Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Little Big car: Part 3 - An unbiased review of the Renault Duster

The third part of this series appears in the Woodcrawler's Journal because the Duster was tested over a terrain that is a Woodcrawler's paradise.

It was a 14 hour drive from 6.30 AM to 8.30 PM in the 18th of November covering Chinnar, Anamudi Shola National Park and Munnar.

I am listing here the few things a Duster owner might be interested in but the full story can be found in the main post. Check the link above or that independent link below.

For the Duster Fans
Total distance: 338  kms
Fuel consumed: (full tank to full tank): 22 liters
Fuel efficiency: Highway - 18 +/-, Hills - 15 +/-, Off road - 12 +/- (based on figures shown on the FE calculator in the instrument panel). Overall - 16 kmpl (based on topping up after 352 kms)
Ride quality: Excellent. There were two people with bad backs in the car. Despite the gruelling drive in the Anamdi Shola we both never felt even a twinge of pain. On the highway there is no body roll even at high speeds and at no point do you get the feeling that you are losing control.
Engine noise: Barely audible even when negotiating tough roads in low gears, almost silent on highway
Gears: Easy shifting, no strain between 2000 to 3000 rpm, shift down if you run below 1500 rpm. I have found the clutch as easy as in my Punto. Drivers shifting from petrol engines might take a little time to get used to the heavier clutch and frequent need for down shifting.
Steering: Easy and ultra steady. It was only when the wheels slipped of loose rocks that I felt a wobble, which I think is natural. Again, people shiftin from a smaller or lighter car might find it a bit stiff.
Tires: Excellent on the highway. Minor slipping on loose gravel in the Shola. The OE MRF Wanderers seemed to be better suited to paved roads than off-roading. Have to test it out on rough terrain in the rains.

Here is the link to the Unfinished Business in Anamudi Shola

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Masterpiece in Wood: The Padmanabhapuram Palace, Part -1

Sometimes, unplanned travels throw up surprises, usually of the nightmarish kind and I thought my trip to Kanyakumari from Trivandrum was one such. I was in Trivandrum for three days to attend a conference and I had to find something to keep my 10 year old son engaged! Kanyakumari was one of the options and it made sense because I'd never plan a trip to the tip of peninsular India otherwise.

The road distance from Trivandrum to Kanyakumari is a little under 90 kilometers which, in normal circumstances, can be covered in less than two hours if you take the traffic into consideration. I thought if I started after breakfast I could do Kanyakumari with Suchidram, Padmanabhapuram and a couple of other places, and still be back at the hotel for dinner. Unfortunately, this calculation does not apply when driving on the NH-47. I had forgotten my own policy that distances should be measured in time and not in kilometers; a rule that I follow when I drive my own car! I should have listened to the taxi driver when he said we'd have to start at 6 AM if we were to cover all the places I wanted to visit. I, being a lazy weekend person, had insisted that we'd start after breakfast. Consequently, at a quarter to 12 after a three hour drive, we had only reached Thuckalay (52 kms).

The Padmanabhapuram Palace is about a kilometer off the highway, on the left, as you come from Trivandrum. Our main destination being Kanyakumari we wanted to walk around the complex quickly and get out to reach Kanyakumari for lunch! That was not to be.  It being a Saturday the tourists were there in hordes. Besides, Padmanabhapuram Palace demands that you spend time to soak in it's history. When we finally managed to drag ourselves out, it was a quarter past 1.00!  Now, I want to go back and spend a whole day there to absorb the history that each room carries!

You have to buy tickets to get in (Rs.25 for adults, Rs.10 for children under 12 and Rs. 25 for camera) and also deposit your footwear outside before entering the palace complex. Just keep in mind that there are pathways between buildings that are  paved with interlocking tiles or granite so if you land there in the afternoon it might get mighty uncomfortable!

The main door to the palace is actually small for a complex this huge but it opens to let you in on a fabulous surprise.

Once you step past the bored policeman and ticket checker through the metal detector you reach the 'Poomukham', or the reception area of the palace. This was where the palace received it's visitors before being ushered to the Maharaja's presence. 

On the left of the 'Poomukham' is a clock that is over 300 years old. I was supposed to be running perfectly but from the time we entered to the time we left the hands had not moved at all!

There are some interesting artefacts in the 'Poomukham'.  There is  this chair gifted to the Maharaja by Chinese traders and looking as if it were delivered yesterday. It seemed to be one of many as there were similar chairs in other rooms too. If only the Chinese stuff we buy these days lasted like this chair.......

