Let’s get the elephant in the corner out of the way. GM India doesn’t have a proper offering in the premium hatchback segment, and that’s where both the numbers and the money lies. Even relatively new players in the Indian market like Renault and Volkswagen are making a concerted effort to crack the Swift’s stranglehold on the buyer’s psyche. The Sail U-VA is Chevrolet’s attempt at a breakthrough in this segment. Will it be able to do what the Aveo U-VA didn’t?
First impressions are that Chevy is trying old methods again. The Sail hatchback is called ‘Sail U-VA’, and the sedan will be called merely ‘Sail’, just like their predecessors. The Sail looks a little plain compared to its competition. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that everything else is new about the Sail, and this stems from a very different approach from the company this time. The company has told us that as of July this year, it was the highest-selling car in China, the world’s largest-growing car market. It occupies nearly a third of the market in its segment in Chile, much like the way the Swift does here. The credentials are solid, then. But the company also used the word ‘integration’ a lot. As in, just having a diesel engine wasn’t enough – it had to be integrated into the car so that it met Indian conditions. It had the suspension to cope with bad roads and high speed, but it had to be integrated so that it suited Indian conditions perfectly. I had a lot of high hopes before getting into the car, an effect of the enthusiasm and energy that the GM team displayed.
From the front, the Sail U-VA isn’t very arresting. It has got a distinctive Chevrolet face, one that is instantly recognizable if you have seen any of the other cars from the Chevy lineup with the exception of the Spark. The look is distinctive, but it isn’t a sea change like the Swift once was when it launched. It is more in the line of the Ford Figo – a look that pleases and most importantly, doesn’t polarize opinion the way a Honda Brio might. The split grille is present, as is a new headlamp design that has them wrap around the top of the fenders. The chrome grille surround for the top-spec variants is especially tasteful. The most prominent feature from the side is the shoulder line that swoops upward from the front wheel arch along the door handles, ending just before the tail lamps above the flared rear wheel arches. The silhouette isn’t out of the ordinary; the roof that slopes towards the rear with the little wing on top is reminiscent of the Nissan Micra. At the rear, there are more creases in the bodywork and high, vertical tail-lamps that remind me of the Fiat Punto. The elements in the tail lamps of the Sail aren’t as simply designed, though, with curved elements for the different bulb and reflector units.
The Sail’s interior space is second only to the Honda Jazz. It is by far the most spacious car from among the competition – there’s enough legroom for two six-footers to sit comfortably. It is quite wide as well, so three normal people in the rear seat shouldn’t be much of a problem, either. There is a large storage space ahead of the gear lever and a pull-out coin holder for the driver. A unique storage space is available under the rear bench, as the fuel tank has been centralized and placed under the front seats. The boot is also impressively large, and a big bag or two will not be a problem for the Sail.
The beige interior of the top-spec LT version I drove felt airy, but the plastics and upholstery don't have that 'wow' factor. The driver won't feel very special because the steering boss looks very plain without a chrome logo on it. Strangely enough, the horn won't sound if you press the center of the boss - that's where the airbag is housed - but it will sound only if you press the sides. This hasn't been a problem for other cars in the segment, and many Indians still have the habit of sounding the horn with the heel of the palm on the center of the boss, so Chevy is bound to get some negative feedback for this move. Another thing we didn't like were the centralised power window switches. Cars like the Mahindra Verito have just moved their centralised power window switches to the driver's side door with good reason, and we hope the Sail sedan doesn't have them where the U-VA does, in front of the gear lever.
Cost-cutting is evident in other small touches - the door handles are hinged at the top instead of being the pull-release type, the spare wheel is a steel wheel instead of an alloy, and the unique digital tachometer doesn't give you an inkling of where the redline lies. However, it doesn't detract from the Sail experience: it is very smart thinking on GM's part.
On the factory tour before the drive, we saw rows of engines waiting to find their new homes under the bonnets of cars. There was one visible petrol engine among them all. Just one. Reflecting the market sentiment was the fleet of cars available for the drive: out of 22 cars, only four were petrol-powered. I hopped into the diesel, what GM calls the 'Smartech' SDE (which expands to a prosaic 'Small Diesel Engine'). This displaces 1.3 litres from four cylinders and was developed in conjuction with Fiat. Yes, it is a cousin of the same 1.3 Multijet that powers fully half of the diesel passenger car market on Indian roads. With credentials like that, it is hard to not have high expectations of the diesel Sail U-VA, and I'm glad to say that it didn't disappoint. Power and torque are rated at 78bhp and a healthy 205Nm. Turbo lag is negligible, and the mid-range is surprisingly good. The top end is nothing to boast about, but that is a non-issue because the target market wants a fuel efficienct car with a strong mid-range, and Chevy has done a very good job with this engine. Now all the talk about 'integration' was starting to make sense. The petrol is a 1.2 litre, four-cylinder unit, and generates 86bhp and 113Nm. It makes a really nice noise when revved hard, but there isn't much go, in the interest of good fuel efficiency. Speaking of which, GM claims that the Sail U-VA will return very close to the ARAI fuel efficiency figures in the real world, which are 18.2kmpl for the petrol and 22.1kmpl for the diesel.
The steering is direct and one of the lighter units. The suspension is also tuned for ride comfort over handling, but the Sail will still cruise at triple-digit speeds without feeling 'floaty'. This is one of the best ride/handling compromises we've come across in the segment.
The Sail has the makings of a winner, with very few things working against it like the generic looks and the marginally low-rent interior. We get the feeling that GM will price the Sail very competitively, and if there's one thing Indian car buyers are, they're conscious of a good bargain. If the Sail manages to undercut the Suzuki Swift, its main target, by Rs 20-30,000, people will certainly queue up around the block for it. However, the Beat's pricing leaves a very narrow margin for the Sail, so it remains to be seen where the Sail fits in GM’s pricing. One thing we know for sure: it’s right at the very top of the company’s priority list.
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