Fiat, of late, has launched a string of exciting new cars in India. Things took off smartly with the 147hp Abarth Punto, the Avventura powered by Abarth then got a 142hp engine and Fiat has now rounded off the range by upping the power of its Linea to 125hp. Known as the 125 S, the new Linea is now the most powerful car in its class. And it's not just the power; the Linea also gets an all-new touchscreen as well as several other updates under the skin. Question is, how much better have these updates made it? And can it take on the best cars in its class and win?
The main competition it faces comes in the form of the Honda City. With its rev-happy engine, big cabin and strong performance, it has always been a favourite. And then there's the Verna that comes powered by the largest-capacity engine of the lot. It's attractive looking, the engine has plenty of pulling power and the car is reasonably well equipped too.
So, what are we looking for in these cars? Well, to begin with, they are obviously expected to transport their occupants from point A to B in comfort, that's the basic ask. But with over 120hp and manual transmissions, these petrol sedans can also satisfy owners who enjoy driving. So, which is the best car, and which is the nicest to drive?
What are they like to drive?
The Linea T-Jet was already a powerful car, with 114hp from its turbo motor, but Fiat has decided to boost its power to 125hp. This is a welcome change as this increased 11hp has made this car effortless to drive, both in the city as well as on the highway. The added power makes its presence felt in the Linea almost immediately. The car shoots off the line as soon as you spin the engine past 2,000rpm, there's a lusty tug every time you hit the throttle and the spread of power is so good, it feels like it has plenty of punch in reserve at almost any given engine speed. There is a bit of a dead zone from 1,000 to 2,000rpm, before the turbo or turbine starts blowing hard, but once you are past that speed, the spread of power is smooth and strong, and this makes the Linea an absolute pleasure to drive. You can be in the wrong gear at the wrong speed, but put your foot down and the Fiat will sort out your demand for power in a jiffy. The only two real anomalies in the Linea are its long-throw five-speed gearbox that needs a bit of shoulder work, and the long-travel clutch, which take away from the overall driving experience a bit.
Linea has a fantastic ride, does a good job of absorbing potholes.
In terms of flat-out performance, the Fiat 'feels' like it is the fastest car here, but it's the City that is actually the quickest car from 0-100kph; it takes a mere 10.1 seconds. The 125 S and Verna take 10.8 and a much slower 11.4 seconds, respectively.
This is a bit strange as the Verna has the largest-capacity engine of the three, displacing 1.6 litres and it is a very powerful unit as well, putting out 123hp. What gets it off to a good start is that the controls are nice and light to operate, and there is zero delay when you put your foot down on the throttle. Power delivery is instant and strong; press down harder and the car keeps pulling and pulling. This feels wonderful, especially as the effort you put in is so little. The Verna doesn't pull as strongly at medium engine speeds as the Fiat and it feels strained past 5,000rpm. But even as things are, the Hyundai is almost perfect for driving briskly in the city and maintaining high speeds on the highway.
The City is quite different from this pair. Whereas both the Fiat and the Hyundai engines deliver strong power in the mid-range, the Honda encourages the driver to hold on to gears for longer, the engine spinning freely up to the 7,000-rpm mark. Yes, it does take a bit more effort to get the motor to deliver its best, but do that and you are more than amply rewarded as the engine delivers an explosive burst of performance all the way from 4,000rpm to 7,000rpm. And what makes the experience nicer is that the engine is smooth and seamless, and actually enjoys being spun fast. The Honda isn't as nice at lower engine speeds though. Yes, it pulls cleanly from 1,200rpm and without much hesitation, but progress is initially slow and a bit laboured, and unless you shift to a lower gear, you are likely to be passed by other cars. Luckily, its controls are the lightest and the most precise here. The gearbox has the shortest throw, it is lightest to use and the gears 'click' or slot in with an extremely high level of precision. Even the clutch works beautifully.
