Monday, January 29, 2018

The Nano Diaries

Tiny car, might heart - that's my Tata Nano

I recently read yet another newspaper report on the possibility of Tata Motors stopping production of the Nano in the near future. And what a pity that would be, I thought. I bought my first Nano in 2010, which I used until 2013, and my second one (this time, the AMT variant) in 2016, which I currently use every day. As a motoring journalist, I've driven hundreds of cars over the last 20 years and have owned half a dozen cars in that same period. And I can say, without any reservations, that the Nano is easily one of the best, most thoughtfully engineered cars I've ever driven. No, it's not exactly luxurious, powerful or even very safe, but for motorists who are on a budget, and who're looking for an inexpensive, reasonably spacious and very fuel-efficient car for getting around in the city, the Nano is hard to beat. The current model, which is equipped with a rear hatch that opens up, power steering and an automatic transmission (AMT), is an even better deal than the earlier-generation car that I previously owned, and which wasn't equipped with any of these features.

For more than a year, my Nano - despite its tiny, 624cc, two-cylinder engine that produces only 38bhp - happily handled my 90km home-office-home daily commute, while delivering about 19-20kpl in terms of fuel economy. The car can do up to 90kph on the highway, though its happiest when it's chugging along at around 60-65. I can understand that those speeds may not be enough for everyone, though they are quite sufficient for me. The OEM music system is barely average but does play all my 1980s/1990s MP3s, and while the 5-speed AMT doesn't offer the smoothest of shifts and is a bit slow to respond, it gets the job done. The Nano's AMT even has a 'sports' mode (which speeds up gear changes a bit, I think...) and a manual shift mode, though I rarely ever bother with that stuff. I'd want a short-throw manual gearbox with a Lancia Delta Integrale or Ferrari F355. With the Nano, I'm happy with an AMT.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The death of Windows mobile

The camera was (and is...) brilliant, but everything else about the Windows-powered Nokia Lumia 1020 is now old and outdated

I have been using Windows for more than two decades now, starting with the 16-bit Windows 3.1 back in 1995, at my first workplace in Baroda, Gujarat, to the 64-bit Windows 10, which I upgraded to about a month ago on my PC at home. Back in the early-1990s, Windows 3.1 was priced at $149 in the US – that’s Rs 9,900 at today’s exchange rates. Last month, when I upgraded from Windows 7, Microsoft gave Windows 10 to me for free. That’s right, their latest 64-bit OS, for free – no catch there, no tricks.

Yes, for a limited period of time, Microsoft were giving Windows 10 away for free, though that offer has now expired. Windows 10 Home edition is now priced at Rs 8,000 while Windows 10 Pro will set you back by Rs 15,000. So why did MS give Windows 10 away for free for a limited period of time? Part of the reason, perhaps, was that MS have at long last realized that the PC/desktop era is coming to an end, and personal computing will, in the near future, be all about smartphones and things like the Chromebook. MS were (and are…) dominant in the PC/desktop/laptop space, with the vast majority of users running some version of the Windows OS. Smartphones (non-Apple devices) and Chromebooks on the other hand are all about Android – an OS developed by Google for mobile devices and distributed by them for free. According to an IDC report, Android currently has close to 88% market share in the smartphone space, with Apple’s iOS at close to 12%. Windows Mobile? It’s nowhere. Maybe 0.1 – 0.2% or something like that. In the post-PC era, where smart mobile devices are taking over the world, giving Windows 10 away for free for a limited period of time was MS’s last, desperate attempt at keeping the Windows OS relevant.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Did you read my tweet?"

The other day I asked an old acquaintance, who's the Editor of an automobile magazine, about what he thought of a newly launched car and he said, "Oh, I had tweeted about it. Didn't you read my tweet?" No, of course I had not. I think twitter is utterly ridiculous. It's okay for birds to tweet. And for teenage girls, maybe. But for grown-up men? No. Just, no. I know I'm in the minority here but I still believe that saying things like 'I tweeted this' or 'I tweeted that' or 'did you read my tweet' is just plain silly. Our forefathers sailed across stormy seas, hacked across jungles, crossed mountains, fought wars and discovered new worlds. We did not evolve to peer into a telephone and 'tweet' our random thoughts to the world in 140-characters each.

