Is this the duel of the year? Has the class leading Honda City met its match? The answer to that is YES and NO, as we get to pit the spanking new Volkswagen Vento against the standard bearer of the upper C-segment, the Honda City. Adil Jal Darukhanawala played referee to see who breasts the tape in this all pervasive contest.
This is just what we all were waiting for. A duel to ignite passions in ice cold Honda who has for years ruled the roost with the City. Many have tried to match it and they still keep on trying but no one to date seemed to have had the complete package to even get within striking distance of what everyone generally reckons to be the coolest car out there. And one has to see this in terms of not just product but also a burgeoning economy which has upped living standards in the land where it is more often than not the best rather than a lesser priced econo-value-engineered product which curries favour with the punters. And it is this aspirational class which India is blessed with, that is making all the running for the best that life can offer.
Enter Volkswagen and the Vento, quite simply the most serious and also the most determined, from the looks of it, OEM ever to storm the Indian car market in recent times. What should have happened some three decades ago, if you factor in its choice as suitor for Maruti Udyog in the early 1980s, is finally here and rolling on its own steam. In terms of making the right moves to building brand presence and awareness, Volkswagen has left no stone unturned and climbed mountains, buildings certainly, to make many Indians know that it is not just the maker of the much loved Beetle but also one of the largest and most powerful car manufacturing companies in the world. And that it is not shy in stating the obvious.
There is a saying that the meek shall inherit the earth and while I don't know whether that stands to beckon Honda I sure do know that in all the winds that were blowing it preferred to maintain station in a silent stoic manner. Having been at the receiving end for dealing a wrong hand to its fortunes in the country by pricing its superlative Jazz in the hatchback stratosphere, Honda decided to err on the side of caution and just kept on taking ever greater care of its brand strengths and terrific products. However, the writing was on the wall and that was the City had a strong challenge heading its way. As things have panned out Volkswagen's Vento is the most serious challenger ever to face up to the Honda City and as we shall see while driving both cars through this test report, also a very effective piece of kit.
And just as it is the wont of the competitors to hear the magic words "let the games begin" or in automobile racing tradition, at least in the Indianapolis 500 (where Honda is currently the dominant prime mover) this is what gets everyone going: "Gentlemen start your engines!"
Round I: Showing off the style!
Many years ago when the second generation City appeared in view we all did a double take and said "whoa, what's happening here?" It wasn't too difficult to fathom that the sleek low slung lines of the original City with that killer thrust had been dispensed with in favour or a more mundane please-all-feel-good look that would bring more people into the Honda fold. Time did heal and in turn Honda made the City sharper, sleeker and more appealing. The profile was improved, the creases on the sides brought in added character and appeal and the front end got a clear and focused identity. God, they say, abounds in the details and if one cares to see closely one can find many smile inducing cues all around the City. I particularly love the front grille, the arrow-shot side profile replete with the rake of the windscreen and most important, the way the C-pillar treatment has hidden the large boot into something very akin to a notchback. Albeit a very slick one! The rear end is also stylish in a, dare we say it, understated Volkswagen way and when you mix all these into the style blender the City's overall proportions seem superbly in sync.
From the mystical Orient to the techno-trick Teuton and what comes across is the machined look which is oh so European and rather tasty at that. I am rather confused when someone says stretched Polo, booted Polo and stuff like because that isn't the way the Vento has been configured. Volkswagen wrote the book on platform sharing and on this count there is no debate because the Vento indeed begins life with a lengthened version of the Polo's floorpan. From there on it is different, has been engineered completely differently and unless you get down to really understanding the makeup and the production processes involved you do end up with the stretched Polo statement.
Overall I think the Polo is the quintessential European automobile, rather than just being Germanic about it. There is quite a bit of Italiano in there in the way the rakish windscreen, the taut swept back lines of the headlamp and that sexy sweep of the C-pillar match up with the overtly milled surfaces to present a good harmony. Visually the Vento looks longer and lower than the City and this is a good thing because many Indians do still value mass-for-the-price when looking out for a new car. One can see the hand of Walter de'Silva, the legendary ex-Alfa Romeo designer and now design chief of the VW Group, in the overall lines of the Vento and for sure I like everything on it.
Barring, of course, the rear end treatment which is devoid of any excitement! The front end, stylishly simple yet ethereal to behold is in another league altogether but at the rear the Vento could have had, well a bit more taste. The Vento carries that typically Germanic sheen all around it, even more pronounced than the present generation Jetta we have here in India and that does say much about evolving VW design. Wonder what will happen when the new gen Jetta gets here?
