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My Favorite Value-for-Money Brands – The Top 10 List

20 Dec

I used to be a real spendthrift during my late 20s and early 30s! High income clubbed with single life abroad was like perfect recipe for personal finance disaster. It was the time when I started falling in love with designer brands that offered little value in life but made myself a self-proclaimed somebody else :-) I must confess that I spent a significant part of my life wasting money over those famous brand names that every one of my age group then probably wanted or were envious about.

The craving for designer brands ended once I started my married life when the reality injected some good sense into my head. That’s when I started realizing the value of going for products that offer value and quality for the price you pay. While some of these products may not be exactly cheap, they definitely do offer great value for money in the long run.

Once I started using those value-for-money products, I involuntarily started liking the brands or companies that produced these amazing products. This blog post is about the brands that have added value in my life in the long run.

My top 10 favorite brands

When I talk about a real brand (other than FMCG) that I am in love with for at least 35 years now, I have to start with Panasonic.

1. Panasonic

I first saw a Panasonic (National Panasonic to be precise) stereo tape recorder as a five or six year old child. During those days, a National Panasonic boom box or stereo was one of the most valuable things that a Keralite who returned from ‘the Gelf or Persia’ would bring in. I am talking about the pre-VCR era and post-valve radio period.

national panasonic boombox

National Panasonic Boombox - Picture courtesy: stereo2go.com

I attached myself to the Panasonic brand from those robust boombox days itself and started familiarizing with their other products as I grew.

Today, I am a big Panasonic fan and have used at least 8 to 10 of their products to satisfaction over the past several years. There are some categories where a Panasonic is simply the best – e.g. Cordless phones or Rice cooker etc. Among the
Panasonics that we have at home as of today include:

– Our Panasonic plasma TV
– A cordless phone (that I purchased 15 years back and still working)
– Two electric rice cookers
– A mixer grinder (awesome product!)
– An electric shaver
– A super silent hair dryer (latest addition)

panasonic mixer blender rice cooker

Well, the audio systems themselves underwent a lot of changes and hence I don’t know how the Panasonic stereos or boomboxes are doing now. But I definitely love their other products (may be except their recent entry into smartphones)

Philips is another brand I familiarized and started liking at the same time – particularly due to their lighting options, radios etc. However, in my mind, Panasonic still has the highest value for money.

2. Raymond’s Park Avenue

This must be one Indian brand that every working professional in this country must be familiar with and proud of for years now. I doubt if there’s a single middle class executive in India who didn’t own a pair of Raymond’s trousers in his life. In fact, I haven’t seen any cloth item that’s so durable and offers good looks at the same time for the money spent.

Further, I see that most people who went for their first suit or blazer naturally went with a Raymond’s Park Avenue.

(By the way, I do not use a Park Avenue on a regular basis any longer as I have stopped wearing formals. However, I still do have a couple of them in my wardrobe)

3. Titan (formal watches)

Okay, I am not here to talk about Tanishq, Fastrack or other late entrants from the Titan family. But a Titan Quartz formal watch is a high value for money watch and the one I own for the past 18 years still works like a charm whenever the battery is replaced in a timely manner.

If I remember correctly, I had paid something like Rs. 1200/- for this watch (in the picture) way back in 1995 or 96. Of course, I don’t use it as often as I used to do 10 years ago but even with a couple of other watches in my collection, I never forget to wear this little formal Titan once in a while.

titan formal watches

4. Zodiac – formal shirts

Zodiac is another Indian brand that I started liking after I got my first job. In fact, at one point of time, I remember ditching all other shirt brand and going outright for Zodiac when I had to relocate to US for the purpose of my consulting job.

Years down the line, while there are dozens of choices available when it comes to clothing brands, Zodiac still continues to be my favorite. I haven’t bought a formal shirt for a few years now, but when I do it will again be a Zodiac.

Their ZOD! Clubwear is another brand that needs a mention. At one point of time – perhaps 12 years ago – it was probably the only option if you had to pick a party wear for men. I still have a couple of them in my wardrobe that’s not used for quite some time now but is still in a highly usable condition apart from being the perfectly fitting shirt. Well, these shirts are not exactly cheap but serves you well (just like Raymond’s) in terms of fit and finish for a long time not to mention that they continue to equip their shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons even after several years into starting that practice.

5. Reynolds (ball-point pens)

This is no-brainer! Reynolds – among the ball-point pens – is the first one that I liked ever since we got the very first chance to switch over from those leaking fountain pens. By the way, I indeed liked the hero fountain pens as mentioned in an old post but Reynolds offered more freedom and resulted in better looking note books.

Even before Reynolds pens entered the Indian market; it was a popular name in our households – thanks again to the relatives working in the Gulf countries.

I still consider it as a value-for-money brand although the quality seems to have deteriorated a bit ever since their Indian entry in the early 90s.

6. Hitachi

Just like the brand Panasonic, yet another consumer durables brand that I like a lot is Hitachi – particularly due to their Air conditioners (and fridges too). While, one doesn’t go out and buy a Hitachi product on a regular basis, it is peace of mind once you own a 5-star energy rated product from Hitachi. Even better, they are like silent work horses that keep your mind away from regular repair related botheration.

I love Hitachi as a brand!

