60 journalists, from magazines, newspapers and websites getting a chance to take the wheel. These drives, lasting anywhere from three to six days, are often extravagant affairs, organised by car manufacturers with the help of large PR teams and specialist event managers. In addition to mainstream journalists, who attend these drives in multiple batches spread out over a couple of days, there are also bloggers, YouTubers, Instagrammers and other social media ‘influencers’ who may or may not know anything about cars, but who still get invited because of the number of their online followers.
Two decades ago, things were simpler. There were only a small handful of car and motorcycle magazines, along with a very few newspapers that had an automotive section. New car drives usually conducted over a single day (or two days at the most) were only attended by journalists from established media houses, with their reports appearing in print a few weeks after the drive had been concluded. Of the many, many cars I drove, reviewed and tested in those days, the one car I really loved was also one of the slowest I’ve ever driven. This car, a tiny, two-door, two-seater hatchback was the first electric car commercially produced in India. The Reva, which was also sold as the G-Wiz in the UK at that time, had a driving range of about 70km once fully charged, and a top speed of around 65kph. Using a regular household electricity outlet, a full charge took eight hours. The numbers don’t sound too impressive, I know, but the sheer novelty of driving an electric car was something else. And wait, there’s more. The humble little Reva had a feature that even the Mercedes-Benz S-Class of that time did not have. I could, from my fourth-floor apartment, switch the Reva on by remote control and also get its AC going, so its cabin would already be cool by the time I got in five minutes later.
Now, as both car manufacturers and car buyers are beginning to take electric cars more seriously, I something think of Chetan Maini and his Reva, who were so far ahead of their time. Moving on, though, others on my list of memorable cars and bikes were considerably faster and more powerful. Twenty years ago, there was the Honda CBR1100XX Super Blackbird, whose Parsi owner shouted at me because according to him I wasn’t riding it fast enough (I was doing about 170-180kph at the time). “What are you waiting for? Open it up!” he bellowed. I duly obliged and the camera car, a Honda City VTEC (itself one of the coolest, most lust-worthy cars available in India in the early-2000s), was soon reduced to a speck in the Super Blackbird’s shapely rear-view mirrors. Then there was a souped-up, Vijay Mallya-owned Fiat Uno that made orgasmic noises while accelerating hard, a 180-horsepower Kawasaki Ninja ZX-12R that scared the living daylights out of me when I first rode it (no ABS or traction control in those days, so there), and a fully-rebuilt Ford Escort RS Cosworth that was just intense, like a doubledose of adrenaline injected straight into the cerebrum. I also remember the first Ferrari I ever drove; a Parsi-owned 308 GTS of 1980s vintage, which probably wasn’t that powerful by modern-day standards. And yet, its pure-bred Italian V8, its rasps and screams ricocheting off the hills around the roads in Khandala, where I drove the car, made for an unforgettable experience.
In more recent years, as more car and motorcycle manufacturers have entered the Indian market bringing in their entire range, including high-end supercars and superbikes that offer truly awe-inspiring performance, there have been many truly memorable drives. There were 600-horsepower Ferraris and BMWs, which I’ve had the opportunity to drive at autobahn-worthy speeds, supercharged Audis and turbocharged Mercedes-Benzes that went very fast, beautiful Maseratis with V8s that sang their hearts out, and Porsches that amazed with their precision and high-speed handling capabilities. There were also 200bhp motorcycles like the Kawasaki ZX-14R and Suzuki Hayabusa that left me slack-jawed and goggle-eyed with every ride.
Alright, so Ferraris and Porsches are all very well on the rare occasions one gets to drive those cars. But in everyday life, the car that won my heart, which I currently drive, is the Tata Nano. Stay with me for a bit, this isn’t as shocking as it first sounds. I’ve driven all kinds of cars and SUVs over the last 20 years and my verdict, as an automotive journalist, is that the Nano is an absolutely brilliant car. I’ve not only used it for my 100km daily commute in Delhi, I’ve also driven my Nano from Delhi to Mumbai and back in the space of one week, and the car never missed a beat. It’s a spacious, reliable, fuel-efficient, and inexpensive family hatchback, which can seat four adults in air-conditioned comfort. Maintenance costs are extremely low, its manoeuvrability makes it perfect for the city and even the AMT is not too bad. The Nano was a unique phenomenon in the Indian car market – a triumph of engineering, which failed due to poor marketing and negative publicity that it did not deserve. A sad story.
Speaking of failure, recent years have seen the exit of Fiat, the muchloved Italian car brand that was the mainstay of motoring in India for many years. General Motors has also left. Ford seems to be on shaky ground (it remains to be seen if its JV with Mahindra will be successful), Mitsubishi’s fortunes in India have declined and the company barely has a presence here anymore, and even Volkswagen, with its deep pockets, hasn’t really been able to make a mark. But even as these brands struggle, new ones keep coming in. Kia, which is a Hyundai subsidiary, has made people sit up and take note in recent months, while the Chinese are also coming. MG has already started operations; Great Wall Motors was present at the recent Auto Expo and others are waiting on the sidelines. From Europe, the PSA Group is also likely to launch its cars in India next year, probably starting with a Citroen SUV. It will be interesting to see how these new brands will fare in India, and what measures existing carmakers will adopt to protect market share.
Meanwhile, the rise of the Internet means easy availability of car and motorcycle reviews, which prospective buyers can immediately access before putting down their hard-earned money. But there’s a caveat here — many of these reviews may not be very credible. With the setting up of a blog or website being easy and inexpensive, hordes of people — with inadequate training and very little driving/riding experience, have climbed on to the motoring journalism bandwagon. These ‘reviewers’ often produce reports that are riddled with factual errors and irrelevant opinion. Yet, with a bit of SEO, these same reports often show up prominently in Google searches, and are lapped up by unsuspecting readers. I can only say that despite the many naysayers who predict doom and gloom, I still believe the current downturn is temporary. Sure, there will be many challenges going forward, but when it comes to cars and motorcycles, the best is yet to come.