Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rutan Model 61 long EZ LCV at Aero India

Below are some pictures of a cute little plane. It is reportedly called Rutan Model 61 Long EZ. (learnt from Defense forum India)

This tiny aircraft can seat 2 people. If only I can exchange my bike for this... Below photo is taken before the show when crew were preparing the aircraft.

Up close look of the pilot seat of Rutan Model 61 micro plane.
 Also view: Russian Knights at Aero India * Redbull Tigermoth show at Aero India  * Sarang Helicopters at Aero India * Security issues at Aero India 

Monday, May 27, 2013

LPG Connection-minimum usage clause

While there were discussions on limiting subsidized domestic LPG to 6 cylinders per year, also exists a rule which mandates that we use one cylinder within 6 months.

If a consumer doesn’t book a cylinder for more than 6 months, his/her account will be suspended. The intention behind this rule is good. If someone has changed address or for any other reason doesn’t need LPG connection, suspending connection makes sense. However it also causes inconvenience to people who’re trying to conserve LPG.

We bought an induction stove last year and started using it extensively. It is highly effective- saves time and energy. As a result our usage of LPG went down- was used only when there was no power or when we didn’t have right utensil for induction stove. Our cylinder lasted for more than 6 months.

When we tried booking a refill, we were informed of block put on our LPG connection. To set it right, I had to personally visit the dealer, provide copy of my address proof, ID proof, fill out a form, provide a photo and so on. About 3 hours and a hundred rupee (petrol, Xerox etc) had to be spent to convince them that I am alive at the same address and need my account re-activated.

While the concept of suspending unused connections is fine, I feel the process should be improved. Can we have the period increased from 6 to say 9 months? Also, before de-activation, can’t the agency make a call to take consumer’s opinion?

Now we need to chose between spending half a day and hundred rupee on reactivation OR spend more gas and empty the cylinder within 6 months.

Also read: What to do if LPG cylinders are stolen

Polaris Offroad sports ECR near Mahabs: Experience and review

After exploring Polaris Offroad track off Sarjapur road in Bangalore earlier this month, we paid a visit to Offroad sports-another Polaris Franchisee near Mahabalipuram, ECR, Chennai.

This post is a quick review of our experience, observations and information about Offroad Sports ECR.

What's good at ECR offroad track (compared to our Bangalore experience):
  1. More vehicles. Offroad sports ECR has a bunch of Chinese ATVs, besides a large fleet of Polaris ATVs, including Polaris Ranger Crew.
  2. Longer track option- 7 and 10km rides available, which go close to ocean and go inside woods.
  3. Family ride in Ranger Crew, seats 5 people and costs Rs 4500 for 10km ride. (I can rent Mahindra Scorpio for 2 days in that amount)
What's not good at Polaris Offroad Sports ECR:
  1. Poor attitude towards Safety. No body protection offered, few helmets available but staff don't encourage/mandate customers to use them
  2. Expensive rides, compared to what Bangalore track was charging.
  3. Too many restrictions-like we should take photos with only those vehicles in which we've paid for a ride, photos of other vehicles should not be taken, bike should not be parked in a shaded area (which was meant for cars) even when we were the only customers in their campus and so on.
  4.  A rather plain sand track. No ups and downs, no rocks, no water dip, so the ride gets boring within minutes. A ramp like section was closed down and when asked, I was told "people went on them, toppled and injured themselves"
  5. No Self drive option in Ranger Crew.
  6. Bangalore franchiese allowed us to enjoy the ride first and then make final payment. But here in Chennai payment should be made before each ride.
  7. Staff was saying "drive slowly and carefully, if it gets damaged you've to pay". If I can't have some fun, what is the point paying 500 Rs for 1km ride? Why should I pay for their dakota vehicles?
Ranger Crew
Polaris Ranger Crew is one of the most expensive ATVs on offer by Polaris. The 900+ cc Ranger Crew ATV costs 14k US $ in US. In India, after 120% tax, would cost about 20 lakhs on road. These are not street legal and should be driven on private roads only. Doesn't make any practical sense to buy this. A second hand Mahindra jeep would do equally well.

