Testdrive With a frugal diesel engine under the hood, the Chevrolet Beat should appeal to buyers looking for low running costs

With the Indian market flooded with small cars, it seems a bit mind numbing to think that there are very few diesel cars in this segment. Finally though, General Motors has come with a diesel offering in its new Chevrolet Beat TCDi. With no real opponents to compete with, the Beat diesel will serve as a tester for all the companies fighting it out in this arena. Has GM really cracked the code? Time to find out.

At the heart of the matter is GM's SDE Smartech motor. This engine is related to the famous four-cylinder Multijet diesel that was jointly developed by GM and Fiat. For the Beat, one cylinder was knocked off that has pared the engine down from 1248cc to 936cc to make it the smallest diesel engine in any car today. However, snipping off a cylinder isn't as easy as it seems. When we tested the Beat petrol, we were impressed by its smoothness and low noise levels and GM engineers have worked very hard to achieve a high level of refinement on the diesel as well. A balancer shaft and vibration dampers have been used to control the typical thrum of a three-cylinder motor. However, it's not that easy in a car as compact as the Beat. There's less bodywork and sheet metal (to absorb noise), and hence diesel clatter and vibrations typically get amplified.

In fact, reducing noise and vibration was the biggest challenge, which slightly delayed the launch of the Beat diesel. But, right from the first crank, you can tell that the hard work has paid off.

Once fired up, the oil burner settles down to a remarkably smooth and quiet idle. Out on the roads, it felt at home in the slow-moving traffic. The small engine ambles around in a higher gear with the rev counter needle hovering above 1000rpm. Step on the gas and the progress is quite languid right until the 1600rpm mark but once the small, fixed-geometry turbo kicks in, you get a respectable and useful step-up in pace. The powerband spreads up to 3500rpm and the short gear ratios, especially first and second, amplify the 15.29kgm of torque to make city driving remarkably easy.

In the powerband, the Beat diesel responds to throttle inputs with an unhurried yet assertive manner. Just don't expect it to be energetic or exciting. In our run from 20-80kph in third gear, the Beat diesel took 14.1 seconds. This is significantly quicker than the Beat petrol (15.9sec). The punchy mid-range can be gauged by the 40-100kph sprint in fourth gear which takes a respectable 16.48sec. Some of this could be handed down to the Beat's kerb weight of 1027kg.

A light diesel thrum builds up beyond the 2500rpm mark and the engine noise becomes pretty apparent. Although it isn't intrusive, the light boom is always present as you zip down the highway at near-triple-digit speeds. The run from 0-100kph takes a relaxed 18.5sec and overtaking manoeuvres are pretty laborious. You have to shift down a gear or two by working the slightly notchy and long-throw gearshift for best results but the lack of top-end punch is always evident. The engine labours to its 5000rpm rev limit and it's best to shift up early.

However, all of the Beat diesel's performance shortcomings can be wiped clean by fuel efficiency figures that would make Uncle Scrooge proud. In our fuel runs, the Beat delivered 19.1kpl out on the highway despite the shorter gearing taking a slight toll there. In the city it delivered an astounding 16kpl, which makes it more efficient than any other car we have tested to date. The frugal nature of the Beat diesel is clearly its trump card.

Apart from dropping in a completely new engine, Chevy has tinkered with the Beat in other areas as well. Out on the highway, the Beat has always been surefooted while offering good ride comfort in the city. GM India has improved the ride further by switching to new gas-charged shock absorbers and wider 165/65-R14 Goodyear rubber. The Beat now rides over rough patches with impressive pliancy and, though it still bobs over the bumps and broken roads, it has pretty good body control. In fact, for such a small car the ride quality is quite good. GM has also replaced the Beat's hydraulic steering system with a sophisticated electrically-powered steering that provides variable assist.

On the inside, the Beat diesel is hard to differentiate from the petrol variant. The plastic quality is generally good but space is as at a premium. The rear feels narrow and cramped while the 170-litre boot is too small for a practical diesel.

The top-end LT(O) variant comes packed with powered windows and automatic air-conditioning. The music system looks the same but it now sports improved sound and a standard, full-sized USB port. ABS and airbags are also on offer. From the outside too, the Beat diesel is identical to the petrol variant. The bratty styling is eye-catching and has a young, hip feel to it. Equipment options include the round fog lamps and 10-spoke alloy wheels. There's only the discreet TCDi badge on the boot to tell you what diet the Beat is running on.

At a price that ranges from Rs. 4.29 lakh to Rs. 4.99 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi) the Beat diesel could dominate a newly-formed sector for some time.