It’s been a challenging year for the Indian car industry. Sales have been slowing down and manufacturers are scrambling to meet deadlines for new emissions norms and crash safety regulations that will come into effect in 2020. It’s almost been a bit too much for some. Ford wants Mahindra to take over its operations in India, Fiat looks all set to exit the Indian market and Volkswagen is looking to scale back operations and, perhaps, reinvent itself as an SUVs-only brand in India in the near future.
All is not lost though. While some of the older players may be on the verge of giving up, newer brands have trooped in and are looking at carving out a niche for themselves. Kia and MG are already here and the PSA Group is working on establishing a presence — the French company is expected to kick off operations in India with the quirky-cool Citroen brand in 2021.
In the meanwhile, the three things that now seem to be driving the Indian car market are SUVs, Web connectivity and automatic transmissions. This year was marked by a major shift in mainstream, mass-market consumer preference for automatics over the manual gearbox. Now, buyers across all segments can choose from a range of AMT, CVT or DCT-equipped cars; the clutch pedal has been consigned to the dustbin and lives have been made easier. The other big thing is ‘digital,’ which has emerged as the new buzzword for carmakers. The much-maligned millennial strikes again; they’re not bothered about bits like turbochargers, multi-link rear suspension or 0-100 acceleration times. In the new order of things, what matters is smartphone connectivity, on-the-go Web access, and voice-controlled apps, so that’s what carmakers are increasingly focusing on.
As the Indian car market continues to change and evolve and grow up, it has forced carmakers to keep up, disrupt the traditional and innovate at a faster pace in order to stay ahead of the competition. This has been a good thing for the consumer and buyers now have more choice than ever before, across all segments. So without much more ado, here’s our list of the best cars of 2019.
BMW 3 SERIES
Ready to step up from mass-market manufacturers, for your first whiff of proper automotive performance and luxury? Germany still does it best and you might want to take a long, hard look at the new BMW 3 Series, the perfect stepping stone to 5 Series and hopefully, someday, 7 Series ownership. The redesigned more sporty new version is a pleasure to look at and great to drive. Choose between diesel (320d) and petrol (330i) models and while you can’t go wrong with either of them, the 330i is quite clearly the sportier and more expensive of the two. Both 3 Series cars feature turbocharged four-cylinder engines that are powerful and efficient, and if you’re not careful, both can very quickly get you into the ‘get a speeding ticket and pay very large fine’ zone. But the 3 Series is not just for boy racers — with its high levels of refinement, full complement of safety features, infotainment and connectivity, and unmatched brand/badge value, it’s actually the perfect mid-size car for young families. It’s a delightful driving machine and is ideal for those who like to drive themselves, rather than handing over the wheel to a chauffeur. Prices start at Rs 41.40 lakh and stretch up to Rs 47.90 lakh, which we’re sure you’ll agree is a small price to pay for entering the exclusive world of high-end German car ownership.
With the new A6, Audi is making sure its full-size luxury sedan remains relevant and a serious contender in the long-standing battle for supremacy between the A6, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5 Series. The updated A6 is well equipped to fight it out with its fellow Germans, with its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine, which is refined and powerful. The 7-speed S tronic automatic ensures swift, smooth gear changes and the 245bhp can, on the right expressway, hit a top speed of 250kph. There’s all the high-grade wood and leather you would expect the A6’s interiors to have, fully digital controls and instrumentation, and just about every automotive safety feature that’s yet been invented anywhere in the world. What the India-spec Audi A6 doesn’t have is quattro all-wheel-drive (our A6 is front wheel drive only), a diesel engine option or even a choice of bigger, 6-cylinder engines. That doesn’t diminish the A6 in any way though and it remains an outstandingly capable luxury car that has it all. Price start at Rs 54 lakh, going up to Rs 59 lakh.
