Monday, 15 June 2009

My affair with Trax Gurkha 4x4 (2007)

It was 2006, that time of my life when I wanted to own a 4 wheeler (not that I hated my beloved Bullet). Got introduced to a CJ3B, did a bit of stunts and loved it to bits. However it was a very impractical vehicle to own and you would definitely wanted a car besides the jeep for your daily / long commute. Owning two vehicles were not an option, and my wife wanted a regular passenger vehicle. She did not care on the looks, all she wanted was a comfortable vehicle with A/C (very practical eh..!)

Bolero ? Safari ?......errr...Trax ?

My quest started with Bolero 4x4. Loved the looks of it (thats all I knew about a 4x4 besides the 4x4 switch and front differential..!!), but hated the new design they launched then which was more plasticky. Nevertheless it still was an option, so headed out to Vijai motors and took a look at the vehicle. Did not test drive, but Aug 2006 was my target. By then new Safari had launched and saw a red one on the street,loved that to bits again. This got me into a dilemma, whether to go for a Safari or Bolero ? Safari was way beyond my budget, but that was not as issue, ask me why? Cos it was before the toxic sub prime era,and pushing your loan amount was so cool, get my point ?

Now then began the research around these two vehicles. How worthy are they offroad, whats the maintenance cost, F/E, after sales service etc etc. Thats when I bumped upon, wherein the site owner Ramachandran had some pictures of Bolero getting stuck in what was a silly looking mud trench. His overall experience with Bolero was not all that pleasing and he ended up selling it and buying a Judo 4x4. His web site and the set of pictures kind of inspired me to look towards Force products as an option. Oh..! btw Bolero had vanished from my list by then. After going through the site and understanding more about Trax family, I was introduced to the concept of differential-lock, which all the more swayed me towards them.

The first ever SUV driven by me was a Trax Town & Country. This is owned by one of my good friend in my home town and is actually shared by his brothers, who each run businesses of their own. It's used to transport small amounts of Cement sacks, iron railings after fabrication and attend family functions..!!! I've seen it carry insane amount of loads. The body, interiors are busted, but man, the engine, and the whole mechanicals are unbreakable. What I remember of it now is, being very smooth engine, nice to drive and extremely comfortable where there are more passengers in it. He swears by it even now.

Coming back to my saga, I visited Khivraj in Bangalore to check out if they offer any Force 4x4 with differential locks and the answer was not what I wanted to hear. He did provide me with a Judo brochure and a copy of Overdrive, wherein they had tested the new Gen Gurkha. I must confess I happily read over it several times. Khivraj were not keen on dealing with me when I had my eyes set on something that they couldnot offer easily.

I rung a dealer in Mangalore (my home town) and he was happy to talk in detail and work out the options that are available. So I met Vijay ( a very young entrepreneur ) who owns Mangalore Force and had a detaileddiscussion on what I'm looking for. He said that no products are available off the production line, but insisted that it can be worth a try. He confirmed after verifying Force Motors' order book that similar vehicles(Judo 2750mm with 4x4, diff-locks, AC & PS) are being exported every month. He said he would give his best try to convince Force to manufacture and deliver one to me. In the meantime I got hold of a contact inForce Motors, Akurdi and have been chasing about this. They told me very clearly that manufacturing one vehicle is not an option for Force and they are considering to launch the Gurkha which was test driven by Overdrive, but not sure when. He confirmed that he would be keeping me in loop on any developments.

In the meantime Vijay arranged for a test drive of a Judo 4x4 (no diff locks) in his workshop. The vehicle was very torquey with it's DI (TD2400FT) engine. I could move up a slope in 2nd gear at idle in 2WD mode, wasvery impressed. Vijay even managed to get a quotation from Force and provided me the same so that I can arrange for a bank loan. I must deeply appreciate his endeavour in helping me own this vehicle.

News I was waiting for..

