It’s 7am and I’m staring at one of the most stunning examples of colonial architecture India has to offer.
Mumbai’s central railway station, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), was built in 1877 and is now a Unesco World Heritage site. Even at this hour, it’s bustling with activity, with locals beginning their morning commutes and tourists, cameras out, snapping away.
In front of the station, being reversed into position by Autocar India’s chief road tester, Rahul Kakar, is the new Renault Kwid, a hatchback that has pricked up the ears of the automotive industry around the world and whipped the Indian market into a frenzy.
The main cause for the fanfare surrounding it, and why I’m about to spend a day driving it, is its scarcely believable price. You can waltz in to a Renault showroom in India, throw down the equivalent of about £3000 and walk out as the owner of a Kwid. Yes, £3000 for a brand-new car. With all four wheels. And doors. That seems utterly ludicrous, even in India, where a decent tikka masala costs just £1 and only the diminutive and ultra-basic Maruti Suzuki Alto and Tata Nano are less expensive.
Unsurprisingly, the Kwid, Autocar India’s reigning Car of the Year, is selling at a staggering rate, with orders already crossing the 100,000 mark in just a few months. Even the base-model Dacia Sandero, the cheapest new car in the UK, costs twice as much as an equivalent Kwid. Is its price too good to be true?
To find out, I’m taking it on a whistle-stop tour of the landmarks in central Mumbai before a 100- mile jaunt south along the Konkan coast to the 15th century Murud-Janjira fort. Surely, a road trip like this will highlight shortcomings or show it as a remarkable feat of engineering.
Time is of the essence. We’ve started this early in an attempt to avoid the very worst of Mumbai’s traffic around town. Photographer Kuldeep Chaudhari ushers Rahul into frame and quickly takes some snaps during the increasingly rare breaks in traffic while I keep watch for agitatedlooking police officers. Once Kuldeep is happy, we scramble to the Kwid to head on before the city wakes up in earnest and turns its roads into vast tentacles of sweaty, bumper-to-bumper queues.
Rahul brought the car to the station, so this is the first time I’ve been behind the wheel of the Kwid, and it’s hard not to be astonished.
This particular model is a top-spec RXT example with a 0.8-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine, 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system, trip computer and electric front windows. Even with all that, it still costs less than £4000. But there’s no time to sit and admire the value for money because, as I lean out to manually adjust the non-electric door mirrors, I get enthusiastically honked at by several taxi drivers keen for me to shake a leg.
I’m fairly new to driving in India, so I’m glad that Rahul, who knows every road in this country like the back of his hand, will be my navigator. “It’s more dangerous to stop at a red light than drive through it,” he says, offering his first piece of advice. “No one pays attention to traffic signals this early in the morning.” It’s going to be a long day.
Rahul guides me past the station and we join the traffic headed to the Gateway of India for our second photo opportunity of the morning, and my initial impressions of the Kwid are encouraging. The steering is very light, which is useful on these unbelievably congested streets, and crucially the horn can be easily drummed with the thumb while holding the wheel. The air-con works well, too, another necessity in Mumbai, where today’s winter temperature will top 30deg C.
The three-pot engine chugs out a lowly 53bhp, is pretty flat from low revs and doesn’t really liven up like other, turbocharged equivalents do. The low-speed ride is pretty jerky, too, not helped by sensitive throttle response that doesn’t translate to peppy performance. But the car’s price gives it a crucial caveat; knowing how little it costs cushions the disappointment of certain aspects – such as the hard plastics in the cabin. Yes, they’re poor quality and scratchy, but what do you expect? The infotainment is a tad slow to react but otherwise fine, and it goes some way to boosting the appeal of the cabin, which is surprisingly comfortable. Basically, anything that isn’t terrible feels like a major boost for a car that’s this cheap.
Thankfully, for now, the roads are pretty clear and we make it to the Gateway of India in just a few minutes, wincing my way through some red lights, thumb jammed on the horn.
Towering over the Apollo Bunder waterfront and overlooking the Arabian Sea, the Gateway of India was built to welcome King George V and Queen Mary in 1911 and thereafter acted as a ceremonial portal to and from India for visiting government officials. It’s a fitting place, then, to take some shots of a car designed by the French to announce Renault on the Indian car market, a notoriously hard one to crack.
Import tax of 120% means that only cars built in India itself stand any real chance of achieving mainstream sales success. That is, chiefly, why the Kwid is so cheap. It’s manufactured in India, where labour costs are a fraction of European ones, and Renault claims to have sourced 98% of the parts from the country, with only the engine knock sensors, connecting rods and injectors imported from overseas.
When you also consider that there’s additional tax on cars over four metres long and average wages in India are extremely low, this has created a market with an insatiable appetite for cheap, small hatchbacks, and the Kwid – comparable to a Ford Fiesta in size – is Renault’s attempt to cash in.