Earlier known as the G-Wagen or the Geländewagen, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class has completed 40 years of production and, with its rugged build quality and unrelenting performance, is one of the best off-road capable SUVs in the world. The petrol V8- powered G63 AMG, priced at Rs 2.19 crore, has been available in India for some time but now Mercedes-Benz have kindly consented to launch a cheaper version, making the G-Class much more affordable for a wider range of buyers. Witness the new G350d, which trades the G63’s petrol V8 for a 3.0-litre 6-cylinder turbo-diesel, mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission, and only costs around Rs 1.5 crore. Hurrah for affordability. But make no mistake, the G-Class, with full-time 4WD as standard, is good value if you’re a serious off-roader who doesn’t want to compromise on luxury, even as you go over some of the worst terrain on the planet. Even the fuel economy, at around 10kpl, is not too bad. This is the real deal — the G-Class really is a go-anywhere SUV and is probably more capable than most of its very affluent drivers.
SUVs and luxury sedans done and dusted? Ready to move up to a world-beating supercar? Say hello to the legendary Porsche 911. Detractors make jokes about every 911 looking the same and about the styling not having changed much in the last 3-4 decades. They moan about the fact that Porsche’s six-cylinder engines do not produce the kind of thunderous, soul-stirring noise that Italian V8s produce. And yet, a lot of that is nonsense. The Porsche 911 is, if your objective is to go very, very fast, one of the best supercars in the world. Not just hugely capable but also practical enough to be used as a daily driver. The 911 is easy to get in and out of (unlike some of those red Italian supercars) and in the right hands, works like a surgeon’s scalpel. It’s a laser-guided missile that won’t put a foot wrong, whether you’re hustling it around an F1 track or just popping down the street for fetching the groceries. The pick of the bunch is probably the 911 Carrera S, which costs a mighty Rs 1.82 crore. For this, you get a 3.0-litre 6-cylinder engine that pumps out 450bhp, pushing the car from zero to 100kph in just 3.5 seconds. Top speed is 308kph. The joy you feel when you open the garage and look at the 911 parked there, waiting for you to fire it up and drive off, is simply unquantifiable.
With the world’s newfound penchant for going green and eco-consciousness being the new cool, the time has come for electric vehicles to shine. A reduced carbon footprint is a ticket to elevated social status and the Hyundai Kona is a kinder, gentler SUV (actually, a hatchback-crossover) that won’t chew up the planet and spit out the remains from its tailpipe. It’s a five-seater that’s powered by a permanent magnet synchronous electric motor, which produces 135bhp and an impressive 395Nm of torque. The Kona’s 39.2kWh lithium-ion polymer batteries can be fully charged in about six hours and with a full charge, the Kona has a driving range of 452km. It can even accelerate from zero to 100kph in 9.7 seconds, which should keep petrolheads (or should that be batteryheads? or even electricityheads?) happy. There are challenges though, as you might expect. If you want to own one of India’s first electric SUVs, be prepared to shell out more than Rs 25 lakh and be mindful of the fact that EV charging infrastructure is close to being non-existent in India. This one, refined and polished as it is in typically Hyundai fashion, the Kona is probably for early adopters only.
The world of luxury sedans got a powerful new entrant this year with the all-new BMW 745Le xDrive iPerformance, which is a plugin hybrid. The German company took all the great features of the hardworking 740e and made it grander and more efficient. A more powerful engine, a better performing battery pack and a slew of luxury features make the 745Le the definitive luxury car that’s ready for the future.