This was in November and while I was about to get into it, I received a fine email from Force Motors informing that a batch of 20 (10 hard top and 10 soft top) Gurkha's will be manufactured for Indian market and will be sold on first come first serve basis. This requires a 2 lakh deposit made directly to Force Motors, payable at Pune. I cannot tell you how excited I was, but it was only short lived. I called up Vijay and he quickly amended my quote from Judo to Gurkha and provided me a new one. I contacted through Vijai and my own contacts all available financiers, but everyone were shocked to hear 'Force' or 'Trax' or 'Gurkha'. I was hitting a dead end as Sundaram, ICICI, HDFC etc were all not willing to provide me an auto loan simply because 'the vehicle was not in their list'..!!!

So close, yet so far..sigh. I made one last ditch attempt knowing that PSU banks are hard nuts to crack, and visited the SBI Personal Finance Bank in Jayanagar 3rd block. As soon as I entered, I was greeted by the Branch Manager. I explained him the situation, i.e I was buying an 'unlisted vehicle' in Mangalore wherein I'm a resident of Bangalore. He was not sure if I should be taking a loan in Bangalore or Mangalore, but did advise me to try as they don't bother what vehicle make / model I purchase. It was a partial relief and I had a sales person from SBI at my doorstep who did the documentation for me. After a good week, he cameback to me saying I would have to apply in Mangalore as the vehicle will be purchased there..:-( So I emailed SBI Personal Banking Branch in Mangalore and I received an instantaneous reply with all the documentation and details I had to provide. I followed the procedure and I was asked, when would I be coming down to collect my cheque..!! Joy Joy..!! thats a bit of surprise isn't it ? SBI did what all other private banking muppets couldn't do.

I wasn't going to pay my booking fee to Force and insisted on paying to my dealer. Dealer wasn't willing to accept it yet as he had not received any confirmation from Force motors. After some intense discussions, Force asked my dealer to accept the cheque and informed me that their commitment to dealer is only by principle. I have no clue what this meant and I did not bother to find out more as I trusted Vijai for further followups.The whole process was finished by december and i was told the vehicle will be delivered by February 15th. I had to send a copy of my payment cheque to Force Motors. I remember someone else from Bangalore had booked directly with Force and after a couple of weeks the payment was returned back, since it had some complications around sales tax. Glad I did it through my dealer.

The long wait......

I took off for a 15 day long motorcycle ride from Delhi, all through Rajasthan and then ride back to Bangalore via Indore, Nagpur & Hyderabad. During one of our lunch stops towards hyderabad, I received a call from Force Pune confirming my booking and the expected delivery date was Feb end, a postponement of 15 days.

Feb end never happened and I kept chasing Force in Pune. All I could understand from them was that there was some trouble with ARAI and they are constantly working on resolving it. Also some components are not being made available by suppliers as it's in such a small number. I wrote a stinking email to high officials in Force Pune about how my money is stuck with them for months and I was not sensing any urgency or concrete commitment from them. I received an indirect response that they are working hardly on it and if I'm impatient I may cancel my order..:-O

In the meantime I had to take up an assignment in the UK and I travelled out of India and one of my friend kept chasing them up. Several months passed and sometime in September Vijai made a trip to Pithampur and informed me that he had queried about my order and the vehicle is being pushed into production line. They are trying hard to release around Diwali. This was the first positive concretely sounding information I had received. Then in November came the good news that my vehicle is being dispatched from Pithampur and will reach Belgaum depot in two days time. Within another day, it will reach Mangalore, I was ecstatic and sad at the same time for not being there.

My friend and my mom received the vehicle and got the Puja done. There were niggling issues around PS belt and fuel guage which was sorted out. My friend did a small off roading, and it passed in flying colours and I needed no more..!

My first impressions...

I visited India in Jan 2008 and got to drive the vehicle first hand. Here are my thoughts

1) Very high seating position (you need to sit in the second row to understand what I'm talking about)

2) Very rough engine, was a bit noisy as well.

3) Very torquey (somehow feel that TD2650 FTI is not as torquey as TD2400 FT, though the figures state otherwise). This maybe due to larger and heavier tyres which were used

4) I was shocked by the vehicle dimensions, looked bigger than I had imagined

5) A/C was super cool and so were long rides (no fatigue)

6) Interiors were bare minimum, but I wasn't expecting anything fancy.

