A track test is the perfect measure of how fast a car is in absolute terms. Straight-line performance is all very well, but to know how genuinely quick a car is in every sphere, there’s no better measure than a purpose-built track. That’s precisely why we at Autocar India have been taking a bunch of India’s best driver’s cars down to the track in Chennai for half a dozen years now.
Helping us keep the figures consistent and quick is our other yardstick, India’s best driver, former Formula 1 pilot, and current AutoGP driver, Narain Karthikeyan. His speed, consistency and overall skill make it possible for us to measure each car on a common scale.
This year, we chose quite a disparate bunch of cars, all selected because we thought it would be fascinating to see what times they would do. We had a couple of practical yet fun everyday cars, a super saloon and a couple of bonafide sportscars.
Also in the bunch, a couple of specially prepared track cars. This year’s ‘special’ entry raised some eyebrows as well; Mahindra’s electric car, the e2o, was clearly out of place here, but we just had to see what time it would do.
‘Lots of fun to drive. Not too much roll and you can throw the car a bit sideways.’
With its turbocharged 123bhp EcoBoost motor and relatively sporty suspension, we thought the Ford EcoSport had the potential to provide a bit of a surprise; and it did.
Its time wasn’t blisteringly quick, but consider the fact that the Ford is an SUV that is as quick as a Maruti Swift around the track, and you soon realise Ford has got something special here. Of course, it has more straight-line speed and less overall grip in absolute terms, but what impressed Narain Karthikeyan was how well the Ford EcoSport SUV allowed him to attack the corners.
“It’s pretty nice,” he said, sounding surprised. “It has a high centre of gravity, but is
great on the track despite that. The engine is fantastic and the brakes are brilliant.”
‘Pulls very strongly in a straight line, but should have had a sportier suspension setup.’
The new Volkswagen Polo GT is equipped with a 103bhp turbo-petrol and a quick, twin-clutch automatic. As a result, it is a full four seconds quicker than the earlier VW Polo 1.6, 3sec faster than the Maruti Swift and 2sec quicker than a Honda Brio. The big difference is that the engine makes much more torque and this, combined with the extra gears, gives it an edge too. The top speed of this car on the track, for example, is almost 10kph faster than the Polo 1.6, but cornering speeds around the long corner (C6) are nearly the same.
“It has a very strong engine, but the car is too soft for the track and the GT tag.” And Narain didn’t like the inconsistent ESP and traction control either.
‘Surprisingly good for such a heavy car; a good effort from Mahindra.’
With dinky-looking wheels, slick tyres and a full roll cage, the Super XUV is anything but a stock SUV. It felt quite at home on the track too because of the customised suspension and track rubber. And it was reasonably quick, despite having what was basically a rally setup. The time recorded was faster than a Ford Fiesta 1.5.
“It has a pretty hard suspension, so it feels pretty planted for a car that is this high,” said Narain after a few hard laps.
What let the Mahindra XUV down was the insanely loud engine, which just didn’t have the grunt needed to push the car quicker. And it was better in front-wheel-drive mode – it understeered too much in four-wheel-drive – which we assume would be more suitable on a section of dirt track.
‘Brutally quick, yet friendly and fun to drive hard too.’
The new E63 AMG now comes with a twin-turbo V8, much like BMW’s M5. Narain found it handled really well for a car of its size. “It has a really sharp front, a brilliant sounding engine, and the gearbox is also very impressive. The handling is crisp and predictable and quite easy to get the hang of, so it’s a pretty safe car.”
Like the M5, however, the turbos make it difficult to modulate the throttle, especially when you need to put down a lot of power on the limit. The AMG was slower than the BMW M5 by two seconds because it kept running into ‘Safe Mode’ in the Chennai heat. “It could easily have got a 1m59s or early 1m58s if it wasn’t for this.”
‘Brilliant engine and proper feeling of driving a mid-engined car.’
No car we had this year felt quicker straight out of the pits. Acceleration was brutal, top speeds were unmatched and, on the long corners, its mid-engined setup and perfect weight distribution helped it carry a lot of speed. The lap time upto the second split was impressive too, it was half a second faster than the Spyder version we tested in 2011 and the blare of the exhaust pipes sounded heavenly. Narain, however, found that it lost time because initial understeer was followed by snap oversteer and it heated up in the last sector.
“It’s not very predictable and you can’t carry speed to the apex, so that’s why you lose the time from the entry to the mid-corner. And you also feel the weight of this car when you brake.”
‘It’s just mind boggling what they’ve done with the new 911; it’s brilliant.’
With less power and an engine in the ‘wrong place’, the rear-engined 911 should not have been so quick. But the new four-wheel-drive 4S proved beyond a doubt that Porsche knows how to make cars perfectly suited for both road and track.
“The handling is just brilliant. Porsches are sometimes unforgiving, but this car is predictable, and the four-wheel drive even allows you to get the back end out.”
Torque vectoring at the rear helps give it super traction and the active engine mounts keep the mass at the rear from moving around as well.
“I wouldn’t want to change much – it’s just perfect. And it’s quicker than a Murcielago, and almost as quick as a GT-R.”
‘A real feel of a single-seat race car, but with the convenience of two seats’
The MRF F 1600 has easily been the fastest car we’ve tested at the track. A proper Formula car with wings and push-rod suspension, its fly-like kerb weight allowed it to post a time of 1m43.35s. J A Motorsport’s two-seater Inde 2.0 is powered by a larger, more powerful engine, but is heavier. Still, it was quicker around the Chennai track. It was also a full 10 seconds faster than the Porsche 911. Narain was suitably impressed.
“This is the first time I’ve driven this car and straight out, it’s really fast. It’s also less twitchy than a single-seater and so much easier to drive.” Narain thought it could be faster than even an Atom or a Radical. He also thought the Inde was pulling close to 2 g’s. “J A Motorsport has done a good job,” he said summing it up, “but the dust from the road comes in, which is a bit of a pain.”
The Mahindra e2o may not be the raciest machine here, but it’s the only one that set a lap record – yes, you read that right. The e2o is now officially the fastest electric car around the Chennai circuit. So, what was it like? Silent for one, and slow for another; but Narain actually seemed pleasantly surprised.
“Motorsport is going green, so I guess this is probably the future,” he said. “This car is brilliant for what it is and not too bad on the track either. It actually drives pretty okay.” It felt stable because of the low-slung batteries and though it hit its top speed pretty quick, it rolled quite a bit. But, the e2o wasn’t as bad as we expected.
Track day, one-make series anyone?