When is a new car really a ‘new car’? This is not some sort of rhetorical question to make this column sound intelligent, nor is it a contemplative question in the mould of Hamlet’s ‘To be or to be’? It is a rather serious question and one about which I have had several extremely animated and detailed conversations with many of my peers in the world of automotive journalism over the past few months.
The reason I’m bringing it up here is because I recently drove the mid-life update of the Citroen C5 Aircross, a very nice car indeed. The French car brand has, however, given the car quite a makeover. When launched, the car was quite the fashion icon, very glitzy indeed with divided headlights, little red accents and funky interiors and all that. Quite the rebellious teenager in a manner of speaking. But now it looks more elegant. My neighbours who see new cars parked in my spot every second day rarely comment on them, but with the C5 Aircross, a couple of them mentioned how pretty it was.
And they were bang on, it is a very attractive car.
Citroen has made some nice changes to the interiors as well, removing the funky air-conditioning louvres for more conventional vents, and a larger and more impressive 10-inch infotainment display. And a new digital instrument cluster with a very attractive font. There is something peculiarly French about this car, and I like it. I mean, until I found out the price, which at Rs 36.7 lakh is way more than every other car in the segment and much more than even the top-end all-wheel drive variants of the Jeep Compass and Hyundai Tusson. Which is kind of ridiculous, but I don’t make the pricing decisions.
But back to the original question: is this Citroen C5 Aircross a new car compared to the outgoing model? To be fair to Citroen India, they don’t claim it is, because it is a facelift. It has the same engine and transmission as well, an eight-speed gearbox mated to a two-litre diesel engine that makes 177 horsepower. It also has excellent ride and handling and I must admit, excellent NVH characteristics. NVH stands for Noise, Vibration and Harshness and good NVH means excellent cabin insulation and little to no transfer of engine vibrations and external noise into the cabin.
So, if this is not a new car why ask the question? Well, there is the new Baleno and Brezza from Maruti-Suzuki and this is where things get complicated.
Most cars, like the Citroen C5 Aircross, go through a midlife facelift. BMW even has a term for that, they call it ‘Life Cycle Impulse’ or LCI. This is because a car usually takes 3-4 years and hundreds of millions of dollars, if not over a billion dollars to develop and carmakers would like to squeeze the maximum value out of that investment. Much of the development cost is towards the ‘platform’ of the car, a skeletal structure the car is built around. Thanks to modern computer-aided design and manufacturing, a platform can be shared by many models, which could come in many shapes and sizes across many brands, the Volkswagen Group being an expert at this. A shared platform reduces development costs, and because many components such as on the suspension and interiors are shared, different models can easily be made on the same assembly line. Although they could be very different from one another.
Even in India, Volkswagen is using the same ‘MQB-A0 IN’ platform as the basis of the Skoda Kushaq and Volkswagen Taigun SUVs, as well as the Skoda Slavia and Volkswagen Virtus sedans, all of which are manufactured on the same lines at the company’s plant in Chakan outside Pune. Executives from the companies have confirmed that more body-styles, such as a compact SUV and maybe even a hatchback on the same platform might emerge in the coming years. In fact, Volkswagen has even developed their ‘MEB’ electric vehicle platform that will be used by Audi, Skoda, Volkswagen, Porsche. And even Mahindra has collaborated with VW for their future electric cars.
The fact is that platforms are expensive to develop but despite some minor changes to the way a suspension is balanced and an engine is tuned, dramatic differences between cars with the same body-style and engine on the same platform are not found. Also, carmakers would like to use the same platform over multiple generations of vehicles, the ‘MQB’ platform survived for generations at Volkswagen. And now, like a confused novel, this column loops back to the new Baleno and Brezza. You see, they both have the same platform as the cars that they replaced. But according to Maruti-Suzuki, they’re not ‘facelifts’ but new generation cars. But that has many people confused, and rightly so. Because for years, we have been told time and again that a new car means a new platform. Well, to be fair to Maruti, they have made improvements and enhancements to the platform including increased usage of higher strength steels across the platform to make the ‘new’ cars more resilient to accident damage. And the company is so confident about this that they even performed a crash-test of a new Brezza in front of several journalists, including me.
And they have a point, if a platform is already quite good why change it. Instead improving it to adhere to the highest safety norms and make enough improvements to convince the consumer that they’ve made a new car. At the end of the day, it does not really matter what the reviews say, whether it is a movie or a car, consumers vote with their wallets. And both the new Brezza and the new Baleno are setting the charts alight. As for the new Citroen C5 Aircross, ah well, as nice as it might look and as nice as it is to drive, you don’t need me to tell you that it won’t really sell at all.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)