Both cars sit well and have a great stance and at the end of the first round of sashaying on the catwalk we don't see too many punches being pulled. Yet it is the Honda which traipses itself into a narrow opening lead.
Honda City: 4.5
VW Vento: 4.25!
Round II: The inner glow!
Come to think of it, Germans don't do the elaborate very well and on the other end they do the simple even more dowdily. In the battle of the minds and the eyes when you open the door and slide into the cabins of both you see that the Vento has that incomplete look about it. Sure everything is there and if it weren't for the City I would adjudge it on a very high scale. The material quality is good if not outstanding, though the overall theme is very similar to other siblings in the VW family. Let us not get into the low own debate on the base version because it is way too dowdy to comprehend but even with the better specced Highline version, the Vento is hard pressed to match the cheery ambience of the City.
Heck I didn't think I would be saying this but after having both cars being put through their paces over three solid days of work, I could stick my neck out on this. For one the seats could have been better and not just those at the rear! When I drove this car extensively in Rajasthan a month ago, I liked the way I was comfortable in it and again in isolation without the City, the Vento would have found me lathering all over it. Sadly the City is a colossus in its class and the way its seats are configured and the driving position perfected for our typical operating conditions it is clear to all that the Vento could do with an added dose of some ergonomic engineering.
Sure it has its strengths including a thoughtful front seat slider for the master to make more room to stretch his legs at the rear but overall, even with the fine feel of good trim materials, the interior is dour. In comparison to its rival!
The City's cabin is the place to be in, as we found out in the course of not just these three days going head to head but also in the Drive to Discover run (see report elsewhere in this issue). There is a certain cheekiness in the way the cabin has been laid out and funky is the term which best describes the ambience. You'll appreciate it in there whether it is a short dash to the supermarket or on the long haul to the hills and overall in the subconscious this is where the City begins to turn on its charm. The seats are stupendous and the driving position is spot on. The interplay of controls and their location is brilliant as well. However, the silvery treatment is too crass for my mind and the lack of a USB port or an auxiliary port to plug in my music is way too difficult to comprehend.
It is in these things that Volkswagen can strike a blow when it gets into a rapid revamp mode in the cabin because the Japanese (across brands), I think from past experience always hold back certain things which are important in that you want them rather than need them. So to make you want them they throw these bits in their normal 18-month revamp, at a marked up price of course!
So while Honda doesn't like me listening to my music and they still try to drive me nuts with that silvery texture on the dashboard, I don't have any qualms in calling this round as well in the City's favour but I am sure we are going to get into an area where mind over matter could blow the Vento up front.
Honda City: 4.25
VW Vento: 3.5
Round III: Tripping the light fantastic
In other words this is where we get to grips in the real world, dancing in the streets and waltzing up the hills. There is nothing to separate the cars where it matters, both sporting a wheelbase within 2mm of each other, the Vento having the upper hand. There is not much to separate the two in terms of suspension and underpinnings but the critical element here is that the weight distribution plays a key role and in this the Honda has enough going for it to compensate, and reward, in very many areas. This isn't meant to infer that the Vento has been relegated, far from it and here in this round it begins to reclaim lost ground.
The Vento has a very good poise and seems very well settled over a wide spread of surfaces, the spring and damper rates being brilliant in conveying a fine ride quality to the occupants. If only the seating had been perfect it would have benefited from the excellent ride characteristics the VW product has and overall the car steers true, just the right speed and nothing else and you have a safe sturdy product emerging in typical German manner. The brakes are up to the task, step on the anchors and the car doesn't snap out of line but does as ordered. Throw it into corners and it comes out of them in easy flowing form and overall the combined might of the monocoque, the suspension, the steering and the superb Apollo rubber makes the Vento hold its head high.
The City seems to have its work cut out but it also employs a totally different way to getting the same job done in an even more involved and pleasurable manner. It has a livelier feel to it and overall is the much more involving to drive. Mind you, both cars are family oriented machines with some punch thrown in and it is only the added punch from the Honda’s motor which delivers the sucker punch to the Vento, yes, even in ride and handling. The City can be thrown into corners quicker and it gets out of them with even more agility. Given the buzzy nature of its engine and the strong torque on call, you get to use the power to help the car do things round corners even better and if you are smooth on the loud pedal you end up with more smiles on your face to give the man in the Indica DriveTech 4 TV commercial a complex!
