Pre-conceived notions; we’ve all had them. Back in 1983, when Premier and Hindustan Motors dominated the market, many held onto the notion that Japanese cars were too flimsy for Indian conditions. They said our bad roads would shake these ‘fragile’ Suzuki cars to bits, and public consensus said the Maruti 800 was best avoided. We all know how that worked out. Then, after the Japs, it was the turn of the Koreans. Hyundai launch the Santro in 1998 and, at least, initially, there were many naysayers. We at Autocar India, in our first issue, did a five-car compare, which the Hyundai won. Many readers scratched their heads in disbelief; could it really be? Today, Hyundai is the seconds-largest car maker in india.
We at Autocar India have always believed in calling a spade a spade And that’s regardless of where it is created, manufactured or produced. So now, without further ado, we’d like to say we extend the same courtesy to our first locally produced and re-engineered-for-India Chinese car, GM and SAIC’s Sail U-VA. Can it really compete with the other considerably talented cars in its class? Time to find out.
The first time you look at the Sail, you won’t get bowled over. Though it is a nice-looking car, the styling is a bit too generic and tame to fit the ‘please all, displease none’ mould. The lines of the car are neat and the skinning is very modern, and there are no unnecessarily exaggerated features. The nose is particularly good-looking and you can’t miss the ‘V’-shaped Chevy grille with its subtle chrome piping. The Angled headlights wrap around the nose quite nicely and the rising window line makes the Sail look tipped forward and sporty. The strong ‘V’ – shaped theme is well incorporated into the bonnet and a sharp crease along the doors makes this a car that has a good form, at least from the front. The rear isn’t as attractive and the vertically aligned tail-light look a bit old fashioned now. Also, the flush-mounted rear windscreen looks good, but discrepancies between the roofline and window line at the rear of the car make it look a bit awkward.
The sail’s chassis has been engineered to provide extremely high levels of rigidity – just what the doctor ordered for India. GM’s engineers in India have also completely re-done the suspension to suit Indian roads, which call for more ground clearance. Hence, raising the ride height of the cars was essential. The petrol now stands at 171mm, and the diesel at a lower, but still very high, 168mm. Taller, stiffer springs have been used and the front anti-roll bar has been beefed up in accordance with the higher Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW). The dampers have been softened however, keeping ride comfort in mind, so GM seems to have got the basics right. The Sail also has relatively tall 70 profile tyres on 14-inch wheels and this play a key role in its stellar ride over bad surfaces, but we’ll get back to that later in this story.
Indian engineering were also responsible for covering this left-hand-drive car to right-hand drive, which involved plenty of re-jigging of components. The hydraulic steering system was swapped from the left of the car to the right, and the chassis was prepped for upcoming Indian crash-test norms as well. GM plans to manufacture the Sail in India eventually with an extremely high level of local content. However, for now, localisation levels and at 42 percent, with a much higher 65 percet on the cards in the near future.
SENSE AND SIMPLICITY
The first impression of the interior is that it’s not particularly upmarket and doesn’t have the quality of the swift’s cabin, the Sail’s obvious rival. What lets the cabin down is the quality of the plastics, which feel hard and bit cheap. Other grouses include the doorpads that are a bit shallow, the power window buttons are placed ahead of the gearlever and the glovebox is quite small. And the front seats can’t be adjusted for height.
The interior design however is very functional and has a restrained maturity. The dashboard is full of modern contours and shapes, finished in tan-and sand-coloured plastics, which are pleasing on the eye. Particularly attractive is the protruding central console with its large vents. Finished in dull silver, it contrasts with the rest of the dash quite nicely, and functionality of the buttons and switches is also good. The buttons on the audio system have a rubberised feel to them and you get a USB connector as well as Bluetooth. We even managed to stream music from our phones, which was a pleasant surprise.
The instrument cluster is unique but won’t be to everyone’s tastes. The semi-circular speedometer is brightly coloured and the digital tachometer isn’t very easy to read. The ‘V’-shaped steering wheel has the horn on two separate buttons and not the central boss, so it’s not as intuitive to operate, especially in the cut and thrust of Indian traffic.
Where the Sail scores a big victory over most hatchbacks is in the race for space. The Sail has interiors that are far more generous than most hatchbacks in its class, except possibly for the Liva. The cab-forward design and a windscreen that falls for forward amplifies the sense of space. The front seats are quite comfortable and well bolstered, especially in the lower back area, and though there is no height-adjust, outside visibility is good even for short drivers thanks to a high-set seat.
The rear doors open wide enough to make entry into the back quite easy, and once you settle down, you will be amazed by the amount of legroom, even with the front seats pushed considerably back. Headroom however isn’t as generous, possibly due to the sloping roof line. If there’s an issue, it’s with the back seat itself, which felt a bit too flat and firm and lacked the plushness of the Swift’s seats, which are the benchmark for comfort.
To make up, the seating position at the rear is brilliant thanks largely to a centrally placed fuel tank, which forms a natural footrest under the front seats, just like the second-generation Honda City. Moving the fuel tank forward also frees up space under the seat to store some loose items. Luggage space is pretty decent by hatchback standards, and the Sail can swallow 248 litres of luggage with all seats in place. The thin seat cushions allow the seat to fold flat forward, which is quite useful. Rough edges around the parcel tray and the uneven carpeting in the in the luggage are indicate that GM India still has some work to do on the quality front especially with Indian suppliers.
