WildZests: July 2012

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pozu Goes To La'l'akh - Live Updates

Ever wondered if you could update your blog over the phone, well you can! This may ne a thing of the past for many, but for me it was a revelation.

Now I can keep posting snippets of my trip to the land of high passes as we live through the journey rather than waiting to get back home.

So here we are at T-4 days and all major preparations have already been done. Bags packed, car serviced, emergency food ration bought, route mapped and most importantly leaves approved.

This is going to be my fifth time in the Himalayas but the first for Pozu. Also, this will be the first time for us to drive all the way to Ladakh and back, so its going to be an action-packed trip!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Experience The ARIA!

Aria Experience   (8)

About the program:

On a very unusual day, I received a note from a fellow TBHP-ian about participating in a program designed by Tata to gather feedback on the Aria. The program would allow select few people to drive the Aria for a couple of days and let them experience the car which is the most premium offering from the nation’s own car maker. Being a Tata loyalist for more than 5 years now, I simply couldn’t decline the offer and that’s how the email chain started about the “Experience the Aria” program.

The program is a joint effort between Prerana Motors and the Tata Motors group and Prem Shenoy (MD of Prerana Motors) had been the brains behind it. We were told that a launch meeting would be held in the first week of July and then we’d be allocated the cars based on date preferences over the next month or so. The meeting was scheduled at the Hotel Lalit Ashok in Bangalore for the 7th of July and a proper follow up was done for participants who would be able to make it for the meeting etc. The invitations were personally handed over by Prerana Motors staff which was a very nice touch to the exercise.

The Tata Motors team was in full presence, right from the design team to the marketing team and the voice of the customer team, they had 8-10 guys attending the meeting. It was nice to have 30 odd TBP-ians in a conference hall and the interaction with the Tata Motors guys was quite nice. The overall conversation was very rich in content, obviously so, when you have a bunch of auto enthusiasts filled in a room.

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End of the day, everybody had their dates scheduled through a fair lottery system ensuring that there were no grudges. Surprisingly, I had the first preference to choose my dates and even though the cars were ready right then, I chose the next weekend so that I could use this as a reason to get out of Bangalore. The cars were going to be with temp registration and the Prerana folks were clear in telling us that we could drive them anywhere we’d like as long as we return them back on time. There was no commercial liability on any of the participants and the cars were to be given with a full tank of diesel to enjoy the drive!

This wasn’t the end of it, to top it up, Prem announced that he would be happy to get our vehicles (Tata/Fiat) serviced at Prerana while we enjoyed the Aria. For me, this was the icing on the cake as I needed to get my Safari serviced for the Leh trip coming up later this month and just a week before I was shocked to know that they have moved away from the Old Madras Road service center and now the only options were either Peenya or Kudlu gate, both of which are a bit far off for me. I could use the KHT service center which is hardly half a km from my place, but I wouldn’t want to switch service centers just before such a major trip.

An email group conversation helped people in rescheduling dates as and when there was a need, but for us, the dates were final and we were looking forward for the weekend to drive out.

The Aria Arrives: Friday the 13th

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The Prerana motors contact person informed me that he will be sending over the Aria on Friday evening itself since I was going to be driving out Saturday early morning. I made sure the Safari was ready to go for service and had sent them a list of things to fix as well. The driver arrived pretty much on time in a Night Shade Black Aria Prestige 4x4, this was going to be my ride for the next 2 days.

The car arrived in pretty neat condition and had around 650kms on the Odo, so this was pretty much a new car that they were using for this program. A quick check on the car and I found the engine cover kept in the back seat, the driver helped me put it back in the engine bay and everything was good. The driver handed over a file which had the temp registration papers and an acknowledgement letter that I needed to sign at the end stating that I was using the car for the given time period. I guess that’s to make sure that Prerana has a record of it, in case there is any untoward incident. We were told that the cars were covered under comprehensive insurance etc and we needn’t worry about anything before we head out.
Before I start talking about my experience and observations, let me tell you a bit about myself that will help in understanding some of my perspectives

  • I’m not a big fan of refinement, be it my life or my car!
  • I like it “rough and tough” and would settle for a big muscle car than a refined luxury car
  • I’d choose SUV over a premium Sedan any given day
  • I don’t abuse my cars, but I don’t treat them like dolls either. Cars are meant to be used!
  • Car gizmos are not my objects of desire, but a good music system is a MUST!
  • Manual transmission will always be prioritized over an automatic box
  • I like “busy” vacations rather than “relaxing” holidays
  • Lastly, I’m not a big auto-expert, I’m just a regular guy who loves to drive, so my comments are very much personal opinions and should be taken with lots of salt.

