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How far automobile tech has come in 250 months

6th Sep 2020 7:00 am

250 issues on, we look at the evolution of the automobile and the technology behind it.

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Cars and SUVs were very different when we put together issue number one of Autocar India, way back in September 1999. Looking back 250 months, you can all but see the march of technology; unrelenting and steady at times, and moving forward in fits and starts at others. But where and how have cars changed in these months?

Let’s isolate and focus on some key areas first, starting with petrol engines. As I flip through our September 1999 issue, the one with the Ford Ikon on the cover, one thing quickly becomes apparent – fuel injection wasn’t widespread. While cars like the Ikon and the City came with multipoint injection, hatchbacks in our ‘Judgment Day’ five-car comparison, didn’t. Tata’s Indica petrol, Fiat’s Uno and even the Maruti Zen ran carburettors! In fact, all three came with Japanese Mikuni twin-‘barrel’ carbs, produced initially for Maruti. Where the carbs needed to be retuned more often and weren’t as progressive or smooth, the narrow venturi in the first stage of the Mikuni helped provide crisp responses on small throttle openings.

Maruti was surprisingly late to the fuelinjection party; as it is to the direct-injection turbo-petrol one today. And while it was only the City that had four valves per cylinder, these are common today. Despite the comparatively basic levels of tech back then, we had two fun petrols: the 101hp Hyper 16-equipped City that could sprint from 0-100 in 10.68sec, and Ford Ikon’s super-responsive and torquey 1.6 Rocam engine that used a roller-bearing camshaft, which put out 91hp, and had throttle responses so sharp, you could cut your hand on them.

Diesel engines saw an even bigger leap forward, mostly down to common-rail tech. In 1999, diesels weren’t powerful; the 1,697cc Fiat diesel and the 1,753cc Ford used indirect injection and made a paltry 58hp and 61hp, respectively. We also had the 1,995cc HM Contessa diesel with 53hp and the 36hp Ambassador Nova diesel. Even Mercedes, with its 2,497cc diesel put out only 113hp. Still remember Hormazd shouting out in glee when he drove the first common-rail direct-injection Mercedes in April 2000, the E 220 CDI. It made 314.79Nm, almost twice the torque, and 145hp, and once the turbo came in, it just kicked like a mule.

Fiat’s common-rail diesel tech, which the rest of the world adopted, changed everything. Want to know how much of a difference it made? The 66hp Mitsubishi Lancer 2.0 diesel in 1999 did 0-100 in 17.86sec, whereas today something like a Maruti Suzuki Ciaz 1.5 diesel that’s of a similar weight and size takes 11.50sec.

Did I say diesel engines saw the biggest improvements? It actually could be automatics. Back in the day, Mercedes’ 5-speed automatic was a state-of-the-art unit, and the difference between a manual-equipped car and even a good automatic, like the one on the City, was as wide as 5 seconds. Today, you’ll be lucky if you can beat the automatic with a manual, especially if it is a twin-clutch automatic. Also, at the time we had 3- (Maruti Zen), 4- and 5-speed automatics, today we have 8-, 9- and 10-speed autos; the last one on the Ford Endeavour. Some Marutis still have 4-speed automatics though; the more things change...

Automatics apart, even the manual gearboxes today are much improved. The City and Zen always had slick manuals – light, quick, easy to slot and accurate – but others had gearboxes that baulked, needed two pushes at times, instead of one, to engage, and some were so notchy, they spoilt the whole driving experience.

Also, diesel cars had clutches that were so heavy, your left foot hurt in traffic. Present-day diesel SUVs like the Renault Duster and some others still have heavy clutches, but most are light and easy to drive.

As I thumb through the back pages of our first issue, what sticks out is the absence of SUVs. Only Tata and Mahindra had them, and we had more UVs (utility vehicles) than SUVs. Mahindra’s swankiest one was the Armada Grand, which was basically a Bolero! At least, Tata had the Safari and the Sierra Turbo. The Sumo, again, was more of a UV. Of course, at the time, Tata was TELCO, and SUVs drove more like commercial vehicles. Clearly remember cornering a Safari hard for the first time; the horizon actually rolled on to its side, like I was banking a MiG... only the other way. Thank god we didn’t roll. The monocoque-based SUVs of today drive like cars, something we couldn’t have imagined back then.

Most cars in ’99 didn’t even have power steerings. The Esteem from Maruti’s lineup did have it, as did many Tatas, and some manufacturers even added a badge to identify their power-steering-equipped cars. Today all cars have electrically actuated EPS systems; hydraulic systems have all but faded away.

The brake system, however, is one area where there has been slow progress. Stopping distances depend on the size and effectiveness of the braking systems, the quality of the tyres and how well they resist lock up. And while anti-lock brakes are standard today, improvements over the years have been marginal. Say from around 30m for the Zen on tarmac to 26.67m for an ABS-equipped Swift on a cement road today; it isn’t as much as the improvements in performance. And that’s despite taking into account the difference between the two surfaces.

The area we’ve seen a fair jump in is fuel economy. Back in ’99, a hatch the size of an Indica with a carb only managed 9.2kpl on our city cycle. Today, a car about the same weight delivers around 13.5kpl, and that’s despite putting out considerably lower emissions.

Ah, emissions, big change here. The improvement for diesels is dramatic. In ‘99, BSI diesel cars could put out 0.14gm/km of particulate matter. Today that figure stands at just 0.0045gm/km, a 97 percent improvement. Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) for diesel cars are also down 84 percent, from 0.5 (in 2005, when a limit was first mandated) to 0.08gm/km today.

Although there’s no quantifiable difference, cars generally ride a bit better today, and a lot of that is down to better tyres, improved dampers, and stiffer monocoques. And we don’t see stamped steel wheels on all but economy cars, alloys have taken over.

When it comes to safety systems, anti-lock brakes and a single driver airbag are mandatory now; but only the E-class had them in ‘99. And the E-class also was the first to get electronic stability control (ESP). Today most executive cars and SUVs have this important safety system and what’s great is that you even get it on a car as humble as the Datsun Go.

Also very different is how we at Autocar India do our performance tests. Earlier, we used an electronic ‘fifth-wheel’, the Datron system from German maker Corrsys, which was difficult to install. We had to clamp the device to the side of the car, using suction cups, and then secure it with ropes. In the dark, it looked like a Rocket Assisted Take-Off system, hanging off one side and it seriously spooked cops. Today we carry our cigarette-packet sized V-Box system if we need to do our tests; it triangulates high-speed GPS data and is actually more accurate.

The automobile certainly has come a long way in 250 months, and we at Autocar India have had the privilege to be right there, through this journey. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say we’ve really seen it all.

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