DUMPING THE CLUTCH
Which of these two automatic saloons is the most convenient and easy to live with? Ecardlr find out with an exhaustive comparison test.
Not too long ago, automatics were rather unpopular or any car this side of a Skoda Laura. The general perception of them being more expensive than their manual cousins and less fuel efficient didn’t sit too well with buyers in such a price-sensitive segment. Old-school autos also ate into big chunks of the engine’s power and were about as much fun to drive as a bar of soap.
Things have changed though – our increasingly crowded streets and gridlocks mean that we spend more time changing gears than actually driving. The convenience of not operating a third pedal then is a boon and people don’t mind paying a bit more for this luxury.
Also, the modern automatic gearbox has come a long way from the slush boxes of old. Take for example Ford’s new Fiesta – it’s being offered with a twin-clutch automatic-a thoroughly up-to-date gearbox. Ford believes it is more fuel efficient, shifts gears more smoothly and gives you more driving pleasure.
But we simply can’t take Ford’s word, can we? That’s why you see the Honda City auto here. It’s been the de facto choice in this segment since its launch in 2009 and stiff competition from Volkswagen and Hyundai didn’t ruffle its feathers either. The City has a conventional torque-converter and has only five gears against the Ford’s six. The City is also just Rs 4000 more than the Fiesta’s Rs 9.7-lakh price tag.
So is the Ford good enough to, er, clutch at Honda City customers? We’re about to find out.
DESIGN & ENGINEERING
Visually you will find no difference between the manual and automatic Fiestas – you get the same swept-back headlamps, distinctive grille and bold creases that add up to a sporty shape. The tail section looks too high in profile though and is a bit ungainly. The Fiesta’s biggest brag is its dual-clutch transmission, a first in this segment. The twin clutches use two input shafts and actually act as two separate gearboxes. The inner shaft takes car of even-numbered gears and the outer odd-numbered gears. Importantly, though, it doesn’t have hydraulics to operate it, instead you get electromechanical clutch actuation and dry lubrication, which is typically found in manual-transmission cars.
After the recent facelift, the City got some minor cosmetic changes. The front grille now gets a chrome finish; there’s a new rear bumper and different taillights as well. This helps the City look fresh and attractive. The quest for better packaging is the key reason why Honda continues to use its non-independent ‘H-frame’ layout for the rear suspension. Even the fuel tank is placed under the front seat to generate more rear legroom. The City’s wheelbase, at 2550mm, is 60mm longer than the Fiesta’s and this helps free-up more space too.
The Fiesta’s dashboard is nicely textured with soft-touch materials but some plastics lower down look shiny and cheap; some of the switchgear too doesn’t feel premium either. What lets the interiors down is the rear seat, which simply can’t match the City for legroom. Headroom too is not as generous and the small rear windows add to the cooped-up feeling. However, under the assumption that automatics are bought by people who drive themselves, this is not a huge issue. The Fiesta’s driving position is superb, the steering wheel, gear lever and seat are perfectly placed and the pedals are well spaced. There’s even a dead pedal to rest your foot.
The City’s front seats are good, but not as nice as the Fiesta’s. Sure, there’s lots of space and the front seat cushions are generous, but the driving position isn’t anywhere as snug as the Ford’s. Where it does score over the Ford though is by having slightly better rearward visibility, and the rear seats are decidedly better. There is a generous amount of width and legroom and you feel less hemmed-in here. The City now comes with light brown fabrics as opposed to the beige you used to get in the earlier car. The dials now get a cool blue backlighting and the chrome rings on the AC controls look nice. The quality of plastics is not exceptional, but the fit and finish is decent.
The Fiesta is the better equipped car and has some unique features. There’s voice activation for the audio system, Bluetooth connectivity, climate control and auto-folding mirrors, so it’s amazing that Ford has priced it at par with the lesser-equipped City.