Also the review has a lot of pictures taken of the exterior of the car but none describing functionality of every component etc. This is since it’s not meant to be an official review, but just my version of what I felt about the Aria and how it compares to the Safari. I have tried to keep the journey part as concise as possible so that it doesn’t end up being a travelogue. Also, the pictures may look a bit over-processed, but that’s only because I don’t get to do that with the wildlife pictures and hence I wanted to take a few chances here.

First impressions of the car:

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Getting in the driver seat seemed different than the Safari, I could just step in versus the climbing in gesture that I’m used to. Once inside, the black leather interiors looked remarkably classy for my taste, they’re definitely better than the Plum offered in the top variant, but that’s my personal opinion. The three row seating makes you feel like a bus initially, but it also gives you a sense of the space inside. My little one had taken up position in the last row and didn’t want to come ahead at all.

They integrated key fob is such a welcome change from the Safari where the remote is an ugly piece of engineering (or lack thereof). Now, I know that there are a lot of more exciting options available in the market with folding keys, keyless entry etc, but for me, this is good enough. I’m a bit old school and motorcycles without kickers and cars without keys are not very comforting changes afterall.

One press of the clutch and my foot just moved in like a knife through butter. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the clutch felt like a small car though the overall pedal travels quite a bit. The car started with a lot less vibration than the Safari and though there was some engine noise in the cabin, it wasn’t loud enough to bother me.

The steering controls have never been my favorite, I keep pressing those buttons accidentally and I feel there should be a switch to turn these off even when they’re offered as standard accessory. The steering by itself feels chunky to hold and felt a bit smaller than the safari, again a pleasant change.
The dash looked pretty good and given the amount of surface area, it looked well presented. The dials looked quite good and premium. Overall, a big upgrade to the Safari and Tata should be commended for the finishing.

The music system is integrated in the dash, but I would have loved a 2 din touch screen type system. Moreover the sound quality was just about average from what was playing, I’ll need to test this a bit more since this is a critical feature. Good music makes me forget the joint pains and helps to stay awake on those long drives that I do, so this is non-negotiable. Even if the stock system can’t be provided to suit my needs, there should be flexibility to upgrade without hassle.

I took it for a quick spin and realized that the driving dynamics felt totally different than the safari. The engine is much more refined and the speed breakers are handled very differently by the monster, and it turned quicker and shorter on a U-turn. The engine felt like I was driving the Optra which is very good comparison in my opinion, I love the way the Optra runs of all C+ segment sedans! The suspension setup felt quite balanced for the size of the car, not too stiff and not too soft. The sad part was that it was just about 4pm and there were a lot of things I had to finish before the work day ended. So I parked it and resumed work, only to think of what’s going to be in store for me tomorrow!

Before I hit the bed, I flashed through the service manual for the car to understand basic functionality of things and also downloaded a copy on the phone for emergency situations. The plan is to head out to Ooty in the morning and return back on Sunday night. Now, why Ooty of all places you may ask, there are so many other interesting places nearby Bangalore. Well, there are two reasons for it, first the road to Ooty has a four lane highway (Bangalore to Mysore), a two lane highway (Mysore to Bandipur) and a 36 hair pin bend ghat section. The second and the most prominent underlying reason for all my trips is that I get to travel through the wilderness at Bandipur and Mudumalai. With all that will be thrown at the car, I’m sure there will be enough to write about.

The Drive: Bangalore – Mysore – Bandipur – Masinagudi – Ooty and back!

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As usual I slept around midnight and woke up a couple of hours later in an effort to leave for the trip. The last plan that we talked about before sleeping was to reach Bandipur for the morning safari and then proceed towards Ooty. Reaching Bandipur at 0630hrs meant leaving home by 0300hrs at least. However, the best thing about these impulsive short trips is that the plans are very fluid and can change last minute as well. Looking at the clock, I decided to ditch the safari plan and just drive to Ooty at a leisurely pace instead. But now that we were up, we’d better get ready and leave else the fluidic plan will soon turn into gas.