A stone cot next to it is supposed to have a cooling effect if you sleep on it, though it beats me how comfortable you will be, sleeping on it!

Just next to the staircase is a showcase with a collection of carved wooden objects called the 'Onavillu'. It is apparently a stringed musical instrument but the ones here, gifted to the Maharaja by local traders on the occasion of Onam, did not have any strings on them. They are decorated with carvings and paintings of Sree Padmanabhaswamy.

The ceiling of the 'Poomukham' is covered with carved lotus flowers, 90 of them, each having it's own unique design.

There is a narrow staircase leading up to the floor above and it can easily be mistaken for the staircases found in traditional Kerala houses. For a palace, it seems rather inadequate, but when you consider the number of attempts to assassinate Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma it makes perfect sense to have a narrow staircase! 

On the upper floor is the 'Mantrashala', the Maharaja's council chamber. There is another 'Chinese' chair here. The entire floor has slatted window screens that let in a cool breeze along with subdued light. The floor is a polished, plastered layer and it is apparently made of a mixture of lime, sand, egg shells, jaggery, burnt coconut shell and oils. It retains it centuries old shine even now.

What is striking is the simplicity of the room. No opulent carpets or ornate chandeliers. The floor is bare and shiny and light comes through the slats and the few small stained glass windows. It resembles a living room that belongs to a traditional Kerala house rather than in a Maharaja's palace!

You leave the room humbled and step into a vast empty hall; the 'Ootupura' or main dining hall. It is a long hall with terracotta floors. The roof is supported by two lines of pillars with single piece cross beams that stretch across the breadth of the hall.

The Maharaja used to feed 2000 people everyday in this hall and the one below it! The room below has remnants of the serving 'vessels' used in those days. At one end of the hall are a group of urns that the guide told us, was the Chinese (again!) pickle storage jars. 

The cooked rice and buttermilk were stored for serving in rectangular granite troughs like the ones seen below.

As you look out of the windows of the 'Ootupura' you see the 'Thai kottaram'. It is the oldest building in the complex. 'Thai Kottaram' translates to 'Mother palace' not mother's palace as is wrongly described in some sites.. It is the first building to have come up in the palace complex, constructed sometime in the mid to late 16th century.

I will take you on a tour of this building in the next post. Watch this space..

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Little Big car: Part 2 - An unbiased review of the Renault Duster

It's been nearly a fortnight since I laid hands on my Duster and I'm liking it a little more each time I take it out for a drive. I never looked at it as a replacement for my hatch, the Fiat Punto. I still drive it and love it as I did the day I got it home.

The Duster was for a purpose. Our outdoor trips were restricted due to the limited ground clearance of the hatch & sedan I own. I wanted something that would allow me access to places I couldn't go to because of the fear of damaging my car. My desire is a 4x4 but a front wheel drive compact SUV with a ground clearance that is better than a lot of full size SUVs is a good option till I have pockets large enough to go for one such big 4x4!

Palakkad isn't really the place for off roading but since I wasn't used to sitting idle on Sundays I decide to make do with what was around me. So my son Skanda and I drove of to explore the Duster's capabilities after breakfast.

First stop was Malampuzha. Only a week ago, I had reversed the Duster into a hole in the ground and struggled to get it out. Mind you, that wasn't the Duster's fault but mine. I should have checked out where I was going to put the wheel into but was too lazy to get out of the car to do it. This time my son was accompanying me so I was not going to make the same mistake again.

The track into the reservoir was all but submerged after the monsoons but we knew the area well to not land in a soup, literally. The spot where we usually park to photograph the birds were well underwater so we stopped to contemplate.

We walked into the reservoir up to our knees to check the 'underwater' status of the ground beneath. It was more sandy than slushy, which we knew from our summer visits, but the sand was firm and our feet weren't sinking into it. Since the Duster is  front wheel drive car I reversed it into the water till front wheels had reached the edge. Then I drove it out. No problem at all.

The next step was to get all 4 wheels into the water. So I backed up till my son felt that the silencer was going under the water. I wasn't sure how deep I should go. The Brazilian site says that the Duster has a water wading capacity of 400 mm but I wasn't sure if that was applicable to the Indian version so I didn't push things. The Duster seemed to be enjoying my discomfiture because she did not show any sign of having a wheel stuck. She just rolled out as she would on land!

