Being a car reviewer is not an easy job. Sounds like a laughable statement, given that I hop, skip and jump around India and the world driving luxury cars, eating great food and visiting some truly spectacular places. Heck, I can even provide a very good and measured opinion on different airlines and their quality of service, given the amount of time I spend above 30,000 feet every year.
But I will tell you why it is not, because there are the 3 am wake-up calls, the constant hustle through airport security and the horrible eating habits (which I especially despise now that I’m 45). I might book fancy hotels but I barely stay there. There’s also the police, who often hail down cars with a temporary number plate. In fact, in some states, an out-of-state number arouses suspicion and a conversation with the cops. Honestly, driving a Rs 3 crore Leviathan or sports car through the capital might sound cool, but when it is not your own, you are petrified of getting a scratch on it.
And you don’t need me to tell you that driving on Indian roads is a daily adventure. Also, I will say this much; there is no ‘North-South’ divide when it comes to driving and riding habits in India. With the sole exception of Shillong in Meghalaya where road users are incredibly well-behaved, I will say that driving in India is – you can insert an adjective of your choosing here – stressful.
It might seem cool jumping behind the steering wheel of a different vehicle every day, but then again, the deal includes everything – from a teeny-tiny MG Comet to the new BMW i7, which seems as large as a US Navy aircraft carrier. I read somewhere that sports car drivers have a highly developed hippocampus, the front part of the brain that can calculate closing distances and overtaking opportunities, and apparently stores navigational knowledge.
I guess mine is as developed.
But then, what I do, and most of my peers do too, is give you a subjective view of the vehicles we drive. Sometimes we give you vicarious pleasure through our words and videos on expensive sports cars and luxury barges. Other times – and for the most part – we give you insights on regular, everyday cars. And automobiles have changed a lot since I started doing this almost two decades ago and so has the way I have to evaluate them.
For example, one thing I spend a lot of time on, obsessively according to some of my friends, is the user interface and user experience (UI/UX) of car infotainment systems. Every automobile, including the Maruti Alto, has that option. I’m pretty good at crashing systems and finding faults with them, often sending engineers into a tizzy. I also spend time trying out car audio systems – how the speakers are, if they have surround sound, and if they can play everything from Punjabi wedding songs to a Mozart concerto. Yeah, I have an eclectic taste in music.
Ultimately, the choice boils down to value for money and practicality. Sure, the Lamborghini Huracan Tecnica is an amazing car to drive and the BMW i7 is by far and away the most advanced thing I have ever driven. But I’m guessing you’ll disagree with that statement, unless of course, you live on Mumbai’s Napean Sea Road. Which is why you have to look at everything before buying a car. Although the funny thing is that there are no obviously awful cars anymore. Unless you’re judging them on the basis of aesthetics and ergonomics.
And that is the way it should be, because you, as a car buyer, will care about the highway performance, how it goes around corners, and how the gears are. But when you’re stuck in a jam en route to Whitefield in Bengaluru or on top of Delhi’s Barapullah flyover, you’ll care about audio systems and ventilated seats. You’ll also care about Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), which I wasn’t initially keen on because drivers these days are becoming increasingly distracted by their smartphones. Safety aspects aren’t limited to airbags, they now encompass the very construction of the car’s platform. One of the most awesome experiences of my career, in fact, was watching a live crash test at Maruti-Suzuki’s amazing research and development centre in Rohtak, Haryana.
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This is where I pivot to my role as a juror at the Indian Car of The Year (ICOTY) award. At our meeting on Monday, we discussed how jurors look at vehicles differently. I was chatting with Dhruv Behl, editor of AutoX and chairman of the ICOTY jury, who told me that “The ICOTY jury has a cumulative experience of 327 years and testing cars is their daily job. And we all have different thoughts and opinions of different vehicles.”
That is so true because some of us care purely about the mechanical aspects (which is important). But that’s changing due to more and more EVs and increasing computerisation of cars, causing the jury and its opinions to also evolve.
I’m really looking forward to the award announcement on 20 December at the Jio World Centre in Mumbai. Just like last year, when the Kia Carens surprised everyone by winning. Although I had, in a column published in January this year, already noted that it was the vehicle that had impressed me the most in 2022.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. He is one of the jury members on the ICOTY panel. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)