There are cars that are passenger-focused and then there are those that are driver-focussed. This one doesn’t settle for anyone – it wants to do both. The 745Le’s luxurious interiors feature gleaming nappa leather upholstery, six-setting ambient lighting, and an ambient ‘air package’ with fragranced ionised air, rear seats that recline and stretch out aircraft first-class cabin style, with electrically adjustable headrests and footrests. There’s also a massage function with eight different settings for each seat including the driver’s, active seat ventilation, a panorama glass roof with 15,000 illuminated LED graphic surfaces on the glass, a 16-speaker Harman Kardon surround sound system, Apple CarPlay etc. The list of accessories is pretty much endless. To top it all, the car’s sound insulation is so good that in electric drive mode, the silence inside is almost eerie. Also notable is BMW’s new Intelligent Personal Assistant that accepts voice commands. You can use it for navigation and to control the sound system among other things, and just saying ‘Hey BMW’ brings this personal assistant to life instantly.
BMW’s Life Cycle Impulses (LCI) are known to have inspired design alterations in their cars for years now. And this is reflected in the way the company has styled the new 7 Series’ exterior. BMW claim this is their greatest phase shift yet. And indeed, the front facade is certainly more domineering – that traditional kidney grille is now much bigger (supposedly, 47 per cent larger than its predecessor), as is the BMW logo. The long hood looks muscular and mean and the narrow LED headlamps ramp up the car’s subtle aggression, while the chrome window trim adds the requisite amount of bling.
Driving (or being driven around in) a big, powerful luxury sedan doesn’t make the kind of statement it used to until a few years ago. These days, you must also show you are eco-conscious, you care for the environment and that you love your planet. Hence, it’s important to have a hybrid powerplant, which this BMW does. The 745Le’s six-cylinder 286bhp turbo-petrol engine plays along with the car’s electric motor for a combined output of 394bhp and 600Nm of torque. With the car’s 8-speed ‘Steptronic’ transmission swapping gear ratios swiftly and seamlessly, the 745 can happily accelerate from zero to 100kph in just over five seconds and hit a top speed of 250kph.
The hybrid powerplant probably reduces emissions and improves mileage a bit (we managed to get 11kpl in Mumbai), so you get to build your green credentials. It’s also smart – the car’s Anticipatory Hybrid Drive optimises the car’s powertrain and automatically flicks between electric and petrol modes, depending on driving behaviour, for best performance. The 745Le has a 53km electric-only range, which may be useful for pottering around town without using the petrol engine at all. Charging takes five hours if you use a BMW wall charger, or eight to 12 hours using a regular household electric socket.
Overall, the BMW 745Le is an absolutely brilliant luxury sedan, which offers the best of both worlds. The rear seat comfort is fit for royalty but if you’re inclined to get behind the wheel yourself, this is still a car that you can enjoy driving. The hybrid powerplant is responsive, acceleration is brisk and despite its size, the 7 Series handles very well indeed. In everyday use, you can’t really feel the xDrive, BMW’s intelligent 4WD system that features variable torque distribution. Still, this will probably be handy on wet and slippery roads and provides additional peace of mind. Sure, it costs the equivalent of a two-bedroom apartment in central Mumbai but for the discerning luxury car buyer, the 745Le is still probably your best bet.
If SUVs are not your style, how about a compact 7-seater MPV? The terms ‘compact’ and ‘7-seater’ should really be mutually exclusive but Renault has proved otherwise with the Triber. With three rows of seats in a sub-4-metre package, the Triber is the answer to your prayers if you need to frequently ferry around an extended family. Sure, its 1.0-litre, 3-cylinder engine that produces 72 horsepower doesn’t really seem like the ideal powerplant for a 7-seater vehicle. But out in the real world, the Triber just about manages to hold its own. There’s no automatic transmission (a 5-speed manual is your only option for now), though an AMT is said to be in the works and might be available in 2020. Airbags and antilock brakes are present, which is of course important. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility should keep the smartphone nerds happy, while flexible seating (the last row of seats is completely removable, while the second row features split and folding seats) makes the Triber quite practical. Priced from Rs 4.95 lakh to Rs 6.53 lakh, the Triber makes a strong case for itself for those who often travel in large groups. If Renault starts offering a more powerful (turbocharged?) variant of the 1.0l engine and an AMT or CVT automatic next year, this will be the perfect MPV for India.
