India’s best driver’s cars; the title is simple enough. What it doesn’t convey, however, is that this story, in essence, is a highly controlled laboratory experiment. Conducted under strict conditions, with a sharp focus on standardisation, our annual track day measures the best driver’s cars launched during the calendar year against the same consistent yardsticks.
One of these is India’s first purpose-built race track, the Madras Motor Sports Club’s facility situated outside Chennai. Officially known as the Irungattukottai track at Sriperumbudur, this tongue twister of a facility is also famous for the constant volley of corners it throws at you — ideal for putting the handling, grip and balance of road cars through the wringer. This is why we’ve been using Sriperumbudur since our first track test back in 2008.
Another consistent yardstick of measure is ex-Formula 1 driver Narain Karthikeyan who, over the years, has brought his raw natural pace and years of single-seater track experience to the party. Just back from two hard days of testing in Japan, where he is competing in the Super Formula championship, Narain looked incredibly pumped for two days of some more hard driving. Of course, from where he’s coming, this is a leisurely drive around the parking lot.
The third consistent measure we use during our track day is our trusty V-box data acquisition system that actually works by triangulating and correlating data from a dozen or so satellites. And it’s not just lap times we look at and analyse. The V-box system allows us to ‘play back’ the entire lap, with all manner of data available for every single point on the lap. Of course, we get speed and acceleration in all four directions, but then there’s also g-forces and the ability to split the lap into various sectors.
It’s not all about data, however; subjective feel is just as important. What it’s like to drive, after all, is what Autocar is really about. And though you’d never be able to tell from the manner in which the cars are hurled around the track, tail out and tyres smoking, there are plenty of intangibles gleaned from laps behind the wheel. What’s the steering like, is the front end nice and grippy, does the engine have a strong top end, and even what the driving position is like... a couple of hot laps in each car gives us the answers.
Our objectives are actually quite simple: to tell you just how fast these cars are in comparison to other cars in their class and just what they’re like to drive flat out. We also want to tell you where they are fast, why they are fast and where some of them lose time. Of course, it’s important to remember that a race track is not a road and that there are differences between the two. Corners are tighter on a track, you seldom use the brakes this hard on the road and you are generally driving at least a couple notches harder on a circuit. Still, all said and done, this is the best way to measure overall performance.
And then, of course, there are the bikes. We use the same measures as the cars, only here, Narain takes to the pits and out comes Rajini Krishnan. Having conquered the Losail Asian Road Racing Championship in Qatar (600cc) and the 165cc Group B category here, his are the safest and fastest pair of hands to push the motorcycles we’ve lined up to their absolute limits.
So, sit back and find out which are India’s best driver’s cars and bikes, and how quick they actually are.
MERCEDES-BENZ CLA 200
Track rating 5/10
“It doesn’t score too well as a track car.”
Despite being set up soft for a comfortable ride over poor roads, the front-wheel-drive CLA did impress in some areas. Narain liked the engine: “The motor feels pretty strong, it’s clearly quite drivable and it delivers the power really smoothly.” He also liked the sporty driving position and the way the quick steering helped turn the car in initially. “But this car is clearly not for the track,” he said. He found the suspension way too soft and didn’t care much for the intrusive electronics. Comparing this car to the 355bhp AMG version isn’t ideal, but for the record, it’s a full 11 seconds a lap slower. And since it carried so little speed out of corners (just 83kph onto the straight), top speed on the track worked out to just 153.2kph.
MINI COOPER S
Track rating 9/10
“Quite fun and, well, brilliant actually.”
Narain connected with the Mini almost immediately. The sharp handling, the strong engine and the rapid pace, all impressed. “This car will be quick,” he said, even on the warm-up lap. And the Mini didn’t disappoint, the high levels of grip and the inherent balance in the chassis allowing Narain to throw it into some of the corners with abandon. This new Mini is set up a bit softer for India. Narain also liked that he could get the tail out on this front-wheel-drive car and still carry on adding power: “When you switch off the electronics, you can have a lot of fun. It’s nicer than the earlier Mini; the engine obviously feels a lot stronger, the brakes work better and the gearbox is much quicker as well, so I really like it.”
