i20 Turbo at NATRAX
The future of fun yet affordable hatchbacks in this country is possibly bleak but carmakers like Hyundai and Volkswagen have proven that there is life in it yet. One might argue that the previous decade was the golden period and nothing will come close to the likes of Fiat Punto Abarth, Maruti’s Baleno RS and the Tata Tiago JTP that defined the era but we beg to differ. Sure, it’s a diminishing landscape, one wherein the influx of a new Polo GT would usually be greeted by homegrown rivals although now only the i20 Turbo remains on sale.
Here at CarWale, we like the kind of speed the i20 Turbo delivers and our recent outing with the spicier still N-Line version left us quivering for another go as we prepared to visit and explore NATRAX which is amongst the most advanced vehicle testing facilities in the world. It’s safe to say, then, that for this review we will not be talking about the i20’s boot space or how many features it has. This time it’s all about celebrating the fun of driving and speed.
NATRAX (short for National Automotive Test Tracks) near Indore is an entirely new state-of-the-art automotive testing facility designed to test the dynamic capabilities of a vehicle and all its moving parts. Here they have different kinds of proving grounds such as high speed tracks, a gradient track, an off road track and many more. What’s had us excited though is the entirely new 3.6km handling track which is nearly as long as the MMRT racetrack in Chennai. Now I am a huge fan of the MMST and the fact that we now have an equally long track not too far away from Mumbai is jolly exciting.
But having spent some time driving on it, I have come to realise one thing here and it’s that it’s not really like a traditional circuit and we will get to that in a bit. First, let’s take a look at the car that’s gotten us all the way here from Mumbai. Yes, it’s no sports car with big horsepower but a humble Indo-Korean hatch but hey! At least it’s got a turbo petrol engine under the hood. The handling track at NATRAX is more like an extremely technical club circuit and I am glad that we had the opportunity to learn our way around it in the i20 which packs in just the right amount of punch for the tricky layout. Now 120bhp and 172Nm may not seem like a lot, but at this narrow and twisty handling track it’s just the right amount of power.
The 1-litre engine in the i20 makes all the right buzzing noises that we are now used to from three-cylinder turbo engines but what’s surprising is that it sounds good on the top-end too. It doesn’t sound like its being strangled when you push it for revs. One can feel the shove in the back when this motor comes on boost and given the number of second and third gear corners on this handling circuit, the i20 proved to be good fun.
Coming back to the venue, now it’s a fairly long track at 3.6kms and the way it’s laid out is such that it’s a workout for both the car and the driver. There are elevation changes in the first half of the track, a couple of long straights in the middle and a tight technical section at the end with switchback corners and nearly 90-degree turns. There are hardly any run off areas though and instead you have gravel lanes on both sides pretty much across this entire facility. All in all, it’s an incredible circuit with a layout that has been designed to gauge a vehicle’s handling, grip level and chassis balance. It’s also well paved and the road surface is so smooth that infuses a new level of confidence in you as you try to carry more speed through the corners lap after lap.
The i20 felt surprisingly sharp and alive even though I was held back by the clutch-less iMT gearbox. Now the funny thing is that this is the same gearbox that I had otherwise liked so much throughout our drive from Mumbai to Indore but at NATRAX, on this handling circuit it felt out of place because I didn’t have any clutch control or the option to do quick shifts. Sure, for daily driving it’s right on point when it comes to offering the convenience of clutch less gearshifts and at the same time, some driving involvement but it’s certainly not the number one choice for this handling track. We had no complaints regarding the steering or the chassis balance on the i20 though. It’s got a decent amount of grip for the power on offer given how narrow and flowy the track was. And for times when we I did go beyond the limits of the front axle’s ability to keep me in line, the i20 didn’t throw any nasty surprises and was actually quite playful as I felt the rear end stepping out slightly every time.
So here’s the thing. I am surprised with the way the new i20 handles and grips. It’s nothing like the roll-y, poll-y original and now with turbo power it’s also quite fast in the straights. Now I wouldn’t have had the same impression driving this car on public roads with so many limitations. I am glad we could make it to NATRAX and experience their incredible test facilities. This extremely technical handling circuit is the perfect proving ground for us to evaluate handling performance and we cannot wait to go back, hopefully with something really special. Fingers crossed.
Pictures by Kaustubh Gandhi