That done, the next plan was to go into the water front first. So the same experiment of checking the depth and the firmness of the invisible earth was completed and then the car was lined up to go forward. After a quickly mumbled prayer I stepped on the pedal and let her roll into the water.

It wasn't much of a test but there was no slipping wheels despite a not so heavily buttoned MRF Wanderers. I still have some reservations about the choice of OE tyres. Perhaps something designed like a Bridgestone Dueler would have been better.

The original track that leads to this spot was submerged in the water so as we drove out we thought we'd just shoot one final series of pictures before we left to our next test zone. Instead of pictures my son decide it would be more dramatic shooting a video!

The next plan was to go over rocky terrain to see how the car would do on the slopes. There was no ideal place around Palakkad for that sort of a test but Myladumpara where the Choolanur Pecaock Sanctuary was located seemed to be a compromise.

After lunch we drove off in the exact opposite direction of Malampuzha. There were no peacocks in sight, not even their loud squawking. Ideal time to do some off-roading without being blamed for 'road kills'!

The idea was to go down butt first. The slope was not too much but there was no place to turn at the bottom.

After a lot of  thought we decided it was better go down nose. The slope was about 40 degrees with no loose rock or gravel at the bottom or on the slope. Considering that the turning circle was small for the Duster I though I'd give it a try.

My son wasn't very keen on having his Duster stuck at the bottom and not able to wriggle up backwards again. I relented and turned around again and reversed downwards.

It wasn't much of an effort here but I was getting the hang of manipulating this car. It was behaving in a very refined  manner and the car went where I wanted it to go.

We returned after a long day outside. Life would take a turn now for us. This car was going to take us to places the were previously inaccessible to us. Meanwhile I have to take it on a few more rounds of testing over terrain that we'd be really doing. That would mean a longer weekend or during holidays.

700 odd kilometers is too early to comment about fuel efficiency but I did two tankfuls in the last 10 days. The first one was after I got the car. The subsequent round trip to Cochin and back was a total of 426 kilometers. I refilled to full tank with 18 liters. That returns an mileage of 23.6 km/ltr on the highway. I don't know whether I got my calculation wrong but I know that no other refueling was done. The trip to Malampuzha & Mayiladumpara shows a fuel comsumption figure of 15.8 km/liter on the on board fuel efficiency calculator but I'll update the actual figure after I top up.

Meanwhile keep an eye on this space

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Little Big car: Part 1 - An unbiased review of the Renault Duster

After a wait of almost 4 months I finally laid hands on my first "SUV", the Renault Duster. While I spending weeks chewing my way through many centimeters of fingernails I scoured the net for reviews of this "compact SUV". Some of them almost had me in tears and I thought I'd made a genuine error when I put my money down on this car. I got my Duster on November 1st, 2012 and I fell in love all over again.

In more than one review it was said that the Duster is a car you'd buy with your heart but not with your head. That got me thinking. All these reviews are written by people who know more than a little about cars. What does a lay person look for? I am one; an ordinary person who wants a car for a particular purpose. I decided that if someone was looking for help buying a Duster, there should be an 'unbiased' review. So here it is.

My son and I love the outdoors and the only holiday destinations that pop up in our heads are some wild places. Till now we had been targeting places where we went on 'safaris' into the forest on vehicles belonging to the resorts or forest department. The Supreme court's recent ban on tourism in tiger reserves, (now lifted), had forced us to travel to hitherto unexplored (by us) places and we loved what we experienced. I also realized that my son had grown up enough to qualify as a Woodcrawler!

It meant that I did not have to worry about having to look out for him like he was a little kid. Anaimudi Shola National park was our first destination and a kilometer into this pristine environment made me realize our handicap. Our car was not designed for this sort of terrain.

We had been contemplating the Mahindra Thar for a while now but there were two reasons causing us to postpone our decision. The Thar was a soft top with no hard top in sight. I had too much of precious photography gear to lose if someone decided to slit the canvas top. Besides I'm a nice person. I take all my family member's into consideration when I decide to buy a car! My mother is pushing 70 and a Thar would not only be difficult for her to get into, it would also not be a very comfortable ride for her. Therefore, the Thar only kept flitting in and out of my peripheral vision.

Then Renault announced the Duster. It had everything we were looking for.
  1. Good looks
  2. Intimidating road presence
  3. Big tyres to take any pothole
  4. High ground clearance
  5. Great space for the two of us
  6. Cavernous boot for all our luggage and gear
  7. Comfortable seats for mom in the back
  8. An engine that would ensure our pockets weren't emptied at the fuel station
  9. A price tag that wasn't overwhelming
  10. Overall - VFM
I hope that all those who said people would buy the Duster with their hearts will read this!!