Offroad ECR offers family ride (upto 5 people) in this ATV. A 10 km ride costs Rs 4500. No self drive allowed, only their staff will drive. Looks great and very inviting, but No value for money at all. Because of high price of ride and the fact that I am not allowed to drive, we didn't bother trying this.
Offroad sports ECR ATV ride rate card

How is the track at offroad ECR?
It is very plain with sand. No ups and downs, no water pits, nothing much exciting. Even couple of small ramps that existed are closed. The track is little longer than Bangalore one but not half as fun.
The beach/wood ride:
This is the most exciting ride at Polaris Offroad sports. A 7km ride by the ocean, into the woods costs Rs 2500 in Polaris ATV and Rs 1500 in Chinese ATV. The 10km package costs Rs 3000 and 2000 respectively. These ATVs with thumb operated accelerators are not good for long rides. Finger starts aching after a while, as rider needs to keep the thumb operated accelerator pressed for long time. A staff sits behind and forces us through a pre-determined track, without any flexibility whatsoever.

Go kart is another option where 2 people can sit 
 Below: Brand new Polaris Pheonix 200
Where is this place? about 9 kms before Mahabalipuram on ECR.

Problem with ATV business in India is the high cost. The owners would have invested 10 to 20 lakhs on each vehicle and to recover the same, they are charging Rs 400 onwards for a ride. This reminds me if 1990s, where one hour internet surfing would cost close to Rs 100 in cyber cafes. If Polaris franchisees had the volume (i.e. lots of customers) they can reduce per ride cost, but to get high volume, they should reduce the charges first. So this is like a chicken or egg first situation.

However, bulk deals (like say for team outing) could be cheaper if you can negotiate hard (their facility remains by and large idle during week days).

At least if Polaris can manufacture/assemble these machines locally, they can sell more machines and rides will become cheaper

Also unless the tracks are made a bit adventurous, the experience will be dull.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Fast and Furious 6: Movie Review

I watched Fast and Furious 6 and this post is a brief review of the movie.

Like its previous editions, Fast and Furious 6 has enough action- cars, speed, action. But what it misses is a strong plot.

Everything is based around couple of computer chips, which if compromised, will enable enemies to wipe out power supply to cities for days. Most of the story is based on this. If someone can design such chips, they should also have provisions to wipe it out or disable it if needed. Why design it like a piece which keeps whole world vulnerable if compromised?

But then, movies need a story-Don used a DVD, many movies use pen drive, chips, codes and such stuff which form the epi-centre of everything. Can't blame the story writers. Let us leave that part and continue.

I am sure you've read about the plot- quick recap below
After a bounty securing during Rio-De-Janerio heist, the crew have retired all over the world, but they're asked to team up again and take a new task- preventing some sensitive chip from getting into wrong hands. Then a usual chase, smashing of cars and everything happens before Toretto and team destroys a cargo plane, kills all enemies, saves themselves and recovers the chip.

A bit of sentiments are thrown in. Why these guys don't secure their families while going after deadly criminal is something I don't understand. I guess they're busy making movies and never watch any. Almost all movies involve heros coming this close to achieve their mission, but villain walking away because later has managed to hold hero's family members at gun point. Dear writers and directors- please note: avoid making this fundamental mistake in future movies- ask your lead characters to cover their back and protect their loved ones, before starting a "save the world" mission.

Movie shows bits of Russia, Spain and London. I could see lots of similar thinking between James Bond's Skyfall and this movie (there also an ex military guy turns rogue, most of action happens around London)

Elena falls off the car while trying to save Han Seoul. No attempt was made to search for her. Lead characters don't die so easily, so searching around the runway would have helped find her, probably alive (same way Letty was alive while audience of previous episodes thought she is dead- I guess next sequel will throw light on it)

Fast and Furious 6 is worth a watch for those who love cars, speed and action

Friday, May 24, 2013

Mahindra Scorpio LX 2013 review

Spent a day driving a new Scorpio LX, rented from Zoom. For beautiful photos of the Scorpio, check here. In this post I am giving my quick review of the vehicle.
Scorpio LX is the cheapest variant of Scorpio on offer (note: there’s another M2Di variant with Bolero’s BS3 engine, which is for rural areas only). Costs about 10 lakhs on road. It misses out on several safety and comfort features we’re used to but has all DNAs of the mighty and rugged Scorpio.

