In the current market ecosystem, petrol cars are a dying species. Price difference between petrol and diesel rose from 11 rupees to almost 30 rupees in less than two years. People feared the worst was yet to come and literally stopped buying petrol cars.
How did the industry react to this paradigm shift in the customer's mind?
1) General Motors placed a diesel car in the B segment which stimulated sales and doubled volumes in what otherwise was seen as an endangered model. The Beat is the lone diesel model in its category.
2) Massive discounts were offered on petrol cars. Dealers found it laborious to clear them from stockyards and took drastic measures, some slashing up to 2 lakh rupees on the ex-showroom price, to get rid of them.
3) Honda heavily slashed prices of both Jazz and City and launched the Brio at under 4 lakh rupees. Honda also said the Japan HQ is working out a diesel engine and they have not decided the models on which it will be used.
4) Maruti Suzuki spoke to the media about a possible contract with Fiat to source a 1-liter diesel engine. Cars smaller than the Swift are likely to receive this engine if the contract is signed.
5) Companies ran petrol-for-the-price-of-diesel offers. Fiat India encouraged customers to book petrol cars giving them an opportunity to upgrade to a diesel for no extra cost. The only condition was they must be blessed with boat loads of luck.
6) Car makers offered LPG option to boost sales of petrol models. The Beat LPG, Indica LPG and Wagon R LPG were born this year. Among other models, the Eon LPG and i10 LPG are expected to touch down in 2012.
7) There was immense pressure on dealership executives across the country, across brands to convince customers that if they are not driving over 1,500 km or so in a month, petrol is the correct choice. Sales summary show they weren't very convincing.
8) If you wait a bit longer, you're likely to see the Tata Nano get a diesel engine. Cars on the lower-end are also moving to oil burners to secure their future.
In this situation, Ford India's about to launch a petrol automatic variant. This prompts three questions -
2) What's different about it?
3) Is it fun to drive?
4) Is it worth buying?
1) Why did Ford launch the Fiesta AT?
Reason 1 - The first thing brought up during a conversation on the Fiesta is the high price. Look beyond the price and you see some of the best features and functions. The voice control system is an intriguing feature, the handling is quite easily the best and the class-leading fuel economy figures are exceptional. Ford is credited with bringing new technology and setting higher benchmarks with the Fiesta. In continuation of that effort, Ford's putting in the 6-speed dual clutch transmission into the Fiesta.
Reason 2 - This is the first dual clutch automatic transmission in the segment. Do a competition check and the best you'll find is a 5-speed single clutch AT. In anticipation of low volume, car manufacturers offer the simplest of choices. If buyer needs something more, they ask him to move to the upper end of the C-Segment.
Reason 3 - We've already discussed why a diesel AT is not coming anytime soon. In bumper-to-bumper city traffic, nothing works better than an automatic transmission. Some of us in the metros spend all our traveling time in traffic jams. Driver frustration is causing volumes to rise and in the coming years with more cars on the road, demand will grow stronger.
Reason 4 - The Fiesta hasn't exactly raced ahead from launch. The going has been slow with 800-1,000 units shipped every month since the July launch. Rivals have been far more successful in convincing customers. The Verna and Vento have been highly profitable additions from the brand and cash register perspectives. What can Ford do to get to a better position? Adding variants to cater to new target groups is the only way forward and that's the primary reason for the Fiesta AT.
What's different about it?
The Fiesta retains the looks and features of the manual guise. The black leather interior and the absence of a clutch are the only real differences. Ford is considering the plan of launching two variants - Titanium and a lower variant to address the needs of more customers.
In technical terms, the Fiesta gets what Volkswagen calls DSG. There are two clutches that operate on the gears. The gearbox is better prepared to respond to the needs of the driver and consumes less time to digest his inputs. Its like turbocharging a gearbox and the results are impressive.
Using solenoids and stepper motors, the gears are engaged. This kind of construction avoids the use of pump which consumes fuel and needs maintenance. The Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) is sealed for life and does not need oil top up. Ford says its a zero maintenance assembly that can last for ten years at best.
Like how a car's suspension setup is changed and ground clearance jacked up on arrival, the gearbox needed to suit our market conditions. After studying test results, Ford changed the shift schedules and clutch material to ensure that its ready for torture that it will go through in a Delhi or Mumbai road.
Two features that are highly useful are descent control that is switched on by pushing a button on the shifter. It keeps the car rolling in the same gear. This allows engine braking that other auto boxes don't and appreciates control as the car is coming down a gradient. It also improves brake pad life.
The second feature is a hill start assist that keeps the car from rolling backwards when shifting your leg from the brake to the accelerator on a gradient.
Is it fun to drive?
If an automatic variant misses a paddle shifter, it's deemed no-fun. This is the same impression I got before I took the Fiesta out for a spin. The 150km drive around Goa made me finally feel good about an automatic transmission in this segment. What's more it brings fun into driving.
The gearbox has an independent ECU that alters shift schedule with regard to driving habits. If you are driving softly, the gear changes happen at 3k RPM. If you are driving hard, the car revs until 4.5K RPM. There's a fun mode named "L" on the console. Slot into it and the car revs past 6k RPM. Even in the D mode, the response times are faster than the average automatic transmission. There's a sense of hurry in the way the gear shifts as you accelerate. The same eagerness is not shown while downshifting as the engine stays on the higher gear for better fuel efficiency. It's noticeable only because upshifts comes very naturally to this box.
Another neat feature is the gearbox disconnects from the engine when you step on the brake. This improves driving experience in city traffic as there is no annoying jerks or vibration in the cabin.
The only drawback is the noisy nature of the gearbox. If you put your foot down to overtake a two-wheeler or a slow moving vehicle, the engine gets very audible. There is not enough sound absorbing material and it will be uncomfortable for elders sitting at the rear seat. After a few kilometers in the L mode, you feel the need for ear plugs! You start searching for a paddle or a + option that isn't there.
Ford was scouting for a suitable terminology for the "L" and we suggest them to call it Loud!
Overall the Fiesta AT raises the bar and makes the competition feel a generation old. Get used to the engine's raised voice and you have the most enthusiastic automatic transmission in this category.
And that's not even the best part. Ford says its waiting for the ARAI results and is confident that the extra gear and the dual clutch in the automatic will rate it at the same level as the manual. They expect marginal or no loss in fuel economy which is another first for the Indian market that perceives automatic transmissions as gas guzzlers.
During our 150km drive that included narrow lanes, ascending and descending a hill, open highways and city traffic, journalists got anywhere between 11.7-13.2 kmpl. Careful driving could certainly provide better numbers as we were experimenting with the L mode, testing the handling and paid no attention to fuel consumption.
Is it worth buying?
If you drive a Fiesta around some bends, you are assured to buy one the same day. The steering feedback, progressive brakes, sticky tires and the firm suspension setup make it the action movie in the DVD collection. The AT variant is for the self-driven customer who mainly uses the car in crowded environments, drives short distances and needs an engaging experience while he's at it.
Prices will be announced in January and we're told that the difference could stand at 8-10% compared to the manual variant counterpart.