GM India hasn’t stinted on safety and the Sail is as well equipped as the competition. It gets two front airbags and ABS as standard on the top-end version.
FAST BUT NOT FURIOUS
The diesel version of the Sail U-va, the one that will be the more popular for the two, comes powered by an engine of considerable pedigree. GM call it the 1.3 SDE (Small Diesel Engine), but it is better know to us as Fiat’s Multijet, the same as that used by Maruti and Tata. This engine however is different from the Fiat unit in a number of areas. The air filter, inlet and exhaust intakes are totally new and GM uses a different turbocharger as well.
The engine sounds familiar enough. Though insulation is pretty good, there’s a bit of pitter-patter from ahead of the firewall. The Sail also has a bit of turbo-lag, but it’s not as pronounced as it is on the Swift, thanks to some clever ECU tuning and smartly chosen gear ratios. Responses below 1800rpm are relaxed and you often look to execute a downshift when you get caught at this speed in traffic.
Unlike the Swift, there’s no sudden spike in power when the turbo come in. Power delivery is more linear and the Sail accelerates in a measured but strong manner. Keep the engine in the mid-range however and the Sail really rewards you. It feels really smooth and you can up the pace at any time without using the gearbox, and that makes it a really relaxing car to drive.
Straight-line performance is pretty decent too. The Sail takes 15.2 seconds to get to 100kph, and in 22.9 seconds you are doing 120. That’s quicker than the VW Polo and the Ford Figo too. The lighter Swift however is considerably quicker. Also, the Sail’s 1.3 motor does not rev as freely as the Swift’s, which can pull hard to 5,000rpm. In the Sail power tails off around 4200rpm, so it’s best to upshift early. In-gear acceleration is quick as well due to its strong midrange, and here the Sail actually manages to stay in touch with the Swift.
GM’s engineers must be complimented for the refinement levels they have managed to achieve with the sail diesel. The big hatch is one of the quieter diesels amongst its peers, and even road noise is quite well contained.
In comparison, the petrol engine is a bit of a mixed bag. Know as the bit of a mixed bag. Known as the 1.2 BDOHC, this 1199cc motor uses twin-overhead cam and all-aluminium construction. Idle is smooth enough and the engine is quite responsive at low speeds. Spin the motor faster and it gets audible, especially towards the top-end. It’s a busy, buzzy sounding engine and is not as muted as you would expect. That’s got a lot to do with the engine’s all-aluminium construction, which transmits more sound than cast-iron.
The sail petrol surprised us with its flat-out performance, and particularly in the way it sprints from 0-100kph in just 14.6 seconds, which makes it quicker than even the swift. In-gear acceleration is strong too, especially in third gear. Besides, the Sail is quite nice to drive in traffic and that makes it quite user-friendly too.
A talking point about the Sail is the all-new F17 five-speed manual gearbox, which does duty in several Opel models in Europe. It’s a pretty accomplished unit, and though the gearshift requires a bit of effort, we just love the short throw narrow gate and the precise way in which this gearbox operates. It’s also one of the most expensive bits on the car.
RIDE ON TARGET
To say that we were blown away by the Sail’s ride quality on rough roads is an understatement. The robust hatch gobbles potholes for breakfast and feasts on the worst that Maharashtra’s road authorities can feed it. The key to the Sail’s amazing ability to float over bad road is the pliant, long-travel suspension that’s been brilliantly set up, and the tall 175/70 R14 Apollo tyres.
In fact, so good is the ride that it could well be the best riding car in its class; which is saying something. Only a bit of road noise from the rear and some vertical movement at high speeds spoil its near-perfect score in this respect.
The steering is quite light, which is a big help in town, and even when you press on, you will be impressed with the accuracy of the helm. It’s just that the steering isn’t bristling with feel and has a dead zone around the straight-ahead position, which sanitises the driving experience. The Sail rolls a fair bit (there’s no anti-roll bar at the rear) and it doesn’t like darting in and out of corners.
Straight-line stability is superb though and as a long-distance tool, the Sail is surprisingly good. The brakes are not as strongly servoed as some other hatchbacks, but they deliver plenty of confidence.
GM’s Sail U-VA has a lot going for it. It may not have the ability to impress you right away and may be lacking a bit of flair, but look at it with your head rather than your heart and a rosier picture emerges. It has a large and spacious cabin, ride quality is unbelievably good and it uses one of the best small-capacity diesel engines around, which GM has tuned to be even better. There’s no denying it, the Sail is a tough, no-nonsense car that’s really well suited to Indian conditions. It has its downsides. The petrol motor is noisy, it may not be as much fun to drive as some of the competition and we weren’t impressed by the interior quality.
Still, at an expected starting price of Rs 4.2 lakh (ex-showroom) for the petrol and Rs 5.8 lakh for the diesel, backed by a three-year warranty, the Chevy Sail is a lot of car for your money. All in all, it’s a surprisingly well-engineered car for Indian conditions. It’s probably time you reset your expectations.