Being cheapest variant, there’s nothing much worth mentioning about the interiors. You get cheap plastic and bare minimum stuff. Co-driver side vanity mirror on sun visors is available. The glove box wouldn't lock properly and closing it required multiple hard pushes.
Despite being entry level variant, LX gets power windows. But the controls are centrally positioned near the hand break. It is not the most convenient position to operate. Both driver and passengers need to put some effort to reach out and operate these. However, it is better than not having power windows
Mirrors have to be manually operated and the lever is not responsive enough.
Fuel low indicator, seat belt warning etc missing in instrument console.
Radio antenna was non-existent, hence audio system wouldn’t capture FM radios properly once you cross city limits. (The Vls we drove in 2008 was capturing Mysore radio (AM, not FM) station when we were deep forests in Wayanad)
No arm rests for middle row, no arm rests for drivers. The 9 seater variant comes with thinner and non adjustable second row. The LX 7 seater has slightly more comfort.
Black plastic bumper is offered in Scorpio LX to save cost. You can optionally buy fog lamps as extra. Skyracks are offered as standard. Headlamp assembly gets couple of LEDs and a touch of crome holding Mahindra logo looks nice on otherwise black façade. Rest of the vehicle appears common across variants
I’d driven a Scorpio VLS in 2008 (we went to Wayanad- details here), a Xylo in 2012, another old Scorpio in 2012: All these cars had hard transmission. Changing gears need efforts (Compared to Innova, Aria). Not sure if Mahindra has decided to leave it as it is, thinking all rugged vehicles should have hard to operate gearbox. Even the 2013 Scorpio carries that issue forward. Nothing is done to make it a bit smooth. I read that new Xylo H series gets refined transmission. Need to check out if that is better

Otherwise I don’t have any complaints on the driving experience. 2.2 litre mHawk delivers 120PS and is pretty good enough for practical use (even the Xylo uses this engine now). ABS is missing in LX. (Go for SLE if you want ABS). Suspension and tyres are pretty good.

Scorpio LX is a budget variant of popular and reliable Scorpio.  If budget is limiting one from going for expensive variants, one can settle for LX.

Scorpio is due for a refresh next year.

Also read: Ford Ecosport review 

Ford Ecosport article in Vijayanext

Below is my article on Ecosport, published in this week's edition of Vijayanext- a weekly magazine by Vijaya Karnataka, run by Times of India group. This article is a summarized Kannada version of my ecosport review published here

For some reason, editors chose not to use the photographs of Ecosport which I had shared.

Read it online here

Read about my other recent articles: Self drive car rentals * Vista D90 * More

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Russian Knights Sukoi planes at Aero India 2013

Some photos from Aero India show held in February from the Russian Knights squad.

Fighter aircraft are the only vehicle which can be driven upside down. I am sure these pilots were having fun doing so

Russian Knights-releasing flares

Extreme closeup

Few more photos of the formation

 Russian Knights Sukoi fighter plane with landing gear down

I struggled hard to take a photo of two fighters facing each other. But the camera didn't cooperate (rather I need to master the equipment still). Those few nano seconds it takes to focus is too critical and planes would pass each other by then.

Also view: Redbull Tigermoth show at Aero India  * Sarang Helicopters at Aero India * Security issues at Aero India 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Park Hyatt Resort and Spa Goa

Park Hyatt resort, where we stayed during Ford Ecosport Media drive, has a beautiful campus. While we got to spend very little time here, I am sharing some photos of the hotel campus and brief notes on the experiences.

