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Ambassador: A Grand comeback

WHAT is better than an elephant to ride on? A caparisoned elephant, of course. And by all counts the elephant of the automobile world is... Yes, you guessed right: The Ambassador. That car and caparisoned? Well, read on.

After more than five decades of hogging the Indian roads and after setting a number of "Marks" (literally), the Ambassador — long for Amby — is again being rolled out in a new avatar.

But as has often been the case, even in the past, the new avatar only involve cosmetic changes (however many they may be).

The ubiquitous Amby dominates the roads of the metros, dressed as it were as the Kaali-Peeli taxi and in the case of the nation's capital it nearly doubles up as the government's official transport as well. Despite the fact that the Amby's image has jaded in the eyes of most of the aspiring Indian middle-class, car-buying population, it continues to be an icon of Indian manufacturing.

Keeping that in mind and with a view to retaining its old-world charm, while offering new age comfort, Hindustan Motors (HM) has given Amby a facelift.

The new version of HM's old workhorse has been named Ambassador Grand (fit for a maharaja). With 137 changes to boot in the new version, HM is now looking beyond the taxi segment and the Government Babu for selling the Amby.

Priced at Rs 4.16 lakh for the petrol (ex-Chennai) and Rs 4.40 lakh for the diesel variants, HM is now targeting the B-segment car buyer, attempting to offer comfort and ride quality in that class.

The new Amby Grand is also targeted at the now more worldly-wise government babu, whose expectations from his official car — after those sponsored jaunts abroad — have gone up significantly.

The changes that HM have brought on the Amby are both inside and out.

New exterior features include a wrap around, contoured, body coloured bumpers, large, chrome-finished front grille, new prismatic reflector headlamps with clear lenses, full wheel hub cover and high-mounted rear stop lamp.

Inside the car, a digital clock, reading lamps for rear seats, moulded roof lining, child proof safety locks on rear doors and new design front central console have been added.

The suspension has been tweaked and the five-speed Isuzu gearbox now gets a remote shift mechanism for smoother operation. Power steering is standard and new moulded, ergonomically-designed PU seats with a central arm-rest for the rear seats have also been added. New, glossier metallic colours are also being offered on the Grand.

HM has even gone to the extent of customising a new acoustic package for the Grand, which has been developed in association with Treves of France.

But the car will continue to be offered with the 1.8-litre Isuzu (MPFI) petrol engine and the two-litre diesel burner. The insulation package has been improved.

After ambling down Indian roads for nearly 55 years, the Amby is probably slowly losing the captive market that it had in the taxi and government segments.

As much as 85 per cent of all Ambys are sold to taxi operators and another 16 per cent to the Government and other institutions. Competition is now threatening the Amby in both segments. Setting the trend could be the Prime Minister's Office which is said have placed an order for six armoured BMWs.

Strangely though, the old world charm that the Amby exudes attracts more attention abroad.

The car has been showcased at Smithsonian's Indian experience exhibition, and Ambys as Karma Cabs in the UK offer tourists the quintessential Indian feel, including upholstery with Indian motifs and Bollywood music.

For the individual car buyer, the new Amby Grand may still not be an aspirational vehicle. In the average Indian city, with parking space being a premium, the Ambassador will continue to be avoided.

But anytime that you plan to leave town and want to feel like a "Maharaja" on an caparisoned elephant, "Hail that Amby"!

Question `N' Auto

I am interested in buying a hatchback and have three options in mind: The Maruti Zen, Maruti Wagon R and Tata Indica (both the diesel and the petrol versions). Also with a slight increase in my budget, I am willing to consider the Indigo petrol. How is the performance of the Indigo in your assessment? I would be mainly driving in the city with occasional long runs. Please advise.

Avinash Singh

The options that you have listed are available in a price range between Rs 3.4 lakh and Rs 4.2 lakh. Before going any further, it makes sense to really get to the bottom of the petrol cars vs the diesel ones issue. To leverage the differential pricing between the two fuels and benefit from the lower price of diesel (which is unlikely to change anytime soon), the car's usage has to ideally justify the additional initial investment. Though an exact calculation cannot be arrived at, on average a monthly mileage of more than 800 km definitely justifies a diesel leaning. Of course, a mileage lesser than that may also urge you to shop for a diesel car. But comfort levels may not match that of petrol-driven cars and maintenance costs in the long run may be higher in the case of diesel driven ones.

That said, I would tend to buy a diesel car from Tata Motors, rather than the petrol driven one. The Indica and Indigo are both popular with their diesel burners and as such the cars are better tuned to handle these engines. So, the options really have to be the Maruti Zen or Wagon R and the diesel Indica. If you are tall, prefer a more upright driving position and also like a more powerful, refined engine, the Suzuki Wagon R would be the choice. The Zen is a tried and tested car, with a fit and finish quality that are top of class. Its duel efficiency is again one of the best in the segment. The Indica petrol's lower fuel efficiency is another reason that might push it lower down in the list of options.

On the other hand, the Tata Indigo may be the best option if you are willing to stretch that budget a bit. The Indigo diesel is a comfortable car, with better insulation than its smaller predecessor, and also features a turbocharger to the same old 1.4-litre engine. The increase in weight for the three-box car has been offset with the boost in power that the turbocharger offers. The Indigo will also enable you to catapult into the C-segment, though in terms of pricing, it is in the top-end of the B-segment (two-box category). However, if your budget is closer to Rs 3 lakh, the choice will have to be between the Zen and the Wagon R.

Readers are invited to send their queries related to the world of automobiles — such as which bike to buy, which second-hand car to opt for and financing for cars — to: q&

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