I'm not against digital-age communication, really. As long as it's crisp and precise, business email is fine. And personal (but not work-related) chats on WhatsApp are alright too. Used sparingly, emoji can even be entertaining. But at least once in a while, a man should still try and have a proper face-to-face conversation with another man (ideally, one who doesn't have a twitter account, or if that is not possible, at least someone who is not too inclined to talk about their twitter account or even mention that they have one at all...), over a few glasses of whiskey. Some excellent subjects for such conversation could include 500cc two-stroke motorcycle grand prix racing, Group B rallycars, 1980s music, 1970s motorcycles and Irina Shayk. Anything about an Instagram account or a twitter post must remain forbidden.

No, I don't subscribe to neo-luddism and in fact quite love high-tech. I love tech in cars, bikes, computers and audio/video equipment and love how technology has made things like travel and shopping so much easier and better. It's just that I think that, for men at least, it sounds totally silly to go around telling the world that you tweet (wtf?!) and that people should follow you on twitter. We're not birds, right? So maybe we should stop tweeting and start talking again?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Computers, and the art of doing less with more

Once every three years, I upgrade to a much faster, much more powerful PC and then proceed to do less with it

Back in the mid-1990s, when I set up a multimedia instruction and content development studio in Lucknow, I had two PCs. One was a Pentium 100 and the other was a Pentium 133. Specs? It's been 20 years, but from what I remember, there was 4MB of RAM, 128MB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, 14-inch LG colour monitor that used to run at 800 x 600 pixels screen resolution, a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive (!) and... a mouse. Oh yes, there was also a 16-bit Creative Sound Blaster sound card, a tinny little pair of speakers and given that I used to work extensively with Adobe Premiere, even a video capture card that would take video from a TV cable or VCR. Yes, a VCR. Remember those, anyone? Internet connectivity came in the form of a 28.8k modem and dial-up connection. I could watch postage stamp-sized videos online on the days when I was patient enough, and could access my free Hotmail account. Free email! Yes!

And yet, despite the puny specs of both my Intel Pentium PCs, I used to get quite a bit done with the machines. With the Windows 95 operating system, I was able to run 3D Studio MAX for animation, Adobe Premiere 4.2 for video editing, Corel Draw 5 for illustration work, Adobe Photoshop 4 for image editing and a bunch of sound editing applications that I used with my very basic Casio synth. Yes, this was the world of desktop digital imaging, audio-video editing and 3D animation back then, and while everything was slow (rendering a 1-minute 24fps movie at 640 x 480 pixel resolution could take 10-12 hours), it was all damn good fun.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Play it again, Sam

"I've been here before,
But always hit the floor.
I've spent a lifetime running,
And I always get away.
But with you I'm feeling something,
That makes me want to stay..."
-Sam Smith (Spectre)

I started my writing career non-career about two decades ago, with a few tech-related pieces for The Times of India, in Lucknow. Moved to Bombay in the late-1990s and went on to write about computers and technology for a bunch of magazines and websites. But then, given my lifelong obsession with supercars and superbikes, switched from tech to automotive journalism and for the next 10 years, wrote for various car and motorcycle magazines. That was a time of wish fulfillment and many, many automotive fantasies came true.

However, with time came additional financial responsibility and the need for a few more pennies in the bank, which led to an extended stint in PR / Corporate Communication, and a few years spent working for India's only F1 racing circuit and then, for the biggest German car manufacturer in the world.

The money was not too bad I suppose, but things were a bit dull and the boredom was deathly, hence a 6-month sabbatical and then, very recently, a return to automotive journalism - this time, with the Delhi-based Auto Tech Review.