At around 4AM, we were already on the road and I was starting to get used to the driving dynamics of the Aria. I felt right at home with the Aria since it’s very much like the Safari when it comes to the seating comfort and the steering position etc. We stopped at a few places on the way to Mysore and clicked pictures of the car. Now, I’ve never really done this before since I always travel like a TSD rally and there’s always the clock ticking in my head. But since this was a leisure drive and we had absolutely no agenda, it wasn’t going to be a big deal if we reached a couple of hours later than the average time it took to reach Ooty otherwise.

We reached Ooty for an early lunch at Earl’s Secret which is a fantastic restaurant attached to the Kings Cliff hotel (http://www.nivalink.com/kingscliff/index.html). Incidentally we found a room at The Willow Hill (http://www.willowhill.in/) which is just opposite to King’s Cliff. The room was quite cosy and had a decent view, the food was quite okay too.

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In the evening we took a customary drive through the busy market and had a stereotyped visit to the Coffee Day for the nth time, and that’s pretty much what we did in Ooty apart from driving past Doddabetta, Botanical Garden and the famous lake. Point to note is, we didn’t really get down at any of these places coz both me and my wife are pretty wary of going to crowded tourist places for a “view”.

The next day morning we left the hotel at around 11.30AM after breakfast. Again, the objective was to have a relaxed drive and reach home by late evening. All through the way, things were quite smooth and the only place I hit traffic was at the Varthur market since I had decided to bypass the city through NICE road-Electronics City-Sarjapur-Varthur circuit. A little over 650kms on the trip odo, we finally reached around 8pm to join a bunch of friends for dinner!

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My Impressions of the Aria

There is plenty of information about the features in the car and the technology that Tata has used in it, so I'm going to focus my comments on the things that mattered to me and any direct comparison I can make with the Safari.

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Steering Wheel & Controls

The 4 spoke design looks muscular and is nicely leather wrapped. However, the convex shape isn’t exactly ergonomic in my opinion. The horn pad bulges out significantly and I feel it would have been more functional if kept flat or with an inward curve.

As I previously mentioned the steering mounted controls are always in my way and through the trip I accidentally changed tracks and adjusted volume quite a few times. I then trained myself to hold it in the groove below the controls so that there were no more of these accidents, but still couldn’t avoid them during U-turns.

Seating Position & Comfort

The driver seat felt a bit harder in the beginning but soon I could feel it equivalent to the Safari and the lumbar support and height adjustment etc helps in getting you to the right position. The seating position is fatigue free and I could do hours and hours in the driver seat without taking a break.

The middle bench has reclining and sliding seats that are split 60:40 with adjustable head rests. However, my wife didn’t really like them though, she kept telling me how the Safari sofa seats were much better than the Aria. She finally took off the head rest since it kept her neck too high and even then she wasn’t particularly pleased about it. Another thing she complained about was the seat belt trying to cut her neck, that one definitely needs the seat belt padding to be effective.

I liked how the seats folded flat and the fact that they have those pull tags rather than levers to adjust the recline etc.

The front seat arm rest is simply the best and with the multi-position locks, it is just what the doctor ordered for long drives. You can belt up even with the armrest in position which is a very useful thing. The door pads are also well positioned for arm rests and the controls for windows and rear view mirrors etc are nicely placed too.

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Entertainment and Infotainment System

The music system looks very elementary, but it performs quite good for a stock configuration. The USB connectivity is fast and except for a couple of times where it showed “Please Wait” while in the middle of a song which was solved by skipping to the next track. I wouldn’t want to compare it to my current ICE on the Safari with dual amp setup etc, but if compared with the stock Safari system, the Aria is miles ahead. The USB is tucked away nicely in a compartment below the system along with the power charging port.

The Prestige variant doesn’t have the reverse camera etc and I believe has a smaller screen for the Driver information display. It displays the track that is playing and doubles up as a parking sensor screen when the reverse gear is engaged.

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Dashboard & Around

The dashboard looks very neat and everything is arranged almost to perfection. The soft feel and the all black theme on the Prestige variant is nice looking. The speedo and tacho dials are interchanged as compared to the Safari and needed a conscious effort to get used to. The blue lighting is good and the fact that you can dim/brighten the lights is quite good.

