The mountain road near Pune is a familiar one. Over the years, we’ve driven and tested all manners of cars here – hatchbacks, saloons, SUVs and, of course, sportscars too. The road starts off by snaking its way gently alongside a reservoir, but then gets tighter and tighter as it climbs the side of the mountain. Over the crest, the road opens out a bit and dives and ducks through dark forested valleys, feeling for all the world like a fast, free-flowing rollercoaster ride. Yes, the corners sometimes tighten on you unexpectedly and there are plenty of blind crests too, but there’s still a delicious rhythm to it. Plan ahead, temper your aggression and this can be one of the most fulfilling roads to drive hard on. Question is, is this pre-production DC Avanti, India’s first pukka mid-engined sportscar, up to the challenge? I’m itching to get started, but can’t – the car is surrounded by a ring of onlookers. Now, being flash mobbed in the centre of town is all very well, but here on a mountain road, in the middle of nowhere? It’s just nuts. Parked cars block the single-lane road up the mountain and everyone wants a picture, BMW owners included. It’s easy to understand the appeal – it’s not every day you see something with supercar dimensions and styling coming out to enjoy the sunshine. The crowd finally clears and I climb into the surprisingly roomy cabin. It’s quite wide and seat travel is sufficient, but headroom is tight for drivers over six feet because the roof is low and the floor is relatively high to help it deal with Indian roads. DC engineers, however, say they are still tweaking the seat design to get the ergonomics spot on. What’s nice is that the seats are big and they have a decent amount of lateral support too.
The interiors are still a work in progress and there’s lots of detailing yet to be done to get the fit and finish up to the desired level. What we can say is that the overall design is sure to appeal to owners. The pair of hooded dials looks great and we liked the centre console with the stacked screens, chrome surrounds and body-coloured separator. The custom three-spoke steering wheel feels the right size as well. Visibility out the back, however, is poor; you can only look out of that slot-like windscreen at the rear, so you have to rely a lot on the reversing camera. The Avanti also comes with a touchscreen infotainment system and soft-touch buttons for the air-con, but there’s more to come. We are told the final car will have a digital instrument panel with the resolution of an iPad. And there will be new door pads on the production cars and a few new bits on the central console too.
A QUESTION OF SPORT
The Avanti is powered by a 1998cc turbocharged engine developing 248bhp. The motor is an off-the-shelf, four-cylinder unit from a well-known French carmaker. Since DC is in the last stages of the engine deal for the Avanti, we’ve been forbidden from revealing the name just yet.But it’s not hard to guess what the brand is!. I thumb the nicely finished starter to get going, but surprisingly, there are no fire works from the exhaust, just a muted buzz from behind my ear. You only really hear the exhaust when you pull the two-litre turbocharged engine hard, but even then, it doesn’t sound like a sportscar. Production versions will have a louder, more sporty exhaust, DC says. The clutch is a bit heavy, but has good bite, and within the first 50 metres, you are impressed with the responsiveness of the engine. There isn’t too much turbo lag and the short gearing also helps in making a quick getaway off the line. What also helps responsiveness is the short, tightly stacked gearing of the six-speed gearbox. The engine isn’t very high-revving and has a conservative 6200rpm rev limit, but the shortage of revs doesn’t mean a shortage of performance. While the car we were testing had done a considerable 18,000-odd kilometres, we decided to run it against the clock all the same, just to see what it would do. It wasn’t easy launching it, with its big rear tyres and turbo, but we did manage to get it to 100kph in 7.75 seconds, which isn’t too bad. What blunts performance somewhat is the heavy 400-odd-kilogram space frame hassis of the car. Over-built to take on poor Indian roads and to play safe in general, DC, however, is likely to lighten it by around 100kg before the car is launched.