I'm happy to be back, no question, but I have to admit that the world of journalism - and more specifically automotive journalism - seems to be completely different from what it used to be 10 years ago. Just yesterday, I attended a media event hosted by a major Indian-owned, Europe-based car manufacturer and to my dismay, found out that I barely knew one or two people from among the two or three dozen who were present there. Where was everyone whom I used to know?! (Answer: They're now all 'senior' editors who only attend 'important' events and/or events that are hosted in exotic, faraway lands...)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Party like it's 1999

With close to 200bhp from its slick, free-revving inline-four, the Suzuki Hayabusa is capable of intense acceleration and a near-300kph top speed. I love this bike!

"I was dreamin' when I wrote this, so sue me if I go too fast
But life is just a party and parties weren't meant to last.
War is all around us, my mind says prepare to fight
So if I gotta die I'm gonna listen to my body tonight.
Yeah hey, they say two thousand zero zero party over, oops, out of time,
So tonight I'm gonna party like it's nineteen ninety-nine."

With a top speed of about 300kph, the Suzuki Hayabusa can keep up with just about anything on two wheels. At least in a straight line. And that's nothing short of amazing, because the Hayabusa, which was launched back in 1999, is now all of seventeen years old. To give you some perspective on how old that really is, 1999 was when the Euro was first introduced, Keanu Reeves starred in the first Matrix movie, the Khmer Rouge was officially disbanded in Cambodia, movie DVDs were still a novelty and listening to music meant buying a CD rather than downloading an MP3. Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp hadn't been invented yet, and people actually used to have face-to-face conversations rather than WhatsApp chats, can you believe that?

The world of fast motorcycles, too, was very different back then. Yes, ABS was available, but traction control and the dozens of other electronic-nanny bits that are common today simply did not exist at that time. You bought very powerful, very fast motorcycles only if you were an expert, experienced rider. Then, you opened the throttle and hung on for dear life. Pre-1999, Kawasaki had the mega-fast ZX-11 Ninja and Honda had the CBR1100XX Super Blackbird - both were capable of doing about 260-270kph. And then the Hayabusa came along and asked everyone to fork off. The first-generation 'Busa's 1300cc inline-four pumped out 175bhp, pushing the bike from zero to 100kph in well less than three seconds and on to a top speed of 312kph. Well, it was the 1990s after all. Sharon Stone was doing a full-frontal Basic Instinct, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were going at it in the White House, and Meat Loaf would do anything for love (though he wouldn't do "that"...), so why the hell not a motorcycle (without ABS, remember) that could do 312kph on the street? Screw the safety Nazis and just ride. The dotcom boom and the subsequent bust still hadn't happened, and life was still a party. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, baby.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

This is Z.

Kawasaki Z1000 Kawasaki Z1000
Kawasaki Z1000 Kawasaki Z1000
Kawasaki Z1000 Kawasaki Z1000 Kawasaki Z1000
Unveiled at the EICMA in Italy last year, the new Z1000's aggressively evil styling and 142-horsepower inline-four make for endless two-wheeled entertainment. Burnouts? Power-wheelies? Stoplight drag races? Yes, let the madness begin...

That the new Z1000 is a rocking, rollicking ride should hardly come as a surprise to anyone. Of all the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, Kawasaki have the most significant heritage of producing over-the-top supernakeds. The story started with the early-1970s Z1, which could hit a top speed of more than 200kph back then because of its 80-horsepower 900cc inline-four. This machine, the most powerful Japanese-built motorcycle of its time, was replaced by the Z900 at about the same time when John Travolta was rocking the world with his Tony Manero dance moves in Saturday Night Fever. And at the time when Rocky Balboa was taking on Apollo Creed in Rocky II, Kawasaki were ready with the totally outrageous, Honda CBX-rivalling, six-cylinder Z1300 that pumped out 120 horsepower, even if it did weigh close to 300 kilos.

The point I'm trying to make here is that Kawasaki have never been ones to shy away from building madly powerful naked motorcycles. No fairings or fancy electronics - just a really big, revvy engine, competent chassis and suspension, real-world-relevant ergonomics and mind-blowing performance. This formula, which Kawasaki adopted so successfully in the 1970s, continues with the current Z1000 that I rode, and loved to bits.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Living with the Beast: One week with the Kawasaki ZX-14R

The 200bhp Kawasaki ZX-14R Ninja. Pure awesomeness. I love this bike so very, very much. Have to buy one someday...