Tried off roading in beach sand (dry) with 8 people in it, and Gurkha just did not sweat. This pleased me very much and realised that this beast is exactly what I wanted. Also my old Trax friend had mentioned to me that engine gets smoother as it is used more and after 20K kms, the engine noise decreases tremendously.
Due to it's IFS setup, it performs very well on tarmac, absorbing deepest of the pot holes with stride. This maybe a disadvantage during off-road due to lack of articulation, but there is diff-lock to negate any loss of traction. There is absolutely no body roll in Gurkha, thanks to anti-roll bars.

During my second visit this April, I realised how true it was, the engine was super smooth and the vehicle felt much better refined. Did some offroading and was pleased with the overall performance.

So here I was, owning a vehicle that is very practical in all circumstances. It did not have great looks inside, but hey the colourful interiors only pleases your eyes and has no purpose. I can offroad without being bothered of any damage in sand, slush, rocks, inclines, dips, water etc. I can go on long drives, use it in city traffic, load more people and haul heavy luggage, all in ONE vehicle..!! This is exactly what I wanted and I'm pretty happy about it.I hope the long term experience turns out to be what I've been told about it so far.

Why so much hassle in dealing with Force Motors ?

I have been strolling through some Internet Forums / automotive community and there is a lot of interest in Gurkha, yet no commitment from prospective buyers. One reason being that Force Motors cannot be trusted and the second being the price. I will try to answer as much as possible here with what I understand after dealing with them for such a long time

1) Consider a nearest & cheapest example of a 4x4 SUV, Bolero. It costs approx 7+ lakhs on road and for a little more you would get a differential lock and much better power train. I know this is arguable, however this is my opinion. I still consider Trax engine to be much better than Mahindra. For the oil cooled piston crown and their reputation to perform like a workhorse "without any failure" make them much better. No surprise that Force offers 3 lakh km or 3 year warranty on their engines. The divorced transfer case and the much renowned G-18/5B gearbox all from original Mercedes design have a proven relability and are known not to fail. (There is an OM616 that is being serviced by my dealer that has run 7 lakh + kms..!!!! The ODO must be tired now.)

2) Judo was the last 4x4 model with diff-lock that was approved to be sold on Indian Market. If they wish to launch another one, it would require ARAI testing and approval, which clearly Force are not willing to do for a small set of orders. People have complained saying 'Why the hell they cannot sell a Gama with 4x4 and diff-lock?' Yes, they cannot, as it's not as easy as selling an existing model with body coloured bumper or new upholstery. Adding a mechanical component requires ARAI testing and approval which as said, they are not willing to take the pain for a short set of customers.

3) Force clearly knows that there is a lot of interest around their products, but hardly any genuine buying ones.

4) They make a lot of International sales in terms of providing a hardcore 4x4 vehicle (trust me I've seen their order book for one particular month), but they failed when they wanted to pitch in the same for Indian Army. I believe cost was the factor here as compared to M&M or Gypsy.Their interest in Indian market is the Toofan / Cruiser segment for Rural market in SUV & Traveller (which is a massive success anyways and there seems to be no competetor). Their business vision seems to be now to expand on heavy vehicle segment which resulted in their collaboration with MAN. All these form a different strategy as compared to M&M and they have no intention to conquer the 4x4 enthusiasts market or eat up the luxury SUV market.

5) Many people claim TD2650FTI is not the same as OM-616. Agreed, however, bar the injection system, the blocks and the underlying cast ingredients are the same as OM-616, so any doubts on how reliable it is can be ruled out.

6) After sales service has been excellent for me. Service engineers at Mangalore Force are excellent and have tackled any issue that I reported bang on. There are experienced mechanics who can handle 4x4 Trax systems and I'm at ease when they are at it.

At the end of the day, Gurkha suited my requirement, i.e one vehicle for all purpose and I ended up buying it. It has satisfied me until now with very limited usage, but I hope the future holds something more sweeter. I was never into"pleasing plastics" vehicle, but wanted a no nonsense performer and I got it. There are many people who look for a curvy dash, body coloured bumper, button position etc etc, but thats not me. I would love to have them but they are not a necessity for me.
There goes the story of my penance to own ehm..hmm the first hard top new Gen Gurkha 4x4 in India..!!!!