7. Polaroid – sun glasses

The Polaroids that one could wear even during night driving / riding have been my favorite list for the past 10 or 15 years now. In between, I switched a couple of driving glasses / fashion sun glasses but nothing offered the utility that came with a Polaroid

It is just amazing how those cool looking designer brands come nowhere close to a Polaroid in terms of real use and value for money.

8. Emami as a brand

Probably the only cosmetic item – other than my deos – I have to ever use in my life is the cold cream. And the best value for money cold cream that I have seen so far is the Emami cold cream which is priced almost one-third of typical brands like Ponds.

Emami is yet another Indian brand that’s synonymous to value and culture for the Indians. Their Himani Navaratna oil, Boroplus cream, powder, facewash etc are rightly priced products that understand the Indian audience well.

9. Oral B (dental floss)

Dental floss is something that I can’t live without and ever since I started flossing (at least 15 years now), I have been using the Oral B floss. Why Oral B? Because that’s the thinnest possible floss that I could find in the local market. The other brands like Colgate are much thicker flosses and very plain too while Oral B has a fresh minty flavor to it.

Overall, it helps maintain the dental hygiene at a reasonable price. I like this brand mainly because there are very few options in India when it comes to Dental hygiene products.

10. Pears soap

This is one brand that I have used for at least 90% of my life so far because even my father used the same and I have been seeing it since my birth. During my twenties, I switched to men’s lifestyle bath soap brands like Park Avenue or Aramusk but I knew that I was never going to patronize with such brands.

While the Pears bath soap has degraded a bit in its cut, shape and quality over the years, it’s still a decent Glycerine soap to help with a fresh shower.

[By the way, I just recalled an incident that took place some 32 years ago. My father, in fact, wrote to Hindustan Lever the first time they changed its shape of Pears to make it flattened and thinner. His queries were, then, answered by the customer care department in a personal letter. A couple of years from then, they reinstated the shape but the the beautiful cut was gone forever. Now, it looks like an unfinished product though the soap quality is still good if not the best]

Some more value brands

Well, there are a number of other things that I started liking at various stages of my life.

The super silent Crompton Greaves ceiling fans are one such brand that keeps me happy and amazed from the time I first saw it. We still have one in my house back home and even after 35 years of its heavy usage, it hasn’t failed even once. The regulator was damaged once but never the fan.

Colgate Pax Fresh Tea is an awesome mouthwash product that I found to be very gentle and fresh at the same time. It’s not too expensive either.

Another product I like for its pricing and quality is Himalaya Whitening Herbal toothpaste – it’s not too coarse; it is rightly priced and very effective.

As for the shaving systems, the Gillette Prestobarbara ready shaver at 22 rupees or so is a great bargain and it’s good for a couple of clean shaves.

Washing machines from Siemens are in my quality products list too, but since they are so expensive, I am not mentioning it in the value-for-money list.

The list could go on. But what I have learned in the process is that, beyond the upfront cost involved, there’s something called customer support, long term returns in terms of quality and satisfaction. That’s what make some of these products stand out.

And well, I know that you could disagree with some of my picks so let me know your list of best brands that offer value.

Landmark Forum Review – Scam, Cult or Pyramid Scheme?

18 Dec

I attended the Landmark Forum in Bangalore over this weekend (14-18 December 2012). The reason to join the Landmark Forum – henceforth referred to as LF – was an interesting narration of experience by a good neighbor friend who was hugely benefited by attending the forum a couple of years ago. Seeing a few positive differences in him for the last couple of years in terms of career and energy levels, I thought of trying it out at my own will and NOT influenced by any individual as such (I hear that many of the sign up under pressure from a loved one or people that matter)

Based on my experience at the Landmark Forum, let me give you some information on what it’s all about, whether it works for all and what to expect at the Landmark Forum.

What is Landmark Forum?

The Landmark Forum or LF is the FIRST in the series of the many personal development courses that the Landmark Education offers. Once signed up for the LF, your life doesn’t end with the forum itself. A series of other courses namely Landmark Advanced Course, Landmark Course for Leadership and Self Expression, Various weekly seminars (seminars come at a fee in some countries, but free in India) and other courses follow the forum itself. And this process takes a few months or years based on how many courses you take. However, you have the opportunity to stop with the 3.5 days long Landmark Forum itself.

The LF invariably happens across the weekend starting on a Friday at 9AM and ending on Sunday night at around 11:30PM. In addition, there is an evening session on the following Tuesday from 7:00PM to 10:30PM. Each day (i.e. Friday to Sunday) is rather long and ends at only around midnight. There will be four continuous sessions of about 2.5 hours long each day and you get one hour lunch & dinner break another half an hour break in between. Please note that there is no lunch, dinner or tea/coffee provided on the premises and only drinking water will be available. It’s hence a very stressful three days because even during the breaks, there will be assignments that need to be completed which includes written assignments, calling up people etc.

At the moment, the three and half days LF costs about Rs.10,000/- in India and I hear that it costs around $500 in the US. People from all walks of life and in all age groups above 15 years can attend the LF. There is a separate course for kids in the age group of 8 to 12.

Usually you can expect anywhere between 50 to 500 participants in each forum. In Indian conditions, it’s usually 250 people upwards in each session. The same content and the same delivery method is practiced across all countries though the ‘Coach’ who delivers the forum in India is mostly an Indian leader – one of the 55 Landmark Forum leaders worldwide, in his own words.