After getting our shots by the Gateway of India, we head on to our final stop in Mumbai, the Rajabai Clock Tower, a kind of Indian version of Big Ben, and the sound of the engine ticking over in a deserted side street by the tower manages to attract a dozen or so stray dogs over to the car.
We pause for photos and play with the dogs – I’ve had my jabs – and, looking at the car, we all agree that it’s actually very pretty. The chunky, SUV-like styling disguises its price and dinky size, but its 13in wheels are dwarfed by flared wheel arches that beg for bigger rims and also hint at the potential of the car’s platform.
The Kwid – developed by Renault’s Gerard Detourbet, the same man behind the Dacia line-up – is set to be launched in Brazil but not the UK, although its flexible and cheap architecture will arrive on our shores in some form. The CMF-A platform is a variant of RenaultNissan’s Common Module Family (CMF) and can potentially be used for several different body types, such as a small SUV.
It’s now 9am, the sun is giving a taste of the ferocious heat it will be delivering throughout the day and we’re in the very heart of Mumbai’s rush hour. Luckily, most traffic is going the opposite way to us, into the city, and as we head for the national highway, I begin to appreciate that the roads are a total free-for-all. But the Kwid is an ideal companion, ducking in and out of queues, performing tight manoeuvres and easily overtaking the many decrepit vehicles on the road.
Eventually, we escape Mumbai’s concrete jungle and the demonic cacophony of blaring horns, screeching tyres and shouting. On the national highway, the Kwid proves itself to be not too horribly suited to motorway trips. It’s comfortable only below 70mph, though. Above that, the lightness of the steering becomes pronounced, the poor refinement and loud thrum of the engine make the cabin noisy, and you can just generally feel that it’s much better suited to hacking through traffic rather than munching up motorway miles.
We take the Panvel-to-Goa highway, heading towards Alibaug on the coast, and the landscape begins to fade from smoggy, grey concrete to vivid green leaves of coconut trees rooted in burntorange soil, with the Arabian Sea shimmering beyond and temples, forts and beaches all dotted along the coastline. The roads change, too. The congested, pothole-ridden city streets have given way to long, sweeping country lanes that are like silk ribbons by comparison.
They also accidentally provide a robust test of the Kwid’s suspension and brakes, thanks to the unsignposted speed bumps that appear every few kilometres. They’re like optical illusions, becoming visible to the untrained eye only just before you crash over them. The Kwid remains mechanically untroubled, though, despite the huge jolts being sent through the cabin, and it’s actually quite enjoyable to drive when we’re not braking savagely for the speed bumps.
The five-speed manual gearbox is accurate enough and ground clearance of 180mm and a longest-in-class wheelbase help the Kwid to deliver a smooth ride, considering the poor condition of the roads. The steering isn’t particularly engaging and the tiny tyres don’t offer a great deal of grip in the faster corners, but the car still feels fairly zingy and agile, a benefit of its minuscule 670kg weight.
However, the weight-saving measures on the Kwid come at a cost. India’s outdated crash testing standards mean that many cars on the roads have inferior safety protection to that of European models. The highlight of the Kwid’s safety equipment is the driver’s airbag, for instance. And it’s optional. You can’t even specify a passenger airbag. Instead, you get three gloveboxes – yes, three. So driving it on India’s hair-raising roads, where crashes are routinely avoided by millimetres, feels about as safe as strutting through no man’s land in a mankini.
Despite some close calls with lorries, the Kwid remains unscathed and even the tiny engine – said to be the most efficient in the country, with a claimed 70mpg – allows us to overtake without too much fuss on country roads. This says a lot about the vehicles we’re overtaking…
From Alibaug, we head for Kashid – stopping briefly at a deserted beach in Nagaon so that Rahul and I can carry out a thorough examination of the Kwid by doing handbrake turns in the sand – and pick up some coconuts for nourishment. Kuldeep is grateful for the chance to stretch his legs. He’s not too complimentary about rear seat space, but the Ford Fiesta-beating 300-litre boot has easily swallowed his camera equipment.
We eventually reach Murud after lunch and find a jetty that offers a clean view of the MurudJanjira fort out at sea, giving us our final shot and signalling the end of our journey south.
We return in the early evening, exhausted by 12 hours on stressful roads in a noisy cabin, but I’m not sick of the sight of the Kwid. Far from it, in fact. It has obvious safety shortcomings, but it’s a remarkable car with plenty of character and quality that defies its price point, and it shows Renault is capable of matching Maruti Suzuki at its own game on home turf.
How the CMF-A platform develops in Europe will be interesting to see – a cheap SUV could eventually arrive – and if this taste of budget motoring is anything to go by, the entry-level car market could be in for a big shake-up.