MERCEDES-BENZ C 200
Track rating 6/10
“It could have been much nicer to drive.”
With its similarly compliant suspension set-up and an almost identical 181bhp engine, the heavier C-class should have set a similar time to the CLA. The rear-wheel-drive setup, however, seems to have helped here. The C 200 exits corners much quicker and this new, lighter C-class feels more agile on the track too, and so it’s quicker than the CLA. Narain, though, felt that the soft suspension let it down a bit: “The car is more eager than the previous generation model, the gearbox seems to be working a bit better and the engine seems to be more drivable, so it does a good job. But it feels quite ‘floaty’ in some sections. And it would’ve gone at least a second quicker if it wasn’t for what appeared to be a gearbox glitch.”
AUDI TT 45 TFSI COUPÉ
Track rating 7/10
“Now a more serious piece of kit.”
The TT has never been much of a driver’s car. This new car, however, changes all that. It has a lot more grip and a great deal more poise. And because it allows you to carry more speed into and out of corners, it is quick too. Narain clearly liked it: “The TT has grown up. It feels much more like the R8 in the way it is balanced. Obviously, it’s a lot less powerful, but the way it drives and the way it puts down the power and the amount of traction is so impressive.” This is borne out by its apex speed at C2, where it manages to be quicker than even some of the more powerful and grippy cars. Narain also liked the really quick DSG twin-clutch gearbox and the brakes.
MERCEDES-AMG GLA 45
Track rating 6/10
“It has a nice balance to it.”
The GLA AMG is quite similar to the CLA AMG under the skin, but the difference in pace is quite big. The GLA is two full seconds a lap slower than the four-door coupé, and that’s a lot. Nevertheless, Narain was quite impressed with the strong engine, the 171kph top speed and the setup of the car: “AMG has tuned this car to such an extent that it’s a lot of fun to drive. This car is four-wheel drive, but when you deactivate all the systems, it still gives you that enjoyment of sliding the car and catching it. It still drives a bit too much like a front-wheel-drive car, to be honest, but the balance is still quite decent for a car with such a high ride height.” Narain, however, thought the seats were quite hard.
VOLKSWAGEN VENTO CUP CAR
Track rating 7/10
“Quick, but a bit too easy to drive.”
Volkswagen’s Vento Cup car feels like a very impressively put-together entry-level racing car. Like the Polo Cup cars before it, this car feels right as soon as you take your first set of corners and the robustness of the mechanical components is a huge confidence booster as well. The Vento, however, went a bit slower compared to similarly powered Polo Cup cars tested in 2012. Many of the corner speeds were down and straight-line speeds were down too in comparison. Narain also didn’t care much for the setup. “VW’s affordable tintop series is still the benchmark, so all credit to it. But the setup is a bit too safe and understeery. I understand why it’s like this – to reduce spins – but a bit more flexibility in the way the car is set up is needed if drivers are to learn.”
AUDI RS6 Avant
Track rating 7/10
Heavy cars are always at a disadvantage on the track. You can mask the weight by using loads of power, you can aid traction by supplying four-wheel drive and an appropriate suspension with large tyres can help too. And that’s just what Audi has done here. As a result, the RS6 exits corners like there’s a big 553bhp rocket motor pushing it. The front suspension works better than that of the RS7, and there’s a lot more feel, adjustability and control, and that makes it much nicer to drive. This is especially true when exiting corners, as it allows you to add power all the time. And it understeers less in comparison to the RS7 too. All the mass at the back does make its presence felt though, especially if you attack a set of switchbacks with a bit too much enthusiasm.
Track rating 10/10
“Amazing – faster than many 500bhp sportscars!”