How does the Landmark Forum work?

The Landmark Forum’s approach is to deliver their course modules from their bible (same for all countries) by the leader who sits on high chair on the stage. The participants sit in the stand listening to his sermons. One thing I liked about the forum is that they do not use any Powerpoint presentation or slideshow to deliver the speech. The leader starts with welcoming you by explaining the rules of the forum – those who are not willing to abide by the rule can leave the forum in the first half an hour with their money refunded.

The typical rules are:

  • Your commitment and ‘word’ to complete the forum as per its design
  • In order to achieve the extra ordinary life (powerful living, new possibilities etc) after attending the forum, you must agree that you are ‘coachable’ by the LF leader
  • You must adhere to the forum timings and complete all assignments
  • One should not consume any alcohol or drugs till the forum completes on Tuesday. You shouldn’t start any new medication either – of course one can continue the medications he/she is already on. The participants cannot take pain killers like Aspirin after the long day but the leader will promise to teach you some tricks to get rid of your headache or body pain
  • People with clinical psychological conditions cannot attend the forum and so are the people come under the categories of the forum’s legal/content/general agreement – A six page agreement that you have to sign to protect from any legal proceedings

A couple of people from the forum left during the introductory speech itself after hearing the coach’s tone but I decided to hold on to become the so-called ‘Landmark Forum Graduate’ who can lead an extra ordinary life at some point – or right after the 3.5 days course as promised.

What to expect on the first day?

As per the coach, the LF is all about ‘Transformative’ learning model based on ‘Ontology’principles and not informative learning. Hence, you must be willing to be abide by all rules to transform yourself and the people that matter to you towards an extra-ordinary life in the offing post the forum.

50% of the first day (Friday) goes on with the coach delivering his speech in a way to highlight how the Landmark forum is going to transform you and how you have to be ‘enroll’ to the idea in order to discover ‘new possibilities’ in life. They use terminologies such as ‘already always listening’, ‘vicious circle’, ‘context’ and ‘rackets’ on the first day. Essentially, it’s about your prejudices in life based on what you were taught by your predecessors, somebody’s actions and your wrong interpretations, how your justified behaviors are in fact of pain to others or people ‘you are inauthentic with’, in their terminology.

(A word of caution: The definitions in the Landmark bible is meant to confuse people who talk and understand normal English. Some of those theories may sound reasonable if explained in plain English but ridiculous and defies common sense when explained in their language. But if you question the leader, you get trashed and I shall explain how)

The breaks during the first day and all night breaks will be used for assignments that include writing about your rackets, people whom you have been inauthentic with (in your behavior, anger, neglecting, abusing whatever) and calling them up to convince them (enrolling as they call) about how they can also lead an extra ordinary life by enrolling into these philosophies. The leader from time to time will remind you that those people should be called along for the fourth day’s evening session to listen to your and LF’s revelations.

The shameless marketing (of sorts) about the Landmark Forum and extra ordinary benefits in offer will continue during 50% of day one. The leader will remind you of the need to be enrolling which essentially mean that you are required to share your new possibilities in such a way that others are touched, moved and inspired (and finally literally enrolled to the Landmark forum)

The method of LF speeches & Interaction

The following is what to expect during the first three days in terms of the leader – forum members interactions.

  • The leader will be modulating his voice from low to exceptionally high volume from time to time. It will be so loud at times that most weak-hearted people will shiver and keep silence. The modus operandi is instilling fear in people, make them weak and force them buy into the ideas discussed
  • Even if you ask any questions about your particular problem or forum content, it’s most likely that you are yelled at (after inviting you to the mic near the stage) and called ‘you ordinary idiot leading an ordinary sham life’, ‘you jerk you have the courage to think so’, ‘you are disgusting’, ‘it’s your pathetic analytical mind that’s talking’, ‘you arrogant jerk’ etc. Be prepared to hear that and much more than that
  • It’s highly likely that the leader come really hard on people with bigger egos (e.g. a few IIT graduates, the so-called highly successful people in life, rich people etc)
  • The leader in our case also cut some good jokes in between his yelling and shouts during delivery. I must really admit that he possessed a very good sense of humor when talking about our life situations. That’s the way things are delivered in the first two days – Suppressing your ego and breaking it is the first step by defaming you in public. Many people will breakdown in this process and become silent there after or listen to him completely
  • In the case of relationship issues, you will be forced to call up your partner or the person with whom you have an issue regardless of where the problem lies. So it’s like the one-size fits all kind of delivery when it comes to LF

Second day

The second day is pretty much about topics like ‘I’ and your ‘Identity’. In the process, they will also talk about a new world and a new language to take you to newer heights. It also talks about anxiety, fear and some exercises to observe the fear and overcome it. At the end of the meditation-like exercise, some attendees revealed that their fear is gone and they will share the freedom and relief that they are enjoying on the stage mic. Others who didn’t feel any difference will be told that the fear will be always there and you have to live with it. Ridiculous at this point! You will be also asked to an assignment on three bold decisions that you would take at that moment.

