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In the third part of our ‘Driver’s cars on a budget’ series, we pay homage to the cars that gained cult status in the Indian Motorsport scene ever since their inception, namely the Honda City VTEC, Mitsubishi Cedia, Maruti Suzuki Baleno and Maruti Suzuki Esteem. You can now own one of these legends for less than Rs 2 lakh. Most importantly we help you decide among four of the best race and rally specials on a budget.
It’s 20 years since the Gen 2 City was launched in India. 18 years since the Gen 2 City got the VTEC engine that made slobbering fan-boys of all of us. Also 18 years since I drove down to Nashik (in a City 1.5 as it happens) to report on Team MRF’s brand new rally cars – a rally where the City VTEC proved to be quicker than the Baleno. And last week the City VTEC won the first race of the 2018 Indian Touring Cars championship.
“The city’s VTEC remains the best naturally aspirated engine, ever, in an Indian car”
Munch on that for a bit. This City VTEC did its first motorsport event in 2000. It went out of production in 2003. And nearly two decades on it is still the quickest tin-top in the racing championship (incidentally driven by Arjun Balu who rallied the VTEC in that very first rally I went to spectate at, but that’s a different story). The City VTEC was Honda at its very best, from the time when every Honda story would feature the phrase ‘builder of the world’s best engines’. They made bulletproof motors that could be tuned and tuned and still run reliably. The shell was light and consequently went like a bullet. You could race or rally a City VTEC with off-the-shelf parts and not worry about driveshafts breaking or lower arms bending. As flimsy as the car felt on the outside, on the inside, where it mattered, it was astonishingly reliable. And quick. Even today you feel the VTEC-kick at 5000rpm, even today revving it to 6900rpm feels manically exhilarating, even today the gearbox is a joy. I spend half an hour just soaking in the revs, the noise, the sensory overload delivered by the best naturally aspirated engine, ever, in an Indian car. This car is all about the engine.
Oh it also looks good – the classic, low, sleek, noughties sedan garnished by the distinctive alloys exclusive to the VTEC, the boot spoiler and twin exhaust tips. But on the inside, this was Honda cutting corners left right and centre. It’s so cheap! And while the motor still holds its own in this day and age, the dynamics, the ride and handling, it’s a generation behind the other rally special.
The Mitsubishi Cedia will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my first proper rally car! And it still is active in the INRC. To be perfectly honest the motor is a dud compared to the VTEC: lazy to rev, the limiter cuts in early, there are no aural or sensory pleasures, the body is too heavy for the engine, and even the gearbox doesn’t deliver any joy. But all that – and more! – are made up by the chassis. These are the same underpinnings as the legendary Evo. Tuners who convert Cedias to Evos just bolt on parts to the chassis, the mounting points, almost everything is identical. The rear suspension is independent, something that delivers excellent handling (especially in motorsport situations) to make up for its lack of power. And as a road car, it feels more stable, more planted, more modern. Safer too! Back in the day we used to give extra points for slim A-pillars because of the better visibility. Now we know better. Now the thicker the A-pillars, the safer we feel; the visibility compromises are easily dealt with.
Also by today’s standards, the City feels incredibly soft and the suspension is more reliant on springs than dampers. It bounces around all over the place, and the body rolls flamboyantly. Well, until you step into the Baleno and discover even more extravagant body roll. My god, how did we drive these cars! It’s so soft! It’s so bouncy! At low to medium speeds it means the ride is great but even small bumps can tie the chassis into knots. It’s a chassis that does its best to hide a brilliant engine, the G-Series 1.6, that is another one of those Japanese jewels that loves to rev. So strong was the motor that, when rally-prepped, the Baleno nearly always matched the City VTEC for stage times, it was only the reliability (and less headaches) of the latter that saw it clinch all those championships.
Today all these cars go for ridiculously low prices and for even less than nothing you will get an Esteem. Don’t laugh at it. If you haven’t raced or rallied an Esteem you’ve missed out on a very, very big chapter of Indian motorsport. Guess which car came behind the City VTEC in last weeks ITC race? The Esteem! And nobody needs reminding just how long in the tooth the Esteem is. This is light, reliable and parts for it are in abundance. The Esteem gave birth to grassroots motorsport and continues to keep the fires burning. You can do racing, rallying, autocross, everything with it and it won’t burn a hole in your pocket – unless you want to win the ITC with it, then your brain will explode on hearing the 15-20 lakh rupee price tags being bandied about for fully-prepped cars.
It’s no stretch to label the Honda City’s VTEC engine as a legend, an icon, but if I were you, I’d hunt for the post-facelift – and very rare! – Cedia Sport. Those cars got OZ alloys and a Momo steering wheel as standard and at under two lakh rupees represents great value for a car with bonafide rally pedigree. Who knows, you might even be tempted to turn it into a rally car. I did!