BMW’s M4 was the surprise package. Yes, we knew it would be balanced and grippy, but the blistering time it set had many of us rubbing our eyes in disbelief. “It is not as edgy as the previous generation, and so is faster around here than even the M5. Horsepower is useless if you can’t put it down,” said Narain. In fact, compare lap times with many mid-engine sportscars with 500bhp and the M4 still comes out on top. And it’s not any old mid-engine cars we’re talking of here, but Lamborghinis and Porsches. And among rear-wheel-drive cars, only the low-slung SLS AMG was faster. It’s trounched even the 543bhp Jag F-type. The truly incredible bit, however, is that Narain didn’t get a clean lap; we got what felt like a fuel surge a couple of times (see Entry to C8), which caused the engine to hesitate momentarily.
AUDI R8 V10 Plus
Track rating 8/10
“Always an emotional high.”
Audi’s mid-engine R8 is the quintessential supercar – the power surge, the noise, the amazing grip, all bundled up with that low-slung cockpit that amplifies the sensation of speed. Despite the Quattro system, this one even drives like a rear-wheel-drive car. And so ferocious is the V10, the raw pace is simply incredible: just take a look at the 193.5kph top speed. It’s also easy to drive right up to the limit. But step over, add just a little more power and it wants to swap ends, post haste. What it seems particularly sensitive to is the bumpy surface. Still, Narain loved it: “It’s a bit on the edge most of the time over bumps, and you feel the mass of the engine coming around when you brake deep into the corner. But the car is quick and you can drive it hard for a long time.”
PORSCHE 911 TURBO S
Track rating 10/10
“It is just phenomenal.”
On paper, the new 911 Turbo S has only set a new lap record, displacing Nissan’s GT-R. What it has done in reality, is reset the bar on just how much traction you can expect from a four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steered, rear-engine car. Narain was in raptures: “It’s just an awesome car! Porsche has sorted this one perfectly. You can push it to the limit and then beyond the edge, and still get away with it. I think even novice drivers can do a pretty good lap time on it, it’s so forgiving to drive. What makes it so quick is that it allows you to carry more speed through corners, all the way from the braking point, right through to the exit (compare it to the R8). And it is so grippy that, like the GT-R, you can feel the g-forces pile up as you go harder and harder.”
Suzuki Gixxer SF
Track rating 8/10
“Amazing! Smooth handling and power. Total package is very good!”
The Suzuki Gixxer has shaken up the 150cc segment with its incredible mix of everyday usability and sporty dynamics. And we’ve had a suspicion that its fully faired sibling, the Gixxer SF, wouldn’t do too badly on a race track. Maybe give the YZF-R15 a scare? After setting a few quick laps on the SF, Rajini kept repeating one word to describe it — amazing.
He felt the engine was very smooth and delivered usable power. The SF’s handling, specifically the feel from the front end, impressed a lot. He did end up wishing for a little bit more power. So the SF’s time of 2m23.41sec was six seconds adrift of the R15 V2 tested by Rajini in 2012. However, that really is a great showing for a motorcycle that packs two valves, is air-cooled and uses a carburettor instead of racier high-tech kit. Hats off, SF!
Suzuki Gixxer SF Race Cup
Track rating 9/10
“Loses steam at high rpm especially in fourth and fifth gear.”
A few simple, but critical tweaks and Suzuki has turned the versatile Gixxer SF into a focussed track tool. Around 20kg lighter, quicker to steer and rev, and stickier rubber make the Cup bike track-worthy indeed! As Rajini found out, a more aggressive seating position makes it even more communicative than the stock SF.
The super-sticky rubber and the chassis composure let it brake very late. The V-Box data shows that compared to the street bike, the Cup bike could carry more speed through corners, and it also had a 7kph advantage in terms of top speed. Its best lap time of 2m16.11s was a significant 7.3sec faster than the road version. Rajini was sure that if it weren’t for the strong wind, these smaller displacement motorcycles would have gained more speed and slashed lap times by a couple of seconds.
Bajaj Pulsar RS 200
Track rating 8/10
“Best handling Pulsar by far! But, can improve further.”