Park Hyatt room rent starts from Rs 7000 onwards. 24 hours of internet connection costs Rs 1200+ taxes. So it is not for the light wallet people. Don't ask me about laundry charges. Outside many rooms I could see dress materials laid out for drying- indicating that residents preferred to wash themselves.

Even the pool was very well designed, but as people were swimming I didn't click any photo. Campus is big enough to play leisurely and relax.
  Fairly posh interiors
Campus also has lots of birds flying around. Clicked a magpie and orange headed cattle egret in the campus.

Park Hyatt is located in Cansaulim, South Goa. Campus is 45 acres big and about 15 mins from Airport. Beach is also adjacent to the resort campus.

Ford Ecosport Urban SUV Review

The much awaited moment has finally arrived. We checked out, had breakfast and got a briefing about the drive-routes, stops, who drives when etc. Yours truly along with Arun Bhat was assigned Ecosport 3. A total of 9 ecosports were there in the cavalcade, all with 1.0 ecoboost engine and top end titanium optional. Once inside we started experimenting with audio system and SYNC voice commands. Within few minutes we were flagged off by Deepti, head of communications at Ford.
Ecosport in front of a Church in Goa, during a stop for photos
Journalists/invites of Media drive getting into their cars lined up for media drive
Deepti, head of Communications, Ford, Flagging off the media drive

We drove in a controlled environment (guided by a pilot car (Endeavor all terrain) on a pre-defined route. The drive lasted for about 140kms/half a day from Hyatt to Lalit and back to Queeny (hotel names in Goa). The road involved city traffic, NH17 highway and fair amount of hill terrain. Rest of the post is a review of the car- Ford Ecosport, with some details of the drive thrown in.

Ford Ecosport Price in India
This is the most frequently asked question and we didn't have an answer at the media drive. Ford will announce the price in the beginning of June when bookings open. Till then, we won't know the exact price. My wild guess is that cheapest variant might begin at around 7 lakhs or less (Ambient 1.5 litre petrol variant) with top end Titanium Optional pack crossing 10 lakhs+.

Ford Ecosport Variants: With 3 Engine options, 4 variants and auto option in petrol, about 10 different variants of Ford Ecosport will hit the market. We drove the Titanium Optional with 1 litre petrol ecoboost engine-Manual transmission. Rest of the review is focused on this top end variant of ecosport. I'll touch upon other variants in the end.

Design and looks are subjective, so I refrain from passing any judgments. There're enough photos in this post and you can decide for yourself. We were earlier explained how each of the curves were carefully studied and introduced for aerodynamics. From the front, ecosport looks very bold and has got smooth curves all along. Rear also presents a symmetric look with carefully crafted door handles and a macho wheel mounted on the rear.

How is the 1.0 Ecoboost Engine?
I am impressed with the engine. 125PS power from the tiny 1 litre 3 cylinder engine is amazing. During the drive, the need to downshift or upshift was very minimum. Between 20kmph to 80kmph, 3rd gear can handle it all without straining the engine. It felt like driving automatic for sometime. It is also very silent one. Except during quick acceleration, engine noise can't be heard in the cabin. Titanium Optional gets keyless entry with start stop button, which adds to the fun. Without doubt it is a great package.

1.5 petrol and diesel engines are have slightly less power. (Note: 1.5 litre petrol engine is not ecoboost, it is existing engine from Fiesta, giving out 112PS. So 1.5 litre engine variant will be cheaper than ecoboost)
Ecosport Console
Console is pretty straight forward and clean. Shows instantaneous mileage, temperature and a host of other information

Driving Comfort
Tilt and Telescopic adjustment (available in all variants) helps adjusting steering column to everyone's convenience. (Note: Duster offers only tilt, not telescopic) Driver seat height adjustment (available in all variants except the lower most Ambiente) helps get commanding view of the car. Arun bhat complained that right side arm rest, which is on the door is too low. Then I reminded him that he is feeling so because he has raised the seat height. (Ford Engineers: please note). Driver gets a left side armrest.

We tried auto climate control, which instantly increased blower speed with noise. It didn't ask for our temperature preference. Seemed to decide on its own (well, that's why it is Auto?) Anyways, AC is powerful enough to cool the car in few seconds.

