The Zen, a much-loved titan of the Indian automotive scene. It is perceived in much the same way the Yamaha RX is- enthusiasts adore it, peace-loving aunties hate it. And, there is always the subset of frugal uncles who have used the things daily, never having crossed 80 kmph. This isn’t a review. This isn’t an observatory report. It is a love letter to a car that showed me the pure, unadulterated joy of driving.
I was 17 when my dad first showed up at the bus stop with this car, and I didn’t think much of it. It looked alright, sounded nice, and had power steering- the luxury! It took another year for me to finally get behind the wheel of this car, after learning to drive in an Alto where the instructor strictly forbade the use of the throttle. I’d be lying if i said it was an immediate revelation. It felt fairly similar to the alto, maybe a tad more responsive in the handling department.
You know when you pick up a hobby or skill, and as you get better, the equipment you started with no longer cuts the mustard? As my familiarity with driving grew, this car just excited me more and more, and that’s the beauty of it. Modern ‘exciting’ cars are like smartphones, they adapt to the driver with a dozen setup changes and sub menus. The Zen, however, is a blank sheet of paper. Simple, and limited only by who you want to be. Absolutely no assists and electronics make this as pure an experience as you’ll ever have. I like to think I’m Ari Vatanen, and the car bears the brunt of my (lack of) talent. The payoff? A spine-tingling exhaust note accompanied by steering so responsive, it makes your eyes water. On the flip side is my dad, who falls under the aforementioned frugal uncle category. Guess what? He loves the way it drives, too. Everyone enjoys a blank canvas differently, and everyone can.
Let’s get slightly technical here for a moment. Not to abuse an already overused phrase, it genuinely handles like a go-kart. Sure, it has the turning circle of a medium-sized planet, but it is incredible around corners. The feel stems from not just the steering, but the way the steering gels with the chassis, the suspension, and the tyres. It’s all about the balance in cars like this- the Zen hits the nail on the head. Yes, it makes virtually no power, even less if you get the carb-fed 800cc three-pot. You can launch off the line and bang through to 4th, the noise making you feel like you just finessed a tarmac rally stage, until you look down at the speedo and realise you’re going no faster than an Activa.
Sounds like a downer? Nope, that’s the entire point of this car. It is exciting when it is asked to just be ordinary. You try to emulate Vatanen, and the car emulates a T16. You just get the sensation the car is enjoying all of this too, grinning as wide as you are. And that, is why this thing truly bonds with the driver. For a piece of engineering, there is no higher praise than being called a friend.