Over the years, Pulsars have proved themselves to be exciting all-rounders. However, the first fully faired Pulsar, the RS200, seems more focussed on sporting ability. But just how good is it?
The RS’s engine was its biggest asset. The refined and punchy engine let it clock a higher top speed than the RC200! Rajini was all praises for the gearbox. He loved how well behaved it was, delivering everything his left toe commanded. Rajini was clear that dynamically, the RS was vastly better than any Pulsar, offering great mid-corner stability. However, Rajini had a couple of grouses – for one, he had to work a bit hard to get the RS200 to turn quickly and it could also do with better tyres. On track, the ABS-equipped brakes felt grabby and cost time. Nonetheless, the first track-oriented Pulsar did well.
KTM RC 200
Track rating 9/10
“In sixth, it hits the limiter halfway down the straight. Needs taller gearing.”
The RC200 may be the baby of the KTM range in India, but it is very worthy of KTM’s tag line — ready to race. A manic engine is mounted in a chassis that can harness its abilities perfectly. No surprises, Rajini found the RC200 to be very much at home on the race track. He was most impressed by how easily it could be pointed and flicked from corner to corner; it could carry higher speeds through transitions and go on the power earlier too. Good engine braking helped keep the KTM well under control. However, the reach to the handlebars was a bit of a stretch for shorter riders and robbed Rajini of some front end feel. The worn-out tyres that our test bike wore kept Rajini from pushing the RC. This 200cc orange-blooded bike did register the best lap times in its class though.
KTM RC 390
Track rating 10/10
“The ideal track bike – with power, handling and even brakes.”
Despite being so closely related to the RC200, the RC390 is one massive step up. It is all the motorcycle the RC200 is, just with a lot more muscle, as the larger engine makes almost 43bhp. As we’d say, with great power comes irresistible temptation. The RC390 was blazingly fast, clocking a top speed of 153kph. Sadly, the specimen sent to us by KTM India was a less-than-pristine dealer test bike and Rajini wasn’t thrilled with it. He felt the worn-out front tyre robbed him of confidence through the fast corners. Rajini also felt a more pliant construction for the tyre would work better for track and street. The vibrations were a bit too much for his liking. Despite this, a lap time of 2m02.05s meant that the RC390 was faster than the Kawasaki Ninja 300 by nearly 3.5sec!
Track rating 9/10
“Although its a street bike, the chassis and engine impress on track too.”
We’ve almost all been awed by the legend of the Suzuki Gixxer at some point in time and the GSX-S1000 is the brawler in the family. Intimidating, though? Rajini didn’t think so. The motorcycle was understandably street-oriented. The seating position is better suited for long rides than hard track time. The adjustable suspension too was quite soft. However, the S1000 wasn’t short of surprises.
With the footpeg feelers removed, Rajini was completely at ease laying the bike down through the corner. Also praiseworthy were the spectacular brakes, which worked well on track with no interference from the ABS. Rajini found that the power, although just monstrous, was delivered in a smooth and easy-to-use manner. The result was a ZX 10R-rivalling lap time of 1m56.53sec!
THIS IS HOW WE DO IT...
Track day, as we call it, is probably one of the most hectic days of the year. Drawing up and debating the list of cars to be invited is actually quite fun, but once that is done, coordinating the arrival of all the various cars is nothing short of a logistical nightmare. Cars have to come down to the track outside Chennai from all over India and involves loads and loads of phone calls, emails and follow ups.
It’s all worth it, however, once we see the cars all together at the track. Testing normally starts in earnest after an early morning group shot, but this year, since we did our test in summer, we started nice and early. Narain normally does a half-lap warm up with the car followed by a single hard lap. This is followed by a cool down lap, after which another lap is done. Most of the time though, it’s the first lap that is the quickest; two hot laps is generally all a car can take. We normally bump up the tyre pressure by 4psi for the track, the car is festooned with GoPro cameras to capture the action and, of course, we have our V-Box data logger on board.