Entertainment and Microsoft SYNC
We tried pairing our phones with the car, which didn't seem to recognize the phones at all. At next stop we got help from Ford staff, who informed us that we should do a scan in the phone for mutual linking. After that we started issuing voice commands, which involved asking it to play music, make calls etc. It felt difficult in the beginning, but after sometime we got familiar with the system and then it is easy.

While making calls via voice command is great, I told it to give a miss call to Arun, it didn't obey my command! Miss call feature will be a nice value add for Indians.

2 years ago, Topgear review of new Ford Fiesta didn't have a favorable review of voice command. I feel that's been rectified in Ecosport (voice command is more capable of dealing with Indian accent)

True like any Microsoft product, SYNC did HANG once during our drive (didn't respond to any voice/manual inputs). And again like a true Microsoft product, started working perfectly fine after a restart!

Safety in Ecosport:
Safety comes with a price. Cheapest variant sheds everything (Airbags, ABS etc) except front disc brakes to save on cost, as you go up the variants you get more and more safety kits. Trend gets ABS, Titanium gets ABS and dual Airbags and Titanium Optional pack gets side airbag as well.

Electronic stability program-ESP is available in 1.5 petrol AT only

If brakes are applied rapidly, hazard lights (all indicators) start blinking

While driving uphill, vehicle holds the brake for 3 seconds one you lift the leg- this helps avoiding rollback.

No disc brakes for rear wheels (We can keep asking for these and more, but they keep adding to cost, so somewhere manufacturer has to take that hard decision)

No rear view camera. We get sonar enabled display on bashboard, which shows thicker waves and sound beeps if there're obstacles. But do read your manuals carefully, as sonar can't detect certain objects which do not rebound sound.

Emergency assist which comes with SYNC is another life saving feature- if airbags get deployed or fuel supply shuts off, SYNC will call the 108 helpline, giving location coordinates and then facilitates communication between passengers and emergency operator, who can then dispatch an ambulance. Success of this feature depends on 108 service promptness. Ford on its part has trained 108 operators to deal with these calls. Be sure to pair your phone with SYNC, else it won't be able to call 108. 108 was started by EMRI (with a vision from Ramalinga Raju of Satyam) to be like 911 of US.

Halfway through the drive, when we stopped at a hotel for lunch, one car was less in the cavalcade and there were rumors of a small accident in a vehicle which was behind us. While the details of the accident wasn't shared officially, but tits and bits of it could be overheard everywhere and the tension in the face of organizers was apparent. Whether Ford liked it or not, the news of an Ecosport crashing was all over the web by late evening. Ecosport 6, which was 2 cars behind ours in the cavalcade had toppled over, reportedly due to over speed/misjudgment of the driver. The airbag got deployed instantly and the emergency assist called the 108 promptly. Within minutes the occupants of the car (which had drive spark editor in co-drivers seat) were rescued, who escaped with some minor injuries, fit enough to flyback to their cities same day. This way, a key safety feature of the car was promptly put to test and verified. Ford shouldn't hesitate to talk about the accident.
Above: Ecosport crash tested by journalists during media drive. Image from wheelomania.

Ecosport is a 5 seater. Given its proportions, it offers much better head room and overall space than regular sedans or hatchbacks. Rear seats can be folded (60:40) to create 702 litres of cargo space.

However space is not enough to add 2 jump seats in the rear. Due to safety reasons, Ford won't encourage it either. Some countries like China get a long wheelbase version of Ecosport, but that may not happen in India.

Co-passenger gets a storage box under the seat, doors can accomodate 2 bottles easily.

Ecosport will be available in about 8 colours (all colours in which Fiesta is available currently). We saw Orange and Blue ones in flesh.

Maintenance and Aftersales
Ecosport shares many parts with Ford Fiesta. Also ford's child parts strategy is aimed at reducing maintenance cost to owners, by enabling replacement of specific component which's damaged and not whole unit/assembly. Only if the model flops spare supply will get limited, which I don't think will be the case for Ecosport, which is expected to log good numbers.