Also surprisingly good is the ride, especially considering this car uses 20-inch rims. The suspension soaks up even some of the bigger bumps on the mountain road and I’m surprised, because unlike other cars with a tyre profile like this one, I don’t need to slow right down for the really bad patches. Sure, the Avanti does get jiggly at times because of inherent stiffness in the chassis, but overall comfort levels are surprisingly good, all things considered. What I also found quite ample was ground clearance. Whereas sportscars and supercars normally hug the tarmac, the Avanti has a considerable 170mm between its underside and the road. So it sails over speed breakers and can even be driven over dirt roads that would otherwise beach a normal sportscar. What the Avanti likes in particular is dispatching corners. Yes, I have to push the Avanti hard for it to deliver a sporty drive, but once I’ve done that, I reach a point where I really start enjoying the car much more than I expect to. It feels nicely poised around corners and the flat attitude of the chassis goes a long way in allowing the fundamentally strong ‘physics’ of the mid engine setup to work well. The wide 295 rear tyres provide massive grip, the additional weight (approximately 100kg) over the rear wheels helps provide great traction and this allows the Avanti to accelerate hard out of the corners. There’s no sloppiness transitioning through corners and the weight transfer from side to side or fore and aft is minimal. Also nice is the fact that the brakes, despite needing a decent shove, work pretty well and provide ample stopping power. The conventional six-speed gearbox also has a wide gate and needs a firm and committed hand to swap cogs quickly. If there is one thing owners might miss, it is an automatic option with paddle shifters. This car’s electric power steering is yet to be resolved and changes need to be made to iron out the inconsistent feel. Still, there’s no shying away from the fact that DC’s Avanti really does have the potential to be a really good driver’s car.
ENGINEERED FOR SPEED
The secret of the Avanti’s well-balanced driving manners seems to be the iron block-like stiffness of the space frame chassis. Based on a globally successful design, but considerably beefed up for our conditions by an in-house engineering team, the Avanti uses race-car-like independent A-arms both at the front and the rear. Whereas the struts are outsourced from Koni, the chassis and suspension arms are manufactured inhouse in Pune. Befitting the profile and size of the car are 20-inch wheels both at the front and the rear. The alloys are currently being sourced from Wheels India, but DC may move to a different supplier in the future. Stopping power comes from ventilated 330mm disc brakes in the front and 295s at the rear. A four-piston caliper is used on the front disc and the hardware is supplied by Bosch and Foundation brakes. Continental, on the other hand, has developed the anti-lock system (ABS).
The transversely mounted turbo engine sits midship behind the passenger firewall and the difficult job of installing it along with the gearbox has been executed by DC’s French suppliers. There are very few unwarranted vibrations from the gearbox or the engine, and there are no shunts, even when you whack open and close the throttle suddenly – all very commendable.
Despite having a box section space frame chassis, the body is constructed from super-strong high-tech carbonfibre panels. These are also made and cured inhouse by a set of people who were earlier supplying parts to ISRO out of Bangalore. While these panels won’t be taking on any load and aren’t created in a pressurized autoclave, they are cured in specially made ovens at around 140deg C for strength.
Most of the sex appeal for this car, however, won’t come from the technical specifications. It’s the low slung dimensions that are likely to get you lathered up first. The design has been around for a bit, and we’ve seen it at successive Auto Expos, but here in the flesh, I’m particularly drawn to the muscular-looking nose and ‘shoulders’ of the car. The surfacing of the bonnet is just right, the black line in the centre breaks up the mass nicely and the lines around the wheel arches look really tight too.
Designer Dilip Chhabria has always been very clear that he wants the car to be both aggressive and elegant, but he wants it to look like nothing else. The chin, with its wide-open mouth, does have a bit too many lines for my liking, but the tightly executed doors and the upper and lower vents look just spot on.
DC is also a designer who loves to shock. All you have to do to experience this is walk around the rear of the car and look at the long, almost Le Mans race car- or a 1930s Auto Union type C-like tail. Now tightened up from the cars shown at the Auto Expo both in 2012 and 2014, the long tail along with the big overhang is an acquired taste. The flat surface looks stunning and so do the huge black slats that sit over the engine compartment. The gently curving flying buttresses, however, give the rear a bit of a droop. One thing’s for sure though – it does stand out.
DC’s Avanti, India’s first mid-engined car, is clearly attractive to look at, feels reasonably quick and is plenty of fun from behind the wheel. There’s also little doubt that at an expected price of Rs 35 lakh, you’ll also be getting a lot of car for your money. The Avanti, however, isn’t a finished product yet. Yes, DC has put a huge effort into getting this car right and only the last 10 or 15 percent remains; but that still means our verdict on the Avanti will have to wait till we drive the final showroom-ready car. What we can tell you until then, however, is that the Avanti really does have the potential to be a genuinely appealing homegrown sportscar. And that will be a first.