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Gentleman's drink

A Scotland trip is incomplete without a Whiskey experience. We had only one option as we stayed near Edinburgh and it turned out be a Classic Malt producer, one of the only 13 Classic Malts to be produced in the world, Glenkinchie Distillery.

Glenkinchie distillery is owned by Diageo group which owns Glenkinchie, Cragganmore, Talisker, Oban, Lagavulin & Royal Lochnagar Classic malts. It owns a total of 27 distilleries around Scotland and produces 6 Classic Malts.

Now, let me not make this a boring read and will illustrate the process of manufacuring a Single Malt and then place some interesting factoids

Process of manufacturing Single Malt

1) A good batch of barley is chosen and it should be high in starch and low on nitrogen to produce good spirit.
2) Barley is then soaked in water for 2-3 days. This swells the grain and it germinates. It is constantly turned so that the shoots and roots don't tangle themselves.
3) The barley seed is then removed from water & spread on the floor to be peat dried. Peat is a decayed vegetation found in highlands. Peating is a process wherein 'Peat' is burnt inside the room where these grains are placed. This gives the grain a distinctive flavour. A heavily peated malt can produce a very strong flavoured whiskey
4) Then the malt is crushed and this resulting malt is called grist.
5) Grist is poured in a container and about 20,000 litres of hot water is added slowly. This solution is mixed wherein sugars from the malt dissolves into the added water. This water is collected and the same is repeated with hotter 20,000 litres of water. This is repeated again with 20K litres of water at boiling point, but this last batch of water is used for the next batch of malt.

6) This 40K litres of 'wash' is stored in washback containers made of wood. This wooden containers can be as old as 50 years.

7) On a seperate container solid yeast is mixed with warm water and added to this washback container.

8) Yeast breaks down sugar into alcohol and the resulting solution is frothy and pungent in smell.

8) once the fermentation is complete, the solution is moved into the first distil
9) Here it is heated upto 83 deg C. Alcohol vapours are collected and passed through winding coils where it is cooled with water causing condensation. THe resulting spirit contains 24% alcohol

10) This liquid is sent to the second distil and heated at 93 deg C. Alcohol vapours flow upwards and pass through the condensation chamber. This resulting alcohol is 70% in strength. Shape of these distil is such that some alcohol vapours are trapped enroute upwards and are sent back, enhancing spirit strength.

11) Resulting alcohol is mixed with some of the first distilled spirit to produce the final spirit of strength 63.5% alcohol, which is a govt norm.
12) This spirit is then matured in Oak / Sherry casks for several years. Govt norms specify that for a whiskey to be called scotch it needs to be matured for a min of 3 years. During this process Whiskey gets it's golden colour and also loses 2% alcohol per year. Traditionally this loss is called as Angel's Share.
13) Govt norms indicate that a Scotch should have atleast 40% alcohol level, and hence it is diluted to reach roughly 40 - 45% alcohol level. Some Malt's are bottled directly from the cask and can have more than 55% alcohol.
14) Now the Whiskey is ready to be bottled.

Interesting factoids:

1) Malt whiskey is produced from 100% Barley.
2) Single Malt is a Malt Whiskey produced from 'One' distillery only.
3) Double Malt, Triple Malt are a combination of two and three malt respectively
4) Grain whiskey is a whiskey produced from multiple grains, i.e barley, wheat, maize or oat
5) Blend whiskey is a combination of several grain and malt whiskey. Roughly 40% malt and 60% grain. Popular blend whiskies are Johnie Walker, Bells etc
6) Only 10% of Single Malt ever produced is sold as is and rest of them are sold to Blend brands
7) Over 900 thousand litres of Whiskey has been consumed by Angels (See point 12 above)
8) Natural Spring water is used in the production of Single Malt and the quality of this water can affect the Whiskey's character
9) In addition to water, quality of barley and the region where it was grown, peat, quality of washback vessel, temperature of water, distill, environment, casks used can affect a whiskey's character, strength & flavour.
10) The only ingredient used is barley, water and yeast, yet a Single Malt is very expensive. Thats because the UK govt tax on Single Malt is a whopping 77%..!!!
11) Whiskey is best enjoyed in a glass that narrows down through the opening which helps preserve it's flavour.
12) Enjoying Whiskey is purely a personal choice. To best enjoy, the first sip should be had neat with a mouthful taken and swallowed immediately. After the first sip couple of drops of water to be added and you can watch the scotch release it's oils which it would have accrued from the oak / sherry casks. This releases the flavour of the whiskey and can be more enjoyable
13) To measure a strength of Whiskey, it should be poured to a glass, swirled around and held under light. A thin leg is formed in the center which is called the 'Leg of a Whiskey'. The shorter it stays, the milder it is.