The handbrake feels premium and there are some cubby holes for keeping things and a cup holder right behind the handbrake. In fact, the car is filled with places to keep things and you could probably forget where you kept it. The roof if lined up with storage space and while I’m not sure about the functionality of it, it sure is a welcome change when compared to the Safari. My wife was pleased to see that her sunglasses fitted in properly in the sunglass holders on the roof.

Two glove-boxes are exciting to have and even though they are of average size, I’d say they’re definitely worth it. Even the doors have a lot of storage including a bottle holder on all four of them. Net-net, I think this car can help in keeping a lot of things neatly if only you can remember where you put them.

The inside rear view mirror is quite good and you’d get a full view of the rear without many things blocking in between, it may be different in a fully loaded car though. The external rear view mirrors have good visibility and the folding option works great.

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The wiper stalk has a lot of things on it and needs a bit getting used to before you can do things without looking. For example, the front and rear wiper are operated using the same lever and then you can always put it on Auto which activates the rain-sensors. The sensors are fairly calibrated and I used this functionality on the way back and it worked very well, I can tell you that it spoils you after some time and you start thinking that you actually need it in your next car.

The indicator stalk has the high beam function and also the controls for the MID. Both the stalks feel very premium and have a nice rubberized action to them.
The windows are huge and the overall glass area makes you feel roomy even with the all black interiors. I always believed that black interiors eat up the space and a similar sized beige interior will always look more roomier, however this experience has changed my thought process.

The A/C is a chiller (when compared to the Safari) and the auto temperature control is very easy to use. The second row a/c was well received by my wife and I was surprised to see the third row vents as well. The A/C vents at the front are large enough and the air throw is quite good. Overall, I was pretty happy with the cooling given the large clear windows all around.

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Power Delivery, Handling and Comfort

The initial 5 minutes or so, and I was thinking like I’ve been driving it since ages. The car has a very similar driving stance to the Safari and it gets better. The body roll is very minimal and you don’t have to throw the car around when you change lanes etc, you just cut through traffic like a sedan. I felt that the steering was a lot more sensitive than what I was used to with the safari.

U-turns are a blessing and no more 3 point turns needed at most places whereas with the Safari I would end up blocking traffic everywhere. The curved front helps in making sharper turns in addition to the shorter turning radius. The only downside is that the bonnet visibility is zero and you need some judgement to make those close calls.

I believe the 17-inch wheels play a good part in the better handling, but they’re surprisingly good on bad roads too. The ride is pretty composed and while it may not be equal to the Safari (which is the best I’ve seen so far), it gets pretty close to it.

The ground clearance is good enough to take it over the tallest speed bumps and not feel worried about it at all. I’ve driven the Innova fully loaded once and I know you got to be careful with the speed breakers since the underbelly touched a couple of times at least. But the Aria doesn’t make you feel concerned about it at all.

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On the express highways, the drive is very refined as compared to the Safari and overtaking on the two laned state highways is a breeze. The car never lacks exhilaration and you could simply keep cruising at 120kmph with the tacho at just below 2400rpm. At that speed, it’s quiet inside the cabin and the vibration levels are minimal. Turning at high speeds makes you a wee bit nervous, a little better than the Safari though. The steering is rock steady at all speeds vs the Safari where there is some steering play (atleast in mine).

Now comes the part where I was a bit disappointed –the 36 hair pin bends of Ooty. While the engine did very well on the highways, I felt the ghats needed a bit of that extra torque to make the climbs in the second gear. I had a couple of instances where the engine stalled while making a hair pin curve and the engine had to be revved a bit to make the climb in the first gear. After these incidents, I tested this phenomenon at other inclines as well and I can easily say that the Aria is not tuned to be as spirited as the Safari in terms of the torque delivery. I was wondering that if the car went out of breath in Ooty, how would it do on the high passes of Ladakh.

I must say that I don’t feel that the power is inadequate, it’s got the same ratings as the Safari and the car will pull if you slot it in the first and rev it a bit harder. It may also be that the driving style needed for the Aria may be different than what you treat the safari. But I particularly don’t like to rev harder and want my cars to stay within the 3k rpm range and deliver the best experience. This is pretty much why I’d go for a bigger engine rather than a high revving smaller engine. This is a personal choice and I’m in no way implying anything here.