The Duster looks good in my eyes. I'm a conservative guy and I like no-nonsense looks rather than outrageous styling. After contemplating the Thar, the Duster was miles ahead in its design. Simple, neat and imposing for a little car! From the front it looks like an anaconda, but that must be because of my obsession with snakes recently!

Clean lines on the side with the flared wheel arches. To me, the best view is from the rear, but that must be because I like stubby butts (ask my friends)!

It is not as tall as a conventional SUV though the ground clearance is 205mm. I guess the roof rails were added to make it appear taller than it really is. Personally, I didn't like the quality of the stuff on top! Even the scuff plates are plastic so I really is no protection if you get a knock from some rock or hard surface at high speeds, but then I'm sure no one will take the Duster on a rally! We all drive slow over broken roads don't we? I don't buy cars to smash them anyway!

The interiors are spartan but neat.

The dials and displays are clear and basic. Besides the usual speedo, tacho, fuel and temperature gauges there is also a driver information panel where you have your odometer, trip odometer, fuel consumption and other essential information.
The integrated audio system gives a decent output through the four door mounted speakers. The USB port and audio controls are clustered around the display, with the AC controls placed at the bottom.

 You have comfortable fabric covered seats (height adjustment is available only in the 110PS versions), but I felt the lack of thigh support at the end of my drive of 150 kms. I have already added an after market padded, customized seat covers. It has lifted my seating position by a centimeter and now gives good support to the thigh and back. If you plan to use your Duster, it will be a good idea to get your seats covered by professional upholsterers. The seat covers available in the Renault accessories section look good but didn't seem very firm.

I know a lot of comments are made about the quality of plastics but if you really wanted 'superb plastics' you shouldn't be buying the Duster. Buy the Koleos or any SUV that costs 20 lakhs and above! Otherwise, quit complaining!

There is decent head and leg room both in the front and back. I read somewhere that the rear leg room is less than adequate. I'm sure that person would have been a six footer. The average Indian adult's height is between 160 to 170 centimeters and the rear leg room is more than sufficient for anyone who measures under 170 centimeters.

This photo is with the after market seat covers put on and the front seats in a position that is comfortable for me to drive.

The aircon is very good. Cools the car really quickly, even without the rear AC vent that is available in the 110PS versions. There is a bottle/cup holder just behind the handbrake which I didn't find very obtrusive. It is it's place that the rear AC vent is placed so really can't understand what the fuss about lack of leg room for the third passenger is all about.

Lots of reviews seem hell bent at finding faults at 'something different'. Hey! Even we humans are different from one another! We look different, walk different, talk different. I wear my watch on my right and that is different! Here are a list of things that are different, but certainly not 'quirks', on the Duster.

1. The ICE (audio control) buttons are placed just behind the steering wheel on the right side. For those used to lifting your thumb off the steering wheel to press the audio control button it will take a little while to get used to this. Personally I like it this way. You can use, not one thumb, but many fingers to adjust volume, mute or scroll through albums! It's like playing a piano! For someone upgrading from a car without steering audio controls it will not be a problem at all.

2. The ORVM controls are located between the front seats. Most cars have it on the right side door. I wonder why it should be bothersome. After all, we adjust the rear view mirrors before shifting to first gear so why does it matter where the buttons are placed? The only thing I felt could have been added are a provision to make the mirror close automatically like in my Optra. Helps in congested roads and heavy traffic! I wouldn't have to lower the window and stretch my arm out to close the mirror and risk it getting knocked by passing traffic.

3. The CENTRAL LOCKING button is also 'oddly' located, on the central console just above the AC controls. It is placed on the left of the hazard warning button.

 4. HEAD LIGHT HEIGHT ADJUSTER: The headlight adjuster is placed on the right hand side of the dashboard just above the bonnet opening lever. It is cable operated unlike most vehicles where is is electronic, and that probably explains its location.

5. REMOTE BOOT OPENING: Before you go looking for a remote boot opening lever or button, let me assure you, you won't find one even if you lift up the mats or look under the seat! It is not there. Someone was complaining that people could just open the trunk and walk off with their valuables! How crazy? In the days of the Ambassador, Premier Padmini and Maruti 800 we have never seen this feature and learned to live with it. You can always lock your trunk with your key or with your remote central lock!