The second day’s assignment will again include convincing people about enrolling your ideas. This part, at this point, will go to the nasty level of influencing people to join the Landmark Forum where as they try their best to explain that ‘Enrollment of ideas’ is different from ‘Registration’. Landmark forum’s shameless MLM (Multi-Level Marketing or Pyramid scheme) style of marketing starts on the first and second day itself. The only difference is that you as a member don’t get paid to enroll more people. And the enrollment (or registration) of more people is achieved via some kind of emotional arm-twisting and by bruising your ego by calling you a ‘shameless and arrogant jerk without integrity’ several times.

At this point, i.e. at 11PM on the second day’, I told the coach that I cannot do the second assignment of enrolling people. I was called to the stage and asked questions like ‘What is enrollment?, ‘Are you coachable?’. He kept shouting at me about my arrogance, ego and shameless behavior and called me a jerk and an idiot with an analytical mind etc. I replied that I am coachable and agree to most of the content but not an unreasonable assignment. My thought was that, if I am benefited from LF content and course, I would anyhow ask people to join LF but why even before seeing any benefit at all?

He then pronounced that due to my arrogant behavior my wife and kids are struggling for years. He pronounced that even people like Rahul Dravid who attended the Landmark forum was very humble and felt that I do not seem to be coachable unless I agree to all rules. I said, I still have my conviction and analytical brain working even after two days of the forum and until I am convinced, I am not going to enroll people or do that part of the assignment.

After about 10 minutes of argument, he asked me to get out by taking money instead of spoiling the spirit of the forum. Obviously, a few more hands had risen in my support and he felt the threat of sabotaging the cause. I obliged stating that I am not convinced about their unreasonable marketing strategy and hence quitting. I was really boiling, I wanted to call him all that he had called me in the name of ‘coaching’ me but I thought that would affect a fraction of the people who were seemingly satisfied and benefitted having attended the forum.

(The leader called me up the next day, apologized for his rude behavior and asked me to come back. May be that was part of the strategy so that they don’t get sued for emotional abuse despite taking a lot of signed agreement from the participants. He said he’s keeping his ‘word’ of refunding the money. I said I don’t care about the money but your unethical marketing practices. And my Landmark Forum ended there after two whole stressful days!).

The third day

Though, I didn’t attend the third day, it seems that’s when the whole lot of change will happen. In fact, at the end of first and second day, the leader will keep shouting that the forum has not even started but you are already feeling change etc. Things are supposed to be changing dramatically on the third day just like putting on a ‘Switch’. So I called up a couple of attendees whom I had met on the forum and they had mixed opinions on the Landmark Forum’s third day.

Many of the attendees believed that on third day, incidents from their past (in fact, an assignment from second day end) will be analyzed that would have shaped your characteristics as they are today. There will be sermons on how permanent transformation can be achieved by redefining ourselves etc.

Essentially after three days of stressful attending and a few phone calls you will be somehow convinced that life is meaningless and you have the power to make choices, deal with situations etc. All the stress that you went through and the revelations, apologies (you make many of them and cry during the first two days) made by the participants would be relieved by now and you will suddenly feel power – some of the attendees, that is. To me, this sounds quite natural. You were stressed, made look like a fool in the forum, your ego totally busted, tranquilized and at the end you were pronounced powerful and winner. Many weak-hearted people attending the forum at this point would feel happy and relieved and hence would feel that attending LF really helped them. But if you ask anybody to explain how they feel or tangible result – even after many weeks, months of attending even the advanced course – they may not be able to explain it.

(By the way, in order to make your transformation more meaningful and permanent, you will be asked to continue with the seminar series and then the paid Advanced course)

Does the Landmark Forum (LF) Work for all?

In my opinion, it works for a sub-set of people who have been carrying the guilt throughout their life due to infidelity, crimes done in the past, estranged relationships, unethical practices and specific fear of something in life might just find the forum as a great platform to confess and subsequently call up the affected people t apologize. If those people (e.g. parents) are not alive, you even have the opportunity to write an apologetic letter to them during the course. Essentially the confessions and the philosophies in the forum make such people relieved.

For most other people – who live a normal life without many issues – it’s not going to work. But even these people will not admit that LF didn’t work for them because they don’t want themselves look like fools or prey to the LF tactics that tamed them. Essentially don’t even think of attending LF if you are just going through normal mid-life crisis, predictable boss-subordinate issues, MIL-DIL issues, short-term career issues etc.

Due to the very reason that it works for some people, I don’t call LF a scam. It’s a different way of addressing your issues in life and get rid of fear. But if you would ask me, I would go for a good counselor along with the affected parties if I have any issue of that sort. That would be way better than reverting to a big forum and a lame Landmark Forum leader or coach (An extra-ordinary jerk, I must say) to solve my issues.

It’s not a Cult because they don’t associate themselves with any religious acts or even acts of crime or anti-social activities. Also, LF participation or further courses are completely at your will though they will brainwash you to the core to get as much sign-ups as possible. Signing up for LF forum don’t make you anti-social or make you stay away from normal living and hence it’s no cult at all.

Shameless Marketing

They don’t do MLM or pyramid scheme in a sense that whoever signs up new people are not actually getting monetarily benefited. But in reality, it’s nothing but a very successful Viral marketing strategy that they have smartly invented.