In the rush of SUVs and MPVs that have recently been launched, the small family hatchback hasn’t been entirely forgotten. The small hatchback is alive and kicking and it’s even got some vaguely SUV-ish styling cues in order to keep it relevant in a world where everyone wants, what else, an SUV. Maruti claims its new small car is an “epic mini SUV,” which it most certainly isn’t. That doesn’t necessarily make the S-Presso a bad car, just a rather quirky one with styling that takes some time to get used to. All the Maruti basics are here — a fuel-efficient three-cylinder petrol engine that’s adequately powerful, reasonably comfortable seating for four (five if you’re prepared to make it a tight squeeze), safety features including ABS and dual airbags, and transmission options that include a manual and an AMT. Prices start from Rs 3.69 lakh, going up to Rs 4.91 lakh for the top-end variant. For young buyers looking for their first car, the S-Presso might just be the perfect Maruti for you.
Yes, another compact five-seater SUV and this one is from the Korean company that really understands what works in India. The Venue comes with a range of petrol (choose between normally aspirated and turbocharged units) and common-rail diesel engines, along with 6-speed manual and 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions. Again, no 4WD but the Venue is strong on safety, with ABS, stability control and up to six airbags. There’s colour touchscreen, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, multi-function steering wheel-mounted controls, full smartphone connectivity and height-adjustable driver’s seat. As is the norm with Hyundai cars, the Venue is a well thought out package that offers a pretty good all-around driving experience, well equipped interiors and solid value for money. Prices start at Rs 6.50 lakh, going up to Rs 10.84 lakh. And while Messrs Shroff and Cumberbatch might not agree, the Venue might just be the compact SUV for you if bang for your buck, an extensive sales and service network and strong resale values are important considerations.
Kia, which is partly owned by Hyundai, is one of the more recent entrants in the Indian car market. And right off the bat, they have made a big impression with their new SUV, the five-seater Seltos, which seems to tick all the boxes for the Indian buyer. The Seltos is, according to Kia, “inspired by the badass in you,” and the Koreans have got the gym crushing, Karate-kicking Tiger Shroff to extoll its virtues. Of which, there are many, we can assure you. There’s a range of refined and powerful diesel and petrol engines to choose from, a choice of manual and automatic transmission and a full range of safety features, including anti-lock brakes, stability control and up to six airbags. Also available is an 8-speaker Bose sound system, 10.25-inch colour display, LED headlamps, ventilated seats that are power-adjustable, a sunroof and even ambient ‘mood’ lighting. Full smartphone connectivity brings a host of features that are actually useful (even if you’re not a millennial) and prices that range from Rs 9.69 lakh and all the way up to Rs 15.99 lakh means there’s got to be a Seltos that’s just right for you.
Once British-owned, MG has had a checkered past and its list of former owners includes the British Motor Corporation (BMC), British Leyland, Austin Rover, MG Rover and the Nanjing Group. MG is now owned by the Shanghai-based SAIC, one of the top four Chinese carmakers, and is gunning to capture a slice of the Indian car market. And if Kia has Bollywood’s Tiger Shroff, MG has no less than Hollywood actor Benedict Cumberbatch promoting the brand. The Hector, MG’s first launch in India, is a five-seater SUV that’s available with turbo-petrol and turbo-diesel engine options. There’s even a petrol-engined 48V hybrid model in the line-up, which offers a bit more torque, improved acceleration and better fuel efficiency. There’s no 4WD on any of the variants but you do get a full complement of safety kit, including anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control and up to six airbags. Web connectivity is one of the MG’s strong points, with a massive colour touchscreen, embedded 5G-ready SIM, OTA updates, voice-activated features, geo-fencing and navigation apps and a host of digital infotainment. Prices start at Rs 12.48 lakh and stretch up to Rs 17.28 lakh. If you want an SUV that’s big on size and space, the Hector may be well worth a look.