With the ZX-14R Ninja, Kawasaki have managed to pull a fast one over the motorcycling populace in general. The Japanese company has managed to convince everyone that this motorcycle is powered by a conventional four-cylinder 1400cc internal-combustion engine. But that’s not really true. Neatly tucked away beneath the big Ninja 14R’s muscular bodywork is the world’s most compact Nuclear reactor, a fearsome, weapons-grade set-up that actually uses Nuclear fission to power the bike. After all, why make do with petrol when you can use the rather more potent Uranium-235? Take that, Hayabusa!

Of course, the ZX-14R certainly isn’t the first Nuclear-strength motorcycle that Kawasaki have made. In fact, my obsession with mad, bad Kwackers started almost a quarter of a century ago, with the March 1990 issue of Cycle magazine, where they wrote about the Kawasaki ZX-11. I was 17 back then, and the fastest, most powerful motorcycle I'd ever ridden up until then was the 32bhp Rajdoot Yamaha RD350. So, Cycle's story on the 125-horsepower ZX-11 blew my brains out. “This machine is the speed freak's midnight fantasy, a ride on the blast wave of an endless explosion,” they said about the ZX-11, which could do the quarter-mile in less than 11 seconds and hit a top speed of 280kph. From that day on, all I ever wanted to do was ride a ZX-11. After all, what superbike fanatic wouldn’t want to ride the blast wave of an endless explosion…?

As the years rolled by, I went on to work with various car and motorcycle magazines, and even snagged a furtive, all-too-brief ride on the 170bhp ZX-12R, the ZX-11’s successor. But for 25 (okay, 24…) years, there was never an opportunity to ride a big, fast Kawasaki without any restrictions whatsoever. I still wanted to ride a 200-horsepower Kawasaki, on which I could wrench open the throttle fully in each gear and, hopefully, hit 300kph on some isolated highway. The schoolboy fantasy remained unrequited until last month, when everything changed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

2012 BMW M5 driving impression

2012 BMW M5 driving impression 2012 BMW M5 driving impression
2012 BMW M5 driving impression 2012 BMW M5 driving impression 2012 BMW M5 driving impression
With its 560bhp twin-turbo V8, the BMW M5 is one of the fastest four-door saloons in the world. Driving it was a childhood dream come true...

I blame my obsession with the BMW M5 on magazines like Car & Bike International and Indian Auto. In the late-1980s, when I was in school, in Lucknow, these magazines provided a tantalizing glimpse into the forbidden world of European supercars – fast, powerful and exotic machines that were so very, very far removed from the Premier Padminis, Hindustan Ambassadors and Maruti 800s that most people in India used to drive in those days.

Sometime in the late-1980s, I read about the first-generation BMW M5, which was fitted with a 3.5-litre, 285bhp straight-six. It was the fastest four-door saloon of its time and for a 15-year-old who was then just getting started with his lifelong love affair with fast cars (and, well, fast motorcycles…), the car was simply mesmerizing. And if I’m honest, I have to admit that at that time, I was happy to just look at pictures of the car, in magazines that cost a good part of my monthly ‘pocket money’ back then. I never thought I’d ever actually get to drive an M5 someday...

Fast forward to 2012 and there I was, last week, ripping along at 300km/h on the new Yamuna Expressway that connects Greater Noida to Agra. In, what else, a brand new BMW M5. In sixth gear, the M5’s 4.4-litre, twin-turbo, 560-horsepower V8 was howling furiously, with the needle on the rev counter hovering at the 6,000rpm mark, the car travelling a distance of 1km every 12 seconds. And at 300km/h, the M5’s engine wasn’t maxed-out yet, it was still about 1,000rpm short of hitting its redline – unbelievable performance for any car, doubly so for a four-door saloon.

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