The City is far more agile but in a very controlled way and while the Vento acquits itself very well here in this test, the City still has its nose up front for honours in this round.
Honda City: 4.5
VW Vento: 4.25
Round IV: Pump up the volume!
Ah now we are talking and why shouldn't we? In probably the best and the fairest comparison yet between the two, on paper and bare printed facts, the Vento should have the edge over the City thanks to the slightly larger engine displacement it packs in. The Vento makes do with an all new 16-valve, double overhead camshaft 1598cc engine which develops 105PS at 5250rpm and whips up a strong surge of torque, 153Nm at a low 3800rpm. The motor seems bullet proof and on the face of the specs looks to have the firepower to match if not to outdo the class leader.
The Honda makes do with more from less and fairly shades the Vento in this critical test of heart power. Employing an engine with a swept volume of 1497cc, the Honda's engine is also a 16-valver but uses a single overhead camshaft which however packs in the magic with the i-VTEC gadgetry that makes the difference not just in absolute power and torque but in real world performance and actual efficiency. It just wouldn't be a Honda if it didn't have a fantastic engine and this holds true in the City. Just to make you aware of how good this engine is, I think Honda should place this in the Jazz and I am sure that not only would it make the Jazz THE car to have for every hot shot petrolhead but that it would deliver even better drive through the rev range and come up with stunning fuel consumption figures! Well we can dream but hey haven’t you heard about the power of dreams as old man Soichiro had coined the term? Don't dismiss this as yet will you but let's not digress. The i-VTEC mill punches out 118PS at 6600rpm and produces 146Nm of torque at 4800rpm, way above the Vento in power and just a shade less on the torque front.
Translating all this numerology out on tarmac is where the City starts pummeling its rival which tries to stand its ground manfully but cannot do much to take the battle to its rival. In all aspects of the game, outright acceleration from standstill, through the gears and on to max velocity, the City whips the Vento. Without exerting itself in the least! The zero to 60km/h sprint is dispatched in 5.9 seconds in the City while zero to 100km/h is achieved in 12.9 seconds. The Vento takes 6.1 and 13.3 seconds for the same acceleration runs. In the quarter mile dash, the City stops the clocks in 18.83 seconds while the Vento zips past in 19.03 seconds. In the standing one kilometer run, the City is a whopping 1.5 seconds quicker, getting the job done in 33.14 seconds as against the Vento's 34.46 seconds.
The above was all about absolute thrust but where the City truly rubs it in, is in the roll-on acceleration runs, the critical times when you need to overtake slickly and safely. In every run in any gear, the City trumps the Vento and this is where the Honda also begins to reward its pilot which is appreciated where it really matters, keeping his wallet packed for longer! The Vento in our city cycle turned in an 8.82kmpl while on the highway she returned 16.63kmpl! The variation here is massive but even repeating the cycle thrice, 8.82kmpl was the best of the lot! The City sizzled its way to 11.25kmpl in the city cycle and on the highway run she batted out a flat 16.0kmpl. Overall the City delivered 12.42kmpl while the Vento returned 10.62kmpl, a sizeable difference which is put into even greater perspective when you realize that the Vento hits a top whack of 177km/h but the City cuts through this before hitting a wall at 184km/h!
If one needs another take on this, look at the fuel tanks on both cars, the Vento has the larger 55-litre capacity which equates to a range of about 585km. The City makes do with just a 42-litre fuel tank and goes 522km on a lesser thankful!
Honda City: 5.0
VW Vento: 4.0
Round V: The experience!
This is all about living with the cars and how much they do to your ego and your well being. If you are the sane sensible type you will love the Vento for it is an exceedingly fine car. The trouble is the Honda is an even better car with more feel, more pleasure and even more finesse as to the way it gets things done. It is ultra refined and is yet the benchmark in class. Sure the Vento has the potential but it needs to iron out the rough edges, and hone its equipment even more finely if it has to make the City sweat. Right now it is a home run for the City especially when you factor in the contest where you compare apples to apples and in petrol sipping guise the Vento is shaded.
Brings me therefore to the strategy of the German car maker which is playing to its strengths and that concerns its diesel engined Vento. At around the same price points as the top of the line City, the Vento TDi delivers better performance, outstanding fuel efficiency and is a much livelier car than its petrol engined sibling. It has the measure of the City as well but fails in one critical regard: just doesn't have the soul to match! Nuff said!