A friend of mine is the father of identical twin girls. Every time I meet him and his girls, I just can't seem to identify who is who between the twins. Thankfully, the toddlers haven't started talking yet; they would probably berate me for being so blind.

But, identical twins do have that effect on you. It usually lasts for a while when you are in their company, at least until you recognise some faintly identifiable differences in features and behaviour.

Haven't met such twins? Not sure how they can be confusing? You could look up Google for some examples, but in the meanwhile, let me give you a recent example from the automotive world – the Nissan Micra and the Renault Pulse.

They are practically indistinguishable until you spend some time in their midst, only after which you start discerning some of the differences. The Micra and the Pulse are both products of the Renault-Nissan marriage. The alliance has used one platform to produce two different vehicles in the past, but these two are different.

Just like in the case of human twins, it seems likely that Renault-Nissan also didn't plan on birthing twins, but the Pulse seems to have been just as much of an inevitable outcome. But unlike models like the XTRAIL and the Koleos, in the case of the hatches, the alliance has adopted a very different platform-sharing approach, one where what is not shared is just a handful of features and the rest of the car is all too obviously the same.

Seeing double

The Renault Pulse's only feature that attempts to give it an identity is its front bumper. The Pulse is the result of redesign work done by the Renault Design Centre India in Mumbai. And much of that work just seems to have revolved around the front. Renault's cars are usually designed with a bit of quirky aggression built into them. The design team's mandate obviously seems to have to been to capture a bit of that in the reworked front of the Pulse. The new front bumper in its entirety is the new design element, sporting a widened hexagonal central feature that includes the bonnet grille and a part of the airdam. Some what in keeping with the hexagonal Renault logo, the new bumper's design lines and other features flow coherently into the bonnet ridge and eyelets surrounding the headlamps.

Compared to the Micra, the bonnet slab in the Pulse is missing the central ridge. But the short bonnet lid and the oversized bumper design of the Micra has aided the work of Renault designers.

Overall, though the front redesign is interesting, the fact that nothing much else has changed, including all the other body panels, leaves you feeling a bit disappointed. The headlamps and the tail-lamps are inherently the same too, though the internal combination has been changed. The redesign is a little more evident in the rear lamps which now feature circular internal elements.

Over the course of the week during which I test drove the new Pulse, the car did draw a number of curious onlookers, many of course got curious after their second glance at the car. Some fellow road users asked me if it was the new Renault small car, some enquired if it was a workshop job on the Micra and a few, even more poorly informed, asked me if it was a new Mahindra hatch with a diesel engine.

Cloned interior

If the exterior design of the Pulse is almost identical to the Micra's, the interiors are… well, actually identical. One could hide the Renault logo on the steering wheel and onlookers would identify it as the familiar interior of the Micra. The only difference, almost ‘missable', is the slightly creamier colour theme for the cabin in the Pulse. Everything else is carried forward from the Micra.

The Pulse's biggest advantage, derived again from the Micra, is its tall-boy cum jelly bean design outside and more importantly its practical and feature-rich interior. The car's loaded with user-friendly features like the push-button start, automatic aircon, alloy wheels, integrated music system and auto-folding door mirrors. These were features that set the Micra apart from some of the other hatches in its price segment and these surely also add to the Pulse's appeal.

The Micra's two diesel variants don't feature dual airbags and ABS with EBD; the Pulse gets these two safety features as optional additions.

Engine and ride

Renault has chosen to launch the Pulse only with the 1.5-litre K9K dCi diesel engine, which is also available in the Micra. This 1,461cc common rail diesel mill used in other Renault-Nissan cars too, is quite a likeable motor. Quick to spool up and with barely any delay in torque delivery, the engine puts out a peak 64PS of power at 4,000 rpm and a healthy maximum torque of 160 Nm from as low as 2,000 rpm.

Step on the accelerator and just like in the Micra, the engine sound clearly identified it as a diesel. But, with the door closed and windows up, the engine noise doesn't get too intrusive in the cabin except under hard acceleration. The best part about the engine is its ability to pull cleanly and the well-matched five speed manual transmission also make it quite addictive to drive. In crawling traffic you can stay in second gear, but while in general moving city traffic you can just stay put in the third and manage with the amount of the low-end torque. Rated fuel efficiency of the Pulse, again identical to the Micra, is 23.08 kmpl.

The ride feels just the same too between the two cars. For the Pulse, that is certainly not a negative. The ride quality is firm and yet pliant. Going over potholes and some really bad patches of road that were recently ravaged by tropical cyclone Thane, the Pulse manages to hold its composure well. There is a sense of stability and quality build that you feel at the wheel. Body roll is only discernable during cornering and braking is confident, though a bit more feedback from the pedal would have been better.

Bottomline

The Pulse is offered with two trim levels – RxL and RxZ, just like the XV and XV Premium variants of the Micra diesel. Prices for the Pulse range from Rs 5.77 lakh to 6.38 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) including the optional safety additions. On the other hand, the Micra's ex-showroom prices range from Rs 5.85 lakh to Rs 6.29 lakh

So, what does a buyer faced with the twins from the alliance do? What is the game plan behind Renault's move, when it is obvious that the two cars will eat into each other's sales? On the outside, the Pulse might seem like an extreme example of the frugal engineering that Carlos Ghosn – the alliance companies' CEO – is often quoted on. But, this was the quickest possible way for Renault to get a small car into its portfolio with very little investment from its own pocket.

That isn't bad an idea. Only, I am not sure that the twin brands command as much loyalty as yet to leave the buyers firmly preferring one over the other.

muraliswami@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on January 31, 2012)
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