The evening session on Tuesday is all about shameless marketing that the gathering (your invitees with whom you are ‘inauthentic’ with and hence apologized) has to experience. This marketing takes place in a very convincing manner that you will be forced to sign up your dear ones and friends for this. Most of the attendees will fall for this strategy since they are forcibly contacted by the forum members who even apologized to them as per the plan. This works like wonders because the evening gathering thinks that their wards are transformed in just 3.5 days (with all those apology, letters, tears etc). In reality, it’s more like a emotional brainwashing.

And during the second day itself, there will be announcements about the Landmark Advanced Course which they will market so convincingly that even before seeing any result from LF, many people will sign up for this. They will say that in five days time, the Advance course prices are going up by 50% or so and you have one last day today (or latest by next day) to sign-up for the future course at the discounted price. And you won’t believe, many of the fools fell for that.

Final Verdict

Well, if you are one of those who are living under some stress and badly want to vomit out one of your wrong doings or regret from the past thereby relieving a bit, then LF is for you. But then, be warned that in order to address such issues, you don’t really need a forum such as Landmark but take the help of a good counselor.

In order to protect and respect the privacy of those who took part in the forum with me, I do not want to go into the details of what kind of issues and confessions people made. But there were real extreme cases of crime, infidelity, extranged-abusive relationships, extra-marital affairs, sex-maniac behaviors, dangerous obsessions, drug abuse etc that forced some of them to participate in the forums. And some others, without any issues at all, were forced to sign up by their wards – may be after being part of the evening session sometime in the past. The leader was trying his best to prove that even such people’s life (those sexagenarians and happy senior citizens) is sham, disgusting and they need a transformation in life. All these sermons were really frustrating for anyone who has led his/her life following some ethics and who were brought up with good values in life.

Essentially it didn’t work for me and I am sure it wouldn’t work for people like me. As a matter of fact, LF itself agrees that the program doesn’t work for all. Even worse, there have been incidents of suicide, extreme mental conditions and prolonged trauma reported during and after attending of the LF forum. LF themselves have admitted to such incidents though the occurrence of such extreme incidents have been rather rare compared to the number of people attended the Landmark Forum.

Hence before signing up with the Landmark forum, please think for yourself and read carefully the agreement that you are signing!

Renault Duster India – Road Test and Review

26 Jul

Renualt Duster in IndiaI have been longing for an affordable 5-seater SUV in India for a long time. The likes of Honda CRV – and even Skoda Yeti for that matter – is out of my reach while stuff like Mahindra Thar (though not exactly a five seater) are more for adventurous stags or Army people. I got really excited when Renault launched their mini SUV the Renault Duster in India (Dacia Duster in Europe) and I actually test drove it last evening in Bangalore. Now, is it worth all that excitement and hype? Let us find out.

Review material

The variant I tested was a white colored 110HP Diesel high end version without the option pack. i.e. Duster (D) – RXZ. This model costs 11,04,702 Ex-showroom which means around 13.65L on road in Bangalore – thanks to the high Road tax that we have here. If you were to take the option pack (leather seats and wood finish on inside door handles) the price goes up to 11,35,102 (Ex) and 14,01,131 (On road) respectively for the high end Diesel variant. 14 lakhs is a big amount and hence the expectations were really high for me.

renault duster review car

Review Material - Sorry for the poor mobile pic

Renault Duster – Exteriors

From its high and wide stands, I must say that it’s one of the good looking vehicles in that price range – especially since I have had my reservations about the rear styling of SUVs such as Mahindra XUV-500 and Skoda Yeti. As for the Duster, it looks good from almost all angles. The muscular looking wheel archs and chromy grilles with nicely designed headlamps add to the punch. If something has to be improved in the exterior, that’s the poor looking alloy wheels (design wise), the door handles and perhaps the black plastics on the air dam. May be the plastic part can be camouflaged with a nice looking IND license plate? Despite minor hitches, I give a 4 / 5 for its exterior design.

Interiors

Now, let us open the door to get to see the problems right away! The door of the Renault Duster showed the poor engineering and ‘Indianising goals’ behind. It opened almost like an Ambassador or Tata Sumo – Well, it’s good to be heavy but the doors should offer firm and predictable movement. We are talking about a vehicle that has hardly run 5000 kms and that’s a minor engineering disappointment – but nothing compared to what is expected further inside.

renault duster dashboard

The dashboard is not as good as it looks in the picture

The photos of the Renault Duster interiors looked stunning on the web and in their commercials but I must warn you that you will be thoroughly disappointed when you take a closer look. The beige and black rough plastic combo on the dashboard looks and feels pathetic. I mean really P-A-T-H-E-T-I-C when compared to any vehicle with that kind of a price tag. It definitely looks like it was made solely with the final price tag in mind. And the typical Renault AC vents and poorly designed controls positioning adds to the misery. There’s a factory fitted entertainment unit which looks (and sound) cheap but the gear knob and the steering column looked decent. The blue tooth and audio controls are positioned at a weird location right behind the steering wheel right hand side and looks like the steering column design was reused from the Europe (blinker control is on left and wiper lever on right). Overall, I was in a confused state after seeing all the mess out there. I couldn’t really find a single control where I would expect it naturally – probably horn being an exception ?

Talking about the door panel garnishes and seat fabric – it is pretty much of the same poor quality as the plastics – Very bad looking and taxi quality, I would say. The option pack comes with a wooden trim as per the sales guy (chrome as per the manual) but the one I drove had highly glossy black plastic handles that was gross. The floor carpeting was equally bad with thin looking material all around.

