Ever since diesel cars started getting popular, a plethora of options have cropped up across the market. Yet, while all have bowed to the Indian consumer’s whims and fancies, there is still one segment that has steadfastly refused to give in.
It’s the premium segment, sitting high and mighty up the value chain in the car market, where four out of six cars remain loyal to petrol. They really defy logic, the petrol premium sedans in a diesel-driven market, but they are heavyweights after all (at least in a global sense)—Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Teana. The first two are among the top-selling cars in the world (and the US), while Hyundai’s Sonata is catching up fast. In this article, we will focus on the first three petrol options, since Nissan’s Teana is a fringe player in the segment, at best.
There are those who like to scream out that they have arrived in life and want to be surrounded with all the bling the world can offer—these guys have much to choose from today. But, there is also a certain section who prefer to be subtle and have nothing to prove to anyone. For the latter, Toyota’s new Camry is probably the best ride in the premium segment.
The Camry’s straight design lines—both outside and inside—give a pleasant and relaxed look. It is far less radical than the previous generation model. Conservative in taste, faux wood inserts across the cabin give it an upmarket look, while abundant chrome inserts on the door sills, grille, fog lights and the rear-end, try to cheer up the exterior—chrome seems to have become the easiest way to attach a premium tag to any car. (One must remember that what is premium for India, is the mid-size segment in the western markets.)
The Camry is best enjoyed on the backseat where it really comes on its own on a highway ride. The smooth engine and mildly stiff suspension are best tuned for comfort, so much so that high speeds are almost forgotten. Toyota’s 2.5-litre dual VVT-i engine delivers a maximum of 181ps of power at 6,000rpm to the wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission, but what really makes the Camry sprightly is the 233Nm peak torque that comes in as early as 4,100rpm. To make things clear for our readers, torque is what gives the initial push, or pick-up in stop-and-go traffic, instead of the peak power that is usually only experienced on longer rides.
There are also the gizmos that are expected in the segment, like auto-levelling HID headlamps, rain-sending wipers, car information system and an in-dash touch-screen DVD/audio system that also offers Bluetooth connectivity for phones. While the instrument cluster is well-lit, with a premium feel, the outside gets LED lighting to liven up things.
What is interesting in the Camry is the extremely high focus on fuel efficiency. While there are multiple digital meters for fuel efficiency—one in the dash shows history of the car’s mileage as a bar diagram, while another in the instrument cluster measures it on a real-time basis—there is even a third analogue meter on the extreme right, just below the fuel indicator. This may be an industry first and some may wonder why it is needed. There is also an ‘Eco-drive’ indicator that shows how efficiently the car is being driven.
Alas, there is a downside. What is disappointing is the lack of some premium features that today are found even in a segment below. For a R24 lakh car and with only a single variant on sale, things like heated seats, sunroof, paddle (gear) shift on the steering wheel and reverse camera should have been standard features. For safety, there are only two airbags on offer, where competitors boast of six and beyond. There are also no controls for the audio system for the rear passenger—big miss considering most Camrys are likely to be chauffeur-driven.
The Camry is pitted straight against compatriot carmaker Honda’s Accord. The Accord had been the last word in the premium segment for many years, until the diesel deluge began in 2010. Till date, individual buyers looking for a petrol option tend to stick with the Honda, while Toyota’s range has always remained a favourite with institutions such as hotels and car rental firms.
Why the Accord then? For one, it is the smoothest petrol engine you’ll find anywhere across segments. Though also available in a 3.5-litre V6 (275ps) variant, the 2.4-litre i-VTEC version with 180ps of power at 6,500rpm remains an enticing option. A light steering, typical of any Honda, makes for the smoothest drive in daily city traffic and around corners, while low maintenance and high resale value of the brand have always been strong pull factors. A status symbol in the metros for many years now, what makes the Accord even more enticing is the availability of multiple variants—three, with manual and automatic transmissions both on offer. Prices for the Accord range also start lower than the Camry, at R20.29 lakh.
Where the Accord loses out versus the Camry is the highway drive and the fact that it’s the most dated model among competition. At high speeds, the Camry is more stable and inspires confidence to push the pedal deeper into the floor, while the Accord feels lighter and is capable of going out of line if one’s attention is diverted. At 12.98kmpl, the automatic Camry also claims to deliver a slightly better mileage than the 12.8kmpl of the most efficient Accord (manual, 2.4-litre).
On the exterior, there is enough chrome on the Accord as well, catering to those looking for the bling again. The interiors are also very comfortable with an airy cabin and clever packaging promising copious amounts of interior space. However, features such as HID lights and touch-screen infotainment system are missing. One must remember that though the current generation Accord has received some mid-life refreshments, a major makeover is due soon. A new model has already been launched in the US, and given Honda’s willingness to keep the sales of its flagship model alive, it should make way to our shores soon.
The third petrol challenger in the segment is Hyundai’s new Sonata. A smaller player globally, the new Sonata’s value-for-money promise is catching on fast, so much so that Toyota and Honda are well advised to keep a watch on their rear-view mirrors. Easily the best looker of the three, the Sonata carries forward the Korean carmaker’s fluidic design language, first seen in India on the new Verna. Gone are the days of ugly, tasteless cars and borrowed design lines from Hondas and Jaguars—the ‘fluidic design’ has worked so well for Hyundai that it now spans almost the entire range.
The Sonata is the most powerful car in the segment—its 2.4-litre GDi engine produces a maximum power of 201ps at 6,300rpm and, like the Accord, it is available in both manual and automatic transmission options. The difference is that it is six-speed, versus the five-speed system in the Accord.
The Sonata is the most attractive deal in the segment, coming at the lowest starting price of R18.52 lakh, and has plenty of creature comforts on offer, such as rear parking camera, ventilated seats with warmers, audio controls on the rear-seat armrest and an innovative radio antenna integrated into rear windshield. There seems to be no reason why the Hyundai should be held back, if not for a lesser brand recall in the premium segment.
Diesel sedans: Petrol party spoilers
The premium car segment has traditionally been a playing field for petrol cars, but two diesel models of late have taken over the market. Together they command a 71% share (of the 2,129 units sold between April and September this year). Not surprisingly, both are European and from the Volkswagen stable.
The segment leader, Skoda Superb, scores over the rest in many ways—apart from very low fuel costs, the Superb has the longest wheelbase among all six cars in the segment. What this does is increase interior space and the snob factor by a similar multiple. Though high on value, the Superb has the oldest and least exciting design in the whole segment.
While the Superb is available in both petrol and diesel variants, the other option in the segment, Volkswagen Passat, has placed its bets solely on diesel. The Passat is high on looks, almost coming close to the Sonata in bling, but with a little more class. LED lights adorn the car all around, while bi-xenon lights up the premium quotient.
Both promise European build quality and fantastic refinement from their 2-litre diesel hearts. The Superb is priced starting from R22.5 lakh, while the Passat slightly lower at R22 lakh.
(Sonata inputs by Vikram Chaudhary)
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