Post lunch we drove directly to the end point. I was expecting to stop at few places on the way for photos, but that didn't happen.

What we didn't test:
  • Water wading depth- there was no provision to push the ecosport into some waterbody and test its waterwading capabilities (550mm, a very high number). If an artificial facility could have been set up for this, it could have added to the fun.
  • Top speed and Acceleration performance numbers
  • Crash test and Emergency assist (but one of our fellow riders did check this and confirmed that it works)
  • Offroad: Though it misses out 4 wheel drive, with good ground clearance, high power, high torque engine, Ecosport is fairly good at getting off road, however we couldn't drive it on demanding terrains

What could have been better:
  • No provision to add a touchscreen device in dashboard device. Can be added later as aftermarket fitment, which will have to be mounted on the bashboard/windshield. Duster added it later. 
  • The tailgate opens on the wrong side. We need to open it on the right side and pull it towards left, which is opposite of what's offered in all cars in India. Not sure if Ford forgot to change the design from left hand drive markets or if this gives any value adds. However integrating the handle inside the tail lamp assembly is a smart design.
  • Default tyres are optimized for city & highway driving. I would have opted for slightly rugged tyres which will help in tough terrains. However one should be able to work this out with the local dealer.
  • To give a voice command, driver needs to press a button on the steering wheel. Giving same button on co-passenger side would have been convenient when driver is not the one giving command. But then, the co-driver can always operate the controls manually, since he is not driving. So I might be asking for too much.
  • The instantaneous mileage display is not very intuitive. Just showing the value instead of bars would have been better
  • I am not a fan of all black interior. Few more interior options will be nice.
  • Thick A-pillar creates SX4 like blind spot
  • FM radio was not clear in the woods. Not sure if I should blame the car for this- may be the signal itself was weak outside city limits.
Ecosport vs Duster
Duster will be primary rival to Ecosport. There're a few pros and cons
  • Duster is bigger vehicle, has more space and more powerful diesel engine (on paper). This also means that Duster attracts more tax. Even if ex-showroom price is same, Duster on road price will be heigher. (it goes up to 14 lakhs on road currently). Ecosport enjoys tax advantage and can be sold cheaper overall. I've not driven diesel duster and diesel ecosport yet, hence can't compare on actual performance.
  • Duster automatic is NOT available, while ecosport has AT option in petrol
  • Ford has much larger dealer network than Renault, which should work to the advantage of Ecosport
  • Ecosport comes with few segment firsts-like SYNC and Emergency assist
  • Duster diesel has better fuel economy rating that Ecosport (on paper again, not tested), while for Petrol, Ecosport engines are more efficient. Duster also has 5mm more ground clearance (205 compared to Ecosport's 200).
Ford Ecosport vs Mahindra Quanto
Ford may not be able to compete with Mahindra on pricing front. Quanto will be for budget constrained compact SUV buyers, while Ecosport will be a bit premium. In terms of Engine, performance and many other aspects Ecosport is miles ahead of Quanto
Ford Ecosport vs Maruti Ertiga
Ertiga is 7 seater and is a MPV than an SUV. But then these two categories rub into each other, so Ecosport has to consider Ertiga as competition. Again can ford price Ecosport at par with Ertiga is something we need to watch out. Ertiga offers a value for money package without any of the bells and whistles and seems to be ideal for a user group different from Ecosport's target audience (Sameer)

Final Verdict: Ecosport is a nice package overall. I couldn't find any reason to say "Don't buy". It has got many segment firsts and is sure to get you a recognition among peer group. Fuel economy claims are at par with that of sedans and if priced rightly, Ecosport can be a nice buy. I've only tried 1.0 ecoboost petrol which was very impressive,unable to comment much on other variants at this moment. I wish all the success to Ecosport which would open bookings next month.

View more photos of the drive on my facebook album

Bangalore based Zoom cars are reportedly planning to add Ecosport to their fleet after launch. I am waiting.

You may read my Kannada article on Ecosport, published in Vijaya Next here