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India is crazy about SUVs but Volkswagen still sees Virtus in sedans

While Volkswagen officials expect the Virtus to grow the sedan segment, they also admit that the love for SUVs in India isn’t going away.

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When tourists visit Amritsar, paying obeisance at the Golden Temple is often accompanied by a visit to the Attari-Wagah border crossing where a militarised ‘retreat’ function is held on most days. But about two-and-a-half hours south of the holy city, there is another border crossing, one that might lack the cultural significance of the border that sits on the road between Amritsar and Lahore, but is steeped in history, both as a major site of the Independence movement and militarily — the Hussainiwala-Ganda Singh Wala border.

Hussainiwala is located a few kilometres from the town of Ferozepur on National Highway 5. This border not only marks the end of the highway, but the end of the Northern Railway line that once connected Delhi to Multan but now sits more or less empty, save the occasional train carrying Border Security Force and Army personnel. The railway bridge over the Sutlej is long gone, but a small two-lane road attached to the barrage with views of Pakistan blocked by a corrugated fence on the river takes one to the National Martyrs Memorial. This is where the British cowardly cremated Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev on the night between 23-24 March 1931 and immersed their ashes into the river. It is also the site of a small engagement between Indian and Pakistani soldiers during the 1965 war and a much larger one in 1971, where tens of Indian soldiers died defending this hallowed ground.

So, when Volkswagen India was conducting the drive of their new Virtus sedan in Amritsar, it was almost certain that I would take the car to such a place. The Virtus is the second car that the German carmaker has built on their new MQB A0 IN platform dedicated for the India market. The first being the Taigun. The MQB A0 IN, derived from MQB A0 meant for other markets, is a platform that VW shares with its group company Skoda, which had introduced the Slavia sedan a few months ago on the same platform and before that the Kushaq. Much like the Kushaq, which shares all its underpinnings with the Taigun, the Slavia and Virtus are twins too. In fact, they’re identical twins, but with different hairstyles and slightly different personalities.

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Over the almost 400km route between Amritsar and Hussainiwala and back, I drove on the Virtus GT, which features a 150PS 1.5-litre turbocharged engine. In this case, mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT) and the 115PS 1.0 turbocharged variant with a six-speed torque converter automatic. Though the car will also be available in manual options, buyers in India are increasingly looking at automatic transmission options. The dual-clutch GT is clearly the superior of the two, and honestly, when it comes to small turbocharged engines, the 1.5-litre motor feels smoother and quieter in comparison to the 1.0 litre that has a verve to it and almost wants to be pushed. If you’re a dog lover, think of the 1.5 as a labrador, and the 1.0 as a beagle.

On National Highway 54, driving past smouldering fields recently set alight by farmers in the Tarn Taran district, the Virtus remained rock steady even while approaching three-digit speeds. The air-conditioning and ventilation system not only kept the particulate riddled air from entering the car, but kept the car consistently cool. Both the Virtus and the Slavia have borrowed a feature first introduced by Hyundai in India, in its Verna sedan— ventilated seats.

Interestingly, while the Virtus and the Slavia remain on the pricey side of things (Volkswagen is yet to announce prices for the Virtus; Slavia is priced between 10.69-17.79 lakh), both are larger than the segment competition such as the Honda City, Hyundai Verna and Maruti-Suzuki Ciaz. In data released by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), the Slavia is classified one level above the competition thanks to the length. The Virtus too would find space in that category. In fact, when Skoda was launching the Slavia, they highlighted how the car was every way bigger than the first-generation Octavia, with which they had launched the brand in India. And that extra space is evident in the back seat of the Virtus, which incidentally looks a lot like the old Jetta.

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There is little doubt that a sedan, by virtue of its shape and design, handles well. They are also more aerodynamic by their very nature, compared to SUVs. While Volkswagen India officials expect the Virtus to grow the sedan segment, they also admit that the love for SUVs in India and across the global car market isn’t going away. Simply put, only one in eight cars sold in India is a sedan today. The same proportion as it was a decade ago. But a decade ago, only one in ten cars was a utility vehicle. Today that proportion has quadrupled.

So, it is gratifying that Skoda and Volkwagen have brought in these two sedans, and they are very good sedans at that, which gives hope to enthusiasts like myself. Because oddly, they stand out in a sea of utility vehicles. And they’re nicer to drive as well. But there is another important factor that underlines their reliability. Both Skoda and Volkswagen introduced their SUVs on the new platform before these sedans.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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