The other weird thing was the rear seat A/C vent that juts out too much into almost the private parts of the rear middle passenger. This is the first time I am seeing something like that on a car. Probably, they could have changed the orientation of that unit to the front to create a beautiful armrest for the driver.

Overall, I would give a 2 / 5 for Duster interiors and if you ask me this is the single most reason why I wouldn’t buy this vehicle. I mean, you can change pretty much everything else including alloys, upgrading tyre sizes, leather seats but what the hell can you do about the dashboard?

The Engine, Gear box and Driving experience

Time for some action. I started the engine with the windows rolled up. The engine gave a nice grunt and with all that poor plastic assembly, it still wasn’t all that noisy inside the cabin if not silent. The sales person gently reminded not to lift the little ring on the gear lever or else I may engage the reverse gear. Yes, we have a 6-speed Gear box in Duster and the reverse as well as the first gear has to be engaged to extreme left towards the front. However, on engaging the reverse gear there’s useful beep that reminds me where you are at.

I took of the vehicle and I liked its heaviness and pull. This vehicle – at a low weight of 1150Kgs or so – actually felt stable and nice. Slightly higher seating position actually don’t feel weird and it feels almost like a car. The visibility towards front and sides is excellent while the smaller and roundish back light (rear windshield) restricted my viewable area a bit, I thought.

Before I joined the highway, I had a stretch of almost non-existing entrance to the road (Bangalore roads!!!). The high ground clearance (205mm) and mini-offroader like capabilities helped me to maneuver to the main road pretty easily. Actually the 2WD vehicle almost felt like a 4×4 off-roader in lower gears. Very nice indeed!

As for the power, the engine is smooth in all gears. It didn’t knock when I was slowly moving under 10Kms/hr in 2nd gear, nor it complained when moving in 4th gear at 35km/hr. Excellent vehicle for very bad city traffic conditions, I must say. When I accelerated gradually, I could feel the turbo charger kicking in between 1700 and 1800 RPM. This is very good because when you need power in 2nd or 3rd gear you can avail it. The best thing I liked about this vehicle is its 6-speed gear box under which the car never complains. However, I didn’t ride too long with the sixth gear, I must add here. Overall, it is not a very powerful engine but adequate and felt nice. I am sure it should do good on highways as well with the overdrive options.

The ride quality is very good and so is the cornering without any sort of body rolling. i.e. even while making good use of its very low turning radius (5.2m), it didn’t give any hint of instability. In fact, on all types of roads and in all speeds it was pretty good. I particularly liked the electro-hydraulic steering which wasn’t butter smooth like some cars but nice and firm. It felt firm and nice. And at 248Nm torque, I would think that it can easily pull some weight without taking toll on your fuel bill. The sales man claimed that it would give a mileage of 13-14km/ltr of diesel in city traffic conditions, which I tend to believe.

A mention about the brakes (front disc and rear drum) – the top variants are equipped with ABS, EBD and Brake assist which together does a good job in my braking experience on gravel roads.

Overall, I liked the way the 1.5 litre dCI engine behaved assisted by a good gear box. I would give 4 / 5 for the engine and gear box.

Other features

renault duster alloys

Poor looking Alloys - probably the only bad thing about Duster's exterior design


The top variants are equipped with almost all that you can ask for – Airbags, 2DIN integrated audio entertainment, a 12V socket, USB-Aux in, keyless entry, Electrically adjustable ORVMs (not electrically foldable), blue tooth, reverse parking sensors and there was even a switch to turn off the parking sensors. It all boils down to getting used to where these switches actually are! Overall, for its price, I must say that this vehicle is feature rich.

Summary

Overall I would say that the Renault Duster in India is a failure in terms not living up to its brand image – every other Renault model is good looking in its class, I would say (Fluence, Koleos and even Pulse) . As I mentioned above, if they had worked on the interiors and increased the price by 1 lakh, I would have still bought this vehicle. And that’s the exact message that should go to Renault from the Indian consumers. Let them not end up like other foreign car manufacturers who initially offer quality and then start the cost-cutting there by providing cheap stuff for the Indian consumers.

Having said that , there is a lot of buzz and excitement from the taxi crowd for the 85BHP diesel model that starts at 8 Lakhs (Ex) and offers excellent mileage. I wouldn’t surprised if that becomes a huge hit but the higher segment thoroughly disappoints.

What I liked the best about this vehicle?

  • Exterior looks and styling
  • Pricing of the Diesel variants
  • Reasonably powerful and responsive engine
  • 6-speed gearbox
  • Drivability and composure of the vehicle including minimal off-roading capabilities
  • Huge trunk space (475 Litres)
  • Claimed mileage
  • Low turning radius and high ground clearance

What I hated the most?

  • Cheap interior plastics and fabrics (say that 100 times) – Can’t do anything about it!
  • Alloy wheels design and tyre (need to upgrade to 235, manageable)
  • Protruding rear A/C vents (somewhat ok)
  • Positioning of the controls (still ok)
  • Service attitude (Are Mahindra people still at Renault?) (still ok)
  • Not a 4×4 (still ok)

Overall Rating: 2.5 / 5

(The rating would have easily become 3.75 had they provided good interiors)

If you happened to really test drive Renault Duster India version, you may share your experience here!

