The list of cars that have solicited open admiration or stares of disbelief when they were being test-driven by us on Indian roads is a long one. But the cars that also solicited earnest enquiries have been far fewer - and all too often priced below Rs 10 lakh. The mass-market makes itself felt one way or another in its numbers. Even worldwide, I guess, visceral reactions to a car on the road is largely reserved to a small bunch of sports cars. Yet, I wouldn't be wrong in claiming that we in India, tend to put more head than heart into our car buying calls.

Last week I was in what must have decidedly been a familiar looking vehicle. Yet, the number of onlookers gaping at it and the crowds milling around the vehicle when it was parked seemed to defy logic. Or did it?

All the attention was due largely to the badge that the vehicle was sporting. A brand that has been synonymous with commercial vehicles was now sitting smug on the bonnet of what was arguably a passenger vehicle.

This four-wheeler that was attracting all the attention on the road was the Ashok Leyland Stile. A product of the AL-Nissan joint venture, the Stile (pronounced Style) is based on the same Nissan NV 200 platform on which nearly a half dozen other vehicles are also based on. No points for guessing that this is the platform and nearly identical design too of the Nissan Evalia. But, not too many might know that it is also the same platform as that of the new ‘New York Taxi’ version of the NV 200. In fact, if there ever was a ‘Noble’ prize for cloning it should be given to Nissan. They are getting really good at this.

Market context

The Ashok Leyland Stile has been in the making for sometime now. We have known of its arrival, after the commercial vehicle maker announced that the alliance with Nissan will focus on light CVs and passenger vehicles and listed the Stile as one of its products. But what wasn’t known earlier was the rather luke warm response that the Evalia would get in the car market.

I’m of the opinion that the Evalia didn’t get its due at the marketplace. It might still be premature to talk of the Evalia’s inability to drive up the volumes in what looks like a segment with a consistent growth potential. Despite the maturity of the market, the buyers for these vehicles are quite easy to predict. The family van or people’s mover segment continues to be largely dominated by institutional and taxi segment buyers and individual buyers are fewer. In this size class, only the Toyota Innova has managed to break into bigger volumes from individual buyers.

The slightly smaller Ertiga also manages to be an attractive option for individual buyers looking for a vehicle from the family van specie. The Evalia wasn’t really pitched as a people-mover meant for the institutional segment. On the other hand, its size and design might have been a bit unappealing for individual buyers. So, will it be possible for the Ashok Leyland Stile to leverage the combined strengths of the two brands and pull in the volumes for this clone?

Tweaked design

When the Stile was delivered to me for a test drive, the first point I noted was the addition of the ‘openable’ glass aperture added on to the second row window. The fixed window glass in the Evalia was criticised, because in the Indian market ventilation can be a big issue. This could be a feature that will be particularly liked by institutional segment buyers.

The Stile’s design is not vaguely familiar, but quite easily identifiable as that of the Evalia’s. But the efforts at giving it a unique identity are all there to see. The front bumper, the headlamp with dual barrels and the bonnet grille have all been designed to give the Stile a different face. The bonnet grille with the four horizontal slats was designed to point the Stile towards other AL vehicles.

The other design changes around the Stile are not so significant. The only alteration at the rear apart from the prominent Ashok Leyland badging and logo, are the tail-lamps, which feature a slightly different form and configuration.

Inside, the Stile is unapologetically Spartan. Plastic quality is just like the average small car, though finish quality is good and very Japanese in its feel and correctness. There are a lot of storage options, a number of other practical features and power windows, but there were no other frills. The trim level I was driving was the top-level LX variant. But it wasn’t offered with a music system or any other premium features. The dashboard, the knobs and switches and the other features like the aircon vents and steering wheel are all carry forwards from the Evalia. Some of the features sport minor modifications.

So, the Stile’s cabin actually is a good place to be in. The driving position is spot on, tilt-steering means getting the right position is possible and the dashboard mounted gear-shift lever is also perfectly positioned for easy driving. Like in the Evalia, the Stile’s cabin is also airy, well-lit and roomy. The LX variant I was driving came with the 7-seater configuration, featuring captain seats in the second row. The Stile is also offered in a 8-seater configuration, which features a bench seat in the middle row. Thankfully, the secondary air-conditioner vents placed on the floor between the front and second row seats is part of standard fitment.

Driveability

The Stile feels exactly like the Evalia to drive. The Stile’s size matching that of the Evalia (4,400mm long) is felt only when you are attempting to back it into a parking slot or are stuck in slow-moving traffic. When it gets moving and at highway speeds, the Stile can seem quite easy handle and manoeuvre.

To differentiate the Stile from the Evalia and to make it more relevant to the buyers who come to expect it from Ashok Leyland, the engine in the Stile has been tuned to a lower power rating. It is still the same tried and trusted Renault K9K diesel engine that has been fitted into the Stile too. But, instead of the 85 HP of peak power that the engine generates in the Evalia, the same 1,461cc, 4-cylinder diesel engine generates a peak power of 75 HP in the Stile.

With a people-mover and a diesel, often the point to consider is the peak torque and not the power rating. In the Stile, the peak torque at 185 Nm is about 15 Nm lower than the Evalia’s, but it kicks in earlier in the rpm-cycle. Peak torque is available from 1,750 to 2,750 rpm. So, driving it around in slower traffic should be easier. The lower power availability didn’t make itself evident during my test drive. The combined result of the re-tuning is said to be a slight improvement in fuel efficiency, which is claimed to be 19.5 kmpl (to be rated by ARAI).

The rest of the specifications, including the suspension set up, of the Stile are identical to the Evalia. Obviously, the Stile’s ride quality is also very familiar. The monocoque construction is a bonus, because unlike the ladder chassis construction of some of the earlier vehicles in this segment, the Stile’s poise overall on broken roads is good, though it isn’t exactly a plush ride over the bad patches. But, with leaf springs at the rear, this is still acceptably comfortable.

Bottomline

Whether Ashok Leyland will be able to crack the proverbial nut in this segment with the Stile is yet to be seen. But the vehicle clearly has its space in the portfolio of Ashok Leyland. It also has the potential for making passenger vehicles acceptable from this traditionally CV brand. With a local manufacturing partner in Nissan and being located in all the cities this brand will go to, it shouldn’t be difficult to ensure adequate support is offered for the Stile.

Ashok Leyland has priced the Stile in the Rs 7.5 lakh to Rs 9.3 lakh range (ex-showroom, Delhi). This is lower than the Evalia’s prices which start from about Rs 8.8 lakh. So, the Stile would certainly be attractive for institutional buyers for whom the value it offers may be more convincing.

Should you buy it as an individual buyer? I would say absolutely, if the compromise in features is acceptable to you. For buyers who can’t afford the Innova now and find that they need for more space than is offered by the Suzuki Ertiga or the Chevy Enjoy, the Stile can still be an option.

muralidhar.s@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on October 23, 2013)
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