So those were the interesting process and factoids for you. At the end of this trip, we were given with a sample of Glenkinchie. As I was reading through all of their single Malt's a specific malt produced in Isle of Skye called Talisker caught my eye. It was considered to be having a spicy, salty flavour and I requested a sample of this. Our guide said that she wasn't surprised at my choice as this is the favourite Single Malt of Indian Army and is continuously imported by them.

It was an enlightening trip for a Whiskey lover like me and Prathima walked out enlightened as well. I can now see a partner who can share a drink with me here.

As I kicked off writing this blog, I have finished my drink and feel the need for a second of this 'Gentleman's drink'. Cheers and enjoy your Whiskey responsibly..!!!

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Mormon muppets..

Prelude: Mormon is a Christian sect, predominant in the Americas and Australia. It is known for being a male dominant society where women are meant to bear children only. Working women are forbidden and their path to heaven gets closer as they bear more and more children. Young males after their college (approx 21 yrs) are sent away from home to UTAH to learn and practice their culture and rituals. Each male is assigned with another male partner and they spend quite some time at the church. After their initial stint at the church they are assigned to some part of the globe (all expenses paid) where they are supposed to indulge themselves in the service of god and activities of the church. They are forbidden to even call home and talk to their parents (except for Christmas and Easter). Once they return back to their home, they can resume a normal life. This exercise gets oneself even more closer to the church and Christianity on the whole.

(Above information was gathered from a person who was born and raised in a Mormon family, but no longer follows this religion / sect. She was forbidden by her family & relatives for moving away from Mormonism).

Main: It was a windy day in London and I was on my way back from work. It was about 1745 and was walking back home. I was stopped by two smartly dressed gentlemen with a badge on their breast and an interesting conversation followed (he will be addressed as a Mormon),

Mormon: Hello Sir, Myself Simon and I'm from California USA. Where are you from?
Me: I'm from India
Mormon: Ah, sweet, do you belive in God ?
Me: No I don't
Mormon: No you don't ? So what do you believe in ?
Me: I believe in eat, sleep and have fun
Mormon: Ok, so you dont believe in God. Let me tell you something....if an Orange falls on the ground and bruises itself and then you pick it up an cut it open, the fruit is still available for you to eat even if the fruit bears all the bruises....what do you say about that? You think there is no God ?
Me: No there is no God. You can still eat the fruit because they are tough skinned and thats how they are. Thats nature
Mormon: Look at you, you were born and living through your wonderful life, you think there is no God ?
Me: Nope, My parents are responsible for my birth and I've still not crossed an average lifespan of a human being, hence I'm alive and kicking..
Mormon: But Sir you are standing here in front of me..(before he could continue)
Me: ...thats because I was heading home from the train station and you folks stopped me.
Mormon: Allright, have a good evening Sir, Bye

At the end of it, I was satisfied that I was able to give back sweetly for the same people who openly spread the biggest virus in our society..RELIGION.

I still dont understand how so many people attribute anything and everything to this imaginary supernatural power called GOD. Why doesnt one understand the fact that 'you reap what you sow' and all miracles are attributed to one's mental state and this whole bloody thing is not any rocket science. It is as simple as my answers above and there are better things to ponder about in life isn't it ?

He probably moved on spreading his propaganda and I'm sure if there exists any GOD, he must be laughing at these Mormon muppets.