Flipkart Review

23 Dec

Well, I haven’t done many review on this blog (except for my test drive review in the Automotive category). Today, I am kick starting a new Review section here hoping that I can share my personal experiences with the numerous products and services that I have consumed online and offline.

Today’s review material is the Flipkart Online Store. Though they were established three or four years back, I didn’t quite use their services until earlier this year. It all started with some book shopping for my son back in March this year and once I was thoroughly impressed with their quality of service!

flipkart review

What does Flipkart Offer?

Like many online stores in India, even Flipkart started their business as an online bookstore (Check out Flipkart Books section). They then slowly spread their services into selling Music CDs, Movie DVDs, Video Games, Mobile phones, Electronics, Cameras and now even Home appliances.

Majority of my purchases from Flipkart have been around Children’s books, Music/game CDs and at times camera accessories as well – latest being a 50mm lens that I bought for my Nikon DSLR.

My Experience with Flipkart

Based on those six or seven purchases that I made with flipkart, I have the following feedback on their services.

  • Their collection of books and other products are very good. Usually, they have all fast moving items in stock
  • The web shopping interface is fast and easy to search, choose and checkout
  • They offer very fast delivery, at least that’s what my experience in Bangalore. Almost all items that I ordered reached me in three days. Looks like they are using their own staff for delivery and hence chances of missing anything during transport is minimal. Talking about the delivery time, I had quite bad experience with some other online services such as Sify Shopping, India Plaza etc before I stopped using them completely quite some time ago
  • Cash on Delivery option is very good to protect you from any online fraudulent activities
  • Excellent communication – from ordering, processing, delivery to confirmation – they always keep you informed via SMS and mail

Other Positives

Once I had a situation where a particular book (Bunnicula series) had to be imported and shipped. They were able to manage it within a reasonable time frame as promised while placing the order.

Another time, I had ordered two books together off which one was guaranteed to be shipped in three days and another in a week. Instead of shipping both together a week after, they shipped one within three days and another within 5 days thereby filling the order partially based on immediate availability. The result was a happy customer – i.e. my 9 year old son.

The pricing of the books is good considering the fact that shipping is FREE. Some other sites show reduced prices but charge for shipping and handling.

Conclusion

Overall, I am pretty happy with the quality of service that Flipkart provides. They often reiterate that they always ship brand new items with warranty which so far is true for me. However, there are a couple of people who complained about receiving scratched CDs etc but that wasn’t the case with me.

Check out Flipkart for Yourself and share your experiences here. By the way, you can directly search on Flipkart using the search widget below.

Passport Seva Kendra – Exceptional Service Quality

13 Oct

Updated 26-Sep-2014:
Well, the post title still belongs to the old post! It’s unbelievable how things have taken a U-turn with respect to the PSK service since my last review more than three years ago. Yesterday, I had my passport renewal appointment at the Marathahalli PSK branch again and I had to spent exactly 5 hours before formalities were completed but not before witnessing some argument between officers and the frustrated citizens.

Although I have already explained the procedure earlier (scroll down), let me summarize the steps and problems faced at the PSK offices once again here.

Problems that you face at every Stage

After taking the online appointment and uploading the documents, the following are the stages that an applicant has to go through.

1. When you show up at the reporting time, you join a queue outside the building and the security person checks your printout with an ARN number to make sure that you belong to that particular time slot and date. This phase hardly takes 15 minutes assuming that you are reaching 10-15 minutes prior to the reporting time.

2. After you are allowed in, you join the one of the token counter queues where your documents – photo copies are quickly verified, a physical file is created and a token issued. There are separate queues for normal applicants, passport denied in first chance and senior citizens/women with babies etc. This desk is handled by TCS employees and your token is issued within about 15-20 minutes.

3. You now enter the waiting lounge which has reasonable number of seats for you to relax. There are minimal refreshments and water available here. This is an improvement area as applicants have to spend hours together in the building. From the waiting lounge, when your number is called out (as well as displayed on LCD), you enter the ‘A’ counter. Another improvement area is the way token number is coded. They are coded across several categories S, N, T, W etc and nobody knows why it has to be so. That has to be purely internal matter and not something that the common man should know. Further, there has to be audio announcement due to which people have to stare at the monitors for hours together. There is photocopying facility available here as well.

4. The ‘A’ counter is where you have to submit all your documents, old passport (if any) and a system file is created for your application. Your photo, thumb impressions and signatures will be taken here and majority of the system activities happen here. This is again handled by TCS and they have deployed 20-24 people in the ‘A’ counters. The process is smooth and pleasant TILL ‘A’ counter. You may spend hardly 10 minutes till here. So till ‘A’ counter, you would have spend a maximum of 30-45 minutes and you would naturally expect things to be completed in another half an hour BUT you are in for surprise!!!