But the City isn't as accomplished as the Linea in the ride and handling department. Because the springs of the car are relatively stiff, the ride is lumpy and jiggly at low speeds. The suspension does absorb larger holes and rough patches well, but it's the smaller stuff that trips it up, and this constantly filters in as small up and down movements.
Low-speed ride isn't good in the city; it improves at speed.
The City handles well though. The electric steering is extremely direct and accurate. It feels light in traffic and comfortable to use, and also weighs up nicely as you go faster and faster. The City rolls a fair bit in corners and the narrow fuel efficiency-oriented tyres don't help too much either, but the car still has a nice balance to it, and surprisingly, there's a fair amount of grip too. So, you can enjoy driving it at speed. Even the brakes offer excellent pedal feel and good stopping power. Wish the tyres were more substantial.
Ride and handling is where the Linea outpaces its rivals. Its ride is typically European, very absorbent and silent and it even manages to remain composed and neat in corners. It offers the best driving dynamics, there is plenty of grip around corners, and the hydraulic power steering is so full of feel, the driver is given plenty of confidence. Its high ground clearance does result in a fair amount of body roll and the quick steering does feel a bit fidgety at speed when driven in a straight line, but the Fiat is still clearly the best car to drive here.
The Verna is clearly not. It rides well at slow speeds on its soft springs and shock absorbers and is, in fact, very good at soaking up bad roads at city speeds. But go faster and the car starts to bounce and move up and down a bit, and this means both straightline stability and driver confidence are impacted. What makes it worse is that the car feels floaty when you turn it into corners and this makes it even more edgy and nervous. Hyundai has improved the Verna’s driving manners quite a bit, but even this updated car hasn’t improved fundamentally.
The Verna has good low-speed ride, but it bobs at speed.
The Linea is the only car in its segment which offers disc brakes at each wheel and it’s no surprise that you get the most confidence from the Fiat’s brakes. The City’s brakes offer good bite but due to the low rolling resistance tyres, it feels nervous while shedding speed. Hyundai has gotten rid of the rear disc brakes with the 2015 Verna update but despite that, it does its job reasonably well.
What are they like inside?
The Linea’s updated cabin and neo-retro look impress from the word go. The cabin is well-designed aesthetically – the dashboard features an interesting and fresh mix of elements, and the large swath of light-coloured, soft-touch plastic sandwiched between dark sections really works well. Even the build quality of the various buttons and knobs is really good. The big change over the regular Linea is the addition of a 5-inch touchscreen that now also gets navigation. However, the cabin looks a bit long in the tooth and features poor ergonomics. The steering juts out too much, the touchscreen is too small and the pedals are too close to you. The cabin also lacks adequate storage spaces. There is just one shallow cup-holder in the centre console, two small bottleholders in the front door pockets and no door pockets in the rear doors. The front seats, however, are large and comfortable and good for even long drives. But the rear seats are not so good. The seatback is relatively flat, legroom is tight and headroom is cramped. There’s a neat sun blind, and the adjustable headrest are good for safety, but this car is nowhere as good as the City if you plan to sit in the back.
Linea's dashboard is quite pleasing to look at and buttons are well-built. Screen is small though.
The Honda City still boasts the best cabin in this segment. The dashboard is modern if a bit awkwardly designed, there are lots of cubbies for storage and the Honda is reasonably well equipped. The driver sits on comfortable seats, and it is easy to find a suitable driving position. In the rear, the seats are very comfortable, with great back, shoulder and thigh support, legroom is ample and headroom is adequate. The only issues are that the cabin is not very well insulated, allowing much road and engine noise to filter in and the functionality of the infotainment system isn’t very smooth.
The Hyundai Verna’s interiors, in comparison to the Honda, look dated. The design, textures, colours and buttons were fresh when the car was launched back in early 2011 but they now look a bit jaded. The front seats are quite comfortable though, and most drivers will find it easy to find a driving position that suits them. The Verna is the only car in this comparison test to get a telescopic steering. In the rear, the Verna fights a losing battle against the competition. The seats are placed very low, offer poor thigh support and comfort levels are not as good as even the Fiat. The City is simply leagues ahead.