In the safari, the first gear is only to get you moving and may be for extreme inclines etc. The second pretty much gets you through the ghats and the 3rd gear in the Safari is the sweet spot for pretty much everything in the city upto 60kmph. The 4th gear is still usable in the city but the 5th gear is a big no-no since it can’t handle speeds under 80kmph well. On the other hand, the Aria deliver pretty seamless power even in the 5th gear at speeds lesser than 50kmph in regular city environment. The first gear has a longer range than the Safari but the second and third gears aren’t that torquey I felt.

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One of the best things of the Aria is the brakes! I was in awe of its capabilities to handle tough braking conditions without any nervousness. Initially, the brake pedal felt soft and had a longer travel, but soon you’d be a big fan of the brakes and all four discs is what you’d want to have in every car!

On the other hand, the worst thing was the mileage. The tank was little less than full when the car was given to me, but it almost touched the red line as I reached Ooty which was very surprising. This was with the A/C on until Bandipur and in the automatic 4x4 mode. On the way back, I filled up at Ooty (approx. 35lit) and it was again on the red line when I reached home. This time I put on the 4x2 switch to see if that changes the mileage and I guess it does improve a bit. Overall, I’m thinking the mileage was around 8-9 kmpl with not much spirited driving on my part. The safari would have given me 11-11.5kmpl with the way I drove under the 120kph mark all the time. May be it’s the extra 500 kilos that brings the fuel economy down, but this was definitely a big disappointment since the effective range of the car would be around 450kms before you start hunting for a gas station.

Exterior Styling and Road Presence

The front view is very confusing and I’m sure a lot of people won’t realize it’s not a “big” Manza unless they see the side profile. The paint job is quite good and so is the panel gaps etc, overall it does feel like a premium product by “Tata” standards. The doors close with a nice sound and have puddle lamps on all four I guess.

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The rear door won’t rattle I believe since it’s hinged at the top, however I did feel that it’s not as easy to close as may be the Innova. More than a couple of times I found that the rear door needed a push at the center rather than at the sides (as if when you’re closing with two hands) to lock itself in position. A known niggle may be?

The front-side profile is the best looking bet but individual front, rear and side views aren’t very refreshing (ie. they’ll remind you of other cars). Similarly, the rear view is the worst looking and whatever angle you choose to shoot, it’s not going to look any better. The large windows and the new law about no sunfilms would mean that you need to dress up really well to be presentable to the outside world.

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The one question that didn’t get answered fully was whether this vehicle commands the same respect as the Safari on the road. I had mixed observations on whether people would want to make way for you when they see the Aria in their rear view or pass it off for a Manza and want you to wriggle your way out. The car lacks something and I figured out that it was a “character” of its own. Now, I know it’s marketed as a new breed and all that, but I’m not sure I could connect to the character of the car or even realize that it had one to begin with. And that’s where I’d say it’s a bit confusing since it’s more like an Innova than a Safari and I personally never thought that the Innova had a character, it’s just a people mover IMHO.

My wife kept asking me the question whether I’d swap it for the Safari, and my answer differed based on my emotions at that point in time. On the highway, I was pretty sure this was a better deal but on the ghat section, I missed the Safari. When someone didn’t give me way, I missed the Safari. So it was a mixed bag of emotions and I could never come to consensus on whether the extra moolah was worth it. But for someone who’s moving up from a hatch or a sedan, I definitely feel is a better in-betweener since coming to terms with the poor fit and finish of the Safari takes a little while for most folks.

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  • Good fit and finish overall, miles ahead of the Safari
  • Excellent handling on the highway, moves easily in the city too
  • Stock music system is quite good and may not need replacement
  • ABS + Airbags and all four disc brakes – a good package for safety
  • Reclining and sliding middle seat for comfort
  • 4x4 capability give you peace of mind to tackle most situations
  • Excellent air-conditioning system
  • NVH levels are low compared to the Safari
  • Lots of storage space in the cabin


  • Handbrake doesn’t hold the car 100% on inclines, the car still moves a bit and I engaged the gear in parking situations to prevent it from rolling away
  • Stop and go situations in the ghat are tricky and you’d feel wanting more torque on the lower end
  • Poor mileage as compared to the Safari
  • Lack of outright character, feels more like a MUV

Aria 01