5. ‘B’ Counter or verification counter: After, the ‘A’ counter procedures (TCS staff driven procedures) are over, you suddenly enter a place where you have to stand (another improvement area – very minimal sitting facility for about 20-25 people where as about 150 people are standing there). The number of ‘B’ counters are only 6 off which usually only 3 operates. This place belongs to the government staff who verifies all your documents, photocopies and passports and supporting evidence if any. Since about 24 ‘A’ counters suddenly converge into 3 ‘B’ counters, you can imagine the mess there. You typically end up spending 1 to 2 hours in this counter. It was two hours in my case! And sometimes, the staff – one person especially – even shouts at you if you miss your turn (which will be again inserted into the queue within a few minutes and hence none of his worry. He’s anyhow, not holding any physical file as you are doing it. Everything appears on his screen as per the token)

6. After your documents are verified, you move to the ‘C’ counters where passport granting takes place. There are four such counters operational and they are all manned by ‘very old government staff‘ who takes minutes together to do small things on the computer. As we were standing, one of the old ladies at the counter went for lunch to come back only after one and half hours. People literally shouted at her! This counter along with the ‘B’ counter is a huge improvement area. By the way, if you have a passport issued in Bangalore, instead of the ‘C’ counter, you will be sent directly to the Assistant Passport Officer’s cabin (AP01 counter) for faster approval.

7. AP counter: This is a relatively fast process as passports issued in Bangalore, will be granted pretty quickly for renewal. He’s a nice person and seems to be doing his job diligently without any fuss. However, to get your turn called at the ‘C’ counter or ‘AP’ counter, it takes about an hour (sometimes more) again. Your physical file is taken back at AP or C counters after approval or rejection.

8. Finally, you exit at the ‘Feedback’ counter where you will be issued a receipt for your reference and you wait for the police verification, if any and the passport to finally arrive. Surprisingly, the security lady there demands for a feedback and says ‘feedback’ is mandatory!!!

(New) Pain points – Summary

  • I am not sure why the process is still asking for two photocopies each of your documents in documents while they take only one set of copies. What a waste of paper!
  • While the photo quality taken at the counter is good, why not allow uploading of your good quality digital photo along with your online application? They have to verify it anyhow at the counter
  • Some of the government officers at the ‘C’ counter need to be replaced by young people. They are too slow for this job – further, there has to be backup available when someone go on leave
  • The token announcement must be available in audio and streamlined to call out just numbers not coded (as in S, N etc). Nobody can stare at the screen for 3 to 4 hours from weird angles while standing in that crowded office
  • More number of seats need to be provided at the ‘B’ and ‘C’ counters than the waiting lounge itself because that’s where you end up spending 3 or 4 hours.
  • I personally do not understand the need to have ‘B’ and ‘C’ as separate counters. Ideally, the government process should be done in one step as verify and grant. Looks like, it is maintained only for historical reasons or to protect certain job grades!
  • Provide an easy way to make corrections and typos. Although, I submitted the online form with corrected names, for the renewal of passport, they said they will continue with old names despite having supporting documents with me!!! Strange….
  • Aadhar validity: Biggest pain point. If you have got an Aadhaar card if you have cut it across the line as the government suggest to make it a proper card, beware! The passport officials will ask for the remaining portion of the Aadhaar to consider it valid for identity or address proof. That’s really height of it! Some people had to go back because of this issue

That’s pretty much cribbing for now. My knees are already swollen and paining after standing at the PSK yesterday for more than five hours…

The old post continues…


Today is an memorable day for me as a citizen of India. On this day, I experienced the best ever quality service possible from a government organization i.e. the Indian Passport application via the Passport Seva Kendra in Marathahalli Bangalore.

The Passport Seva Kendras are part of the pilot project by Ministry of External Affairs (MEA_, Government of India. This project aims to speed up and simplify the passport application process and is now available on a pilot basis in Bangalore and Chandigarh. Applying the passport online is better than ever before and I will tell you why.

The new smooth process of Passport Application – Online

The following is what I had to do to obtain passport, for my children, online.

Step 1: Go to India Passport Website and signup for a user account. Make sure that the Date of Birth of the applicant accurately – this will be matched against the appointment later.

Step 2: Download the eFile PDF application form and fill in your details offline. In the offline PDF form itself you can validate your entries and once you validate it you will get an XML file that you can upload to your account. In addition you have to upload the scanned copies of your address proof, date of birth proof etc. For every category of applicants (e.g. children under 15, NRI adult etc) there is online help available as to which documents are required to be uploaded.

Step 3: Once the valid documents are uploaded, take an online appointment for your nearest PSK (Passport Seva Kendra). In Bangalore, the Marathahalli Passport Seva kendra is supposed to be the best. You will usually get an online appointment within 10 days of uploading the application form and supporting documents but you also have the option of walking in the very next day.

Step 4: On the appointment date, be present 10-15 minutes before the appointment to first validate your appointment at the security gate. Remember, you DO NOT need to carry your photograph copies. After the appointment validation, you obtain a system token and wait in the lounge to be called. The token numbers are displayed on large LCD screens and that tells you the impressive speed at which they handle their customers. You ideally will not wait for more than 15 minutes before your number is called out. Move to the desk number – there are more than 50 of them and provide your photocopies there. If you forgot to take photocopies, you can obtain high quality photocopies in the lounge at Re. 1 per copy.

At this desk, you will pay the fees, take your thumb impressions and the digital photo. The desk assistant then will bundle all these together as a neat file and you have to proceed to the passport official who will check the originals against the copies.

As the last step, the grant officer (Assistant Passport Officer, I think) will grant you – or seldom reject – the passport. You can check the status of your passport application online as well. Before moving out they will hand over an acknowledgment to you.

Typically kids passports are sent o