ENGINE, GEARBOX AND PERFORMANCE
So how does the Fiesta’s hi-tech gearbox perform in the real world driving conditions? Slot the gear lever in ‘D’ and you will find the Fiesta jumps off the line with enthusiasm. The dual-clutch box feels good in traffic and you find it does a good job of selecting the right gear for the right situation. The gear ratios are shorter than the City’s and this helps with quick responses in the cut and thrust of city traffic. There is none of that gearshift jerkiness usually associated with twin-clutch units and the gearbox is as smooth as it gets at low speeds. For ambling along in traffic, the Fiesta is brilliant and smoother than the City. The trouble is, as soon as traffic thins out, the Fiesta struggles a bit. This is mainly down to the engine’s lack of grunt – most of the power made by the Ford engine is near its red line so you really need to rev it to get the best out of it. The mid-range is a bit flat as well and lacks punch, so the Fiesta feels out of breath on open roads. In these conditions, the gearbox keep hunting through the gears to help you gain momentum quickly as well.
The City’s torque-converter transmission is not as smooth and power delivery can be abrupt at times. This makes it slightly tricky to drive smoothly in stop-start traffic. If you do drive on the highway though, it’s the City that has the clear advantage. Just an inch on the throttle pedal and the City lurches ahead with eagerness, and this is where the Honda feels much better than the Fiesta. This is mainly down to the strong 118bhp engine and the quick-shifting five speed auto. The City’s motor is free revving too and visits to the red line are greeted by a nice snarl from the i-VTEC motor.
Out VBOX figures reflect this. The Fiesta takes 13.80sec to reach 100kph which makes it a second slower that the City. Even in-gear, the City proves to be much quicker than the Fiesta.
The City’s engine/gearbox combo is more fun to use and in manual mode, the gearbox holds on to a gear and doesn’t up shift unless you pull the paddle (the Fiesta doesn’t have paddle-shifters). The Fiesta doesn’t come with a manual mode; instead you get an ‘L’ mode which gives you more engine braking and the ‘box stays in the lowest gear possible. While this mode is particularly helpful when you’re driving downhill, we did wish it had at least a tip-tronic mode to entertain us.
RIDE AND HANDLING
If Honda is famous for its engines, Ford is equally well known for its driving dynamics. And the Fiesta, fine-tuned to Indian tastes, is no different. Now, keen to appeal to a wider customer base, the car has been tuned to erase every bump and broken patch Indian roads can throw at it. And the taller springs and tuned dampers deliver the desired effect. The ride quality over poor sections of the road is simply superb. The Fiesta blots out most road noise over poor sections, the severity of the bumps and pitching is greatly reduced and, most importantly, the car never feels floaty at high speeds.
The City feels distinctly second best on the ride and handling front. The same section of road seems worse for wear, every poorly paved patch on the road gets highlighted and this is especially true at low speeds. The suspension is also much more audible than the Ford’s. But once speeds build, the City manages to tackle poor sections with less noise filtering through to the cabin and its performance in this respect is much closer to that of the Fiesta. The City also feels the more nimble of the two. While its light steering fails to inspire confidence and feels vague at speed, it’s a delight in urban traffic. The steering of the Fiesta is well weighted and considerably more direct. It’s no lighter or heavier to drive in traffic compared to other cars, but pitted against the City, the extra effort required is apparent. The upshot of this slightly weightier helm is that it is feelsome and gives you far more confidence at higher speeds.
Ford claims the Fiesta automatic to be very fuel efficient and our test confirms this. In town, the Fiesta returned a impressive 10.3kpl as against the City’s 9.5kpl, while on the highway the Honda’s tall gearing means it returned slightly better figures than the Ford.
Ford Fiesta Power shift
Honda City A/T
We like the City’s strong motor and its user-friendly nature. Plus, there is peace of mind when you buy a Honda. But as a commuter going through the drudge of everyday traffic, we think the Fiesta does the job better. The Ford may lack the sheer grunt of the City, but in traffic, who needs grunt? The Fiesta’s sophisticated gearbox, comfortable driving position, long equipment list and brilliant ride go a long way to make this a better car to be in during the gridlock on the way to the office. It is more fuel efficient than the City as well, so your penalty for choosing an automatic is that much less. The new Fiesta is now automatically the king.