6. BONNET SUPPORT: The Duster has a hydraulic bonnet support instead of the conventional hook. Again, there was someone complaining that if it failed someone would have to be holding it up. I'm yet to see the hydraulic support arm in the boot fail, even in the humble OMNI. Also, as if you'll be opening the bonnet as often as you'd open the boot! C'mon, there is a limit to making ridiculous comments!

Besides the 'quirky' the Duster has its share of pluses too.
1. The 85PS engine is pleasure to drive, and apparently better for city driving than the 110PS version. There is a little noise that can be felt inside but not annoying. After all it is a big diesel car, isn't it?

2. Drives like a car. The Duster is based on the Logan's platform and because of that you don't find it difficult to handle, either on the highway or outdoors. It drives like a car and takes the rough with dignity.

3. The boot is really huge. 475 liters with the parcel shelf in position and more than double of that with the shelf removed and rear seats folded down. Enough space for family, pets & luggage!

4. In addition to the charger socket on the front console, Duster has an additional socket at the back on the side of the parcel shelf. It is a very thoughtful touch, I think.

5. The AC is very powerful. Cools very quickly and the rear vent is really not necessary, this being a compact SUV.

6. There is a large glove compartment with separate partition for user & service manuals. It is also illuminated. There are fairly deep door pockets but it won't hold a 1 liter bottle though.

If this has to be an unbiased review I have to admit that there are some things I don't like in the Duster. Here is what I dislike.
1. The power window buttons on the front door a positioned quite in front, beyond the arm rest. You have to reach out because it does not fall within the natural reach of your fingers if you tend to keep use the arm rest. It also scrapes this arm rest when you stretch for them.
2. Windows don't have 'continuous' mode. You have to keep the button pressed or pulled to roll down or up completely.
3. The AC could have had automatic climate control. It get chilly very quickly. Summer is far away so I'll only know how good it is only a few months from now.
4. The rear seat flips fully. It is not a 60-40 foldable seat like you find even in little hatchbacks.
5. Removing and replacing the spare wheel is a pain. There is a bolt in the boot that has to be loosened to lower the tray holding the wheel. The tray has to then be unhooked from the bolt to get the wheel on the ground. It is an even bigger pain to lift the wheel, search blindly for the nut's hooked end (your fingers have to be made of elastic) and fix the wheel tray's clamp on it. You will need the help of someone for this exercise. Hopefully, I'll not get many punctures!

As I drove it out of the showroom in Cochin, into mid morning traffic on NH-47 the first thing I noticed is the view. After years of sitting in sedans & hatchbacks, where you feel your butt is almost scraping the road, I felt I was back in the seat of my Tata Sierra. Duster gives you a commanding view and when a tiny hatch drives up next to you at the traffic light you can give it a contemptuous look!

From Edapally junction to the bypass junction at Ollur, outside Thrissur, it is a beautiful stretch of four lane road. The Duster was in it's elements, overtaking with ease. You can feel the turbo kicking in and a surge of additional thrust as you put your weight on the pedal. Keep your tacho between 1500 to 2000 rpm or shift gears.

I have only clocked less than 300 kilometers after four days of ownership. I will add more of my experiences after a couple of weeks of driving it on all types of terrain.

Meanwhile, the Duster is for you if you fulfill the following.

  1. Upgrading from a hatchback or small sedan.
  2. Want to do a bit off rough driving where a 4x4 is not a necessity
  3. If you always carry more photography gear than luggage like I do! I carry one duffel for my clothes but two large camera bags for two DSLR bodies and a large collection of lenses, a large & small tripod, a monopod, and additional camera bags for portability in places where I need only one or two lenses. 
  4. If you are looking for a practical car and are not fixated on luxury. You'd be better off looking at something that costs twice as much if that is your reason to buy a Duster.
  5. If you are realistic to understand an SUV, compact or otherwise, can seat only 5 in comfort. The rear seats are for little kids. If you want a seven seater, buy a MUV like an Innova or Aria
  6. If you like to drive at a resaonable speed and pick your way through potholes and rough roads
  7. If you are on a budget and fuel economy is one of the criteria that swings your buying decision.

If you don't fulfill the above, but still bought a Duster, you probably used your heart and not your head!!

You can read a really detailed review from TEAM-BHP here

Watch this space......I will keep updating as my experience with the Duster grows!

The third part is uploaded