Verna's front seats are adequately supportive but rear seat is low and cramped.
The Verna gets a 445-litre boot that is roomy and well-shaped, and accessed by a convenient loading aperture. The City’s 510-litre boot (including sub-cargo-floor area) is quite roomy and well-shaped, and its wide and low loading lip makes it easy to load luggage into it. The Linea’s 500-litre boot is spacious too, though access to it is restricted by a narrow and high loading lip. The hydraulic-operated bootlid in the car we tested proved to be overly resistant to opening and closing. And of all the three cars, the Linea 125 S feels most solidly built, followed by the Verna and bookended by the City.
Equipment and Safety
The Linea 125 S is arguably the best-equipped car in this comparison, with a touchscreen, navigation, auto-headlights, rain-sensing wipers, automatic AC, cruise control, a rear sun-blind, rear AC vents and auto-down for all four windows. It gets reversing sensors, but, a reversing camera has been left out. The touchscreen features good definition, though it is a bit small, and it isn’t the most intuitive or responsive to use, and the infotainment system provides Bluetooth telephony, voice activated controls and audio streaming, USB, aux and SD card input. On the safety front, it gets disc brakes on all four wheels, ABS with EBD and two airbags.
The Honda City also gets a touchscreen infotainment system with navigation, as well as cruise control and rear AC vents. Additionally, it also gets a sunroof, reversing camera and an engine start/stop button. On the safety front, it gets two airbags, as well as ABS. The touchscreen is clunky to use and often unresponsive, though it does feature Bluetooth connectivity for your phone.
The City's touchscreen is large, but it is clunky to use, and not very responsive.
In terms of equipment, the Verna lags behind rivals in some respects. While it gets Bluetooth connectivity, it does not get a touchscreen. It also makes do without cruise control and rear AC vents. However, it does get a reversing camera built into the electro-chromatic rear-view mirrors, air ionising and purifying system in the air-con and rain-sensing wipers. In terms of safety, the Verna gets the most airbags: a driver, co-passenger as well as side and curtain airbags along with ABS and EBD.
Buying and Owning
The Linea 125 S is available in just a single variant, so it does not leave much room for choice. For the Honda City, the VX and VX (O) variants are both very well-equipped. For the Hyundai Verna, the recommended variant is the top-spec SX (O). While it commands a premium of Rs 1.06 lakh over the SX variant, it gets better safety features such as six airbags. It also gets leather in the cabin, keyless entry with push button start and rain-sensing wipers.
The Hyundai Verna has been given plenty of updates, and there’s little doubt the recent facelift
does help freshen it up. The peppy petrol engine still makes for a good driving experience, the controls are light and the low-speed ride is good. The cabin, however, feels dated, it isn’t confidence-inspiring at speed, the lack of a touchscreen is glaring and rear seat comfort lags behind rivals too.
The Linea 125 S, with the extra shot of power and touchscreen is definitely more desirable now. The turbo-petrol engine is very enjoyable to drive, the experience is enhanced by the solid ride, and then there’s the fact that it is the nicest car to drive in corners. It is well equipped and the seats are comfortable and the car is fairly practical too. There’s little doubt that this is the best Fiat in a long, long time. But it is still let down by the poor cabin ergonomics, relatively cramped rear seat and poor dealer support.
In the end, the Honda City comes out on top quite comfortably. An all-rounder that does everything well and many important things brilliantly, is comfortable to sit in, well equipped and loads of fun to drive. The engine and gearbox elevate the driving experience to stratospheric levels, the rear seat is better than on cars a class above and then there’s the bullet-proof reliability and super-service experience. The ride isn’t perfect, the build of the car is ‘slight’ and the cabin isn’t well insulated, but these things hardly affect the outcome of this test. For those looking for a sensible and fun mid-size sedan, the Honda City remains very hard to beat.