New Delhi, Oct. 16 -- It's not everyday that you get to test a car that's likely to be a surefire best-seller, but that's just what this is - a first drive of Maruti's all-new Alto 800, a car that in all probability will start life at the top of the sales charts.
The new Alto is a car Maruti has poured its heart and soul into to get right. What the company wants is continuity and progress. It wants the Alto 800 to take off from where the current Alto stands today, and for that Maruti's designers have given it an identity that is instantly recognisable.
So there's an overriding feeling of familiarity as you walk upto the car. The compact dimensions, the high-mounted headlights and the thick 'C' pillar at the rear of the car tell you this is an Alto instantly. But the new bits stand out as well. The new two-part grille is attractive, the high-mounted petal-shaped headlights stand out, there's a hint of a chin spoiler, which looks sporty, and the wheel arches are mildly flared as well. Unlike the earlier car, this one is mildly tipped forward too, adding to that sporty feel. The design is familiar around the back, but here too there are fresh new details like the crystal-like tail lights and some sculpting on the hatch that adds a spicy touch.
What makes the car look a bit awkward from some angles however is the massive ground clearance, something that just doesn't sit well with the compact dimensions. The conservative Alto 800 however is likely to appeal to a wider audience than Hyundai's overtly styled Eon, which draws polarised opinion.
The new Alto 800 is built on the same wheelbase as the earlier car and plenty of suspension bits are carried over, but the structure has been heavily modified to make it stiffer. Maruti's engineers have concentrated on keeping it light too. The roof, for example, is made of thinner steel, but has corrugations for added rigidity.
The biggest change however is in the cabin. There's an all-new and more contemporary-looking dash, with a strong 'V' around the centre console, and plastic quality has been improved considerably. There are plenty of silver accents in the cabin, and there's a horizontally aligned bottle holder placed ahead of the gear lever, which is quite innovative.
The inclusion of new slimmer seats means there is marginally more space for passengers but this is a car that's hard to get comfortable in. The small front seats with their integrated headrests, for example, lack decent back support and the rear-seat back isn't too comfortable either. Space is also only marginally better than the current car, which means it's very cramped, especially in the rear. The moulded roof lining and fully clad pillars however improve the ambience of the cabin tremendously.
There are big changes under the bonnet as well. Maruti may continue to call this 800cc motor the F8D but changes made are quite far-reaching. There are new short skirt pistons, the compression ratio of the engine has been increased and the air inlet system has been made longer. Torque as a result is 11 percent better, and you can feel it.
Push down on the accelerator and the Alto 800 sets off in a much more determined manner. Responses at low engine speed have always been a strength of this motor, and now it's better. You don't need to rev hard to get a move on and you can upshift quite early, so overtaking is not as much a challenge as before. At very low revs, there's a jerky throttle action, which is typical of other Maruti motors as well and hence driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic is not very smooth. Out on the highway, the improved motor feels more eager thanks to improved performance at the top end of the rev range. In fact, there's a sporty note at higher revs and the engine doesn't feel as thrashy as before.
The gearbox too has been improved over the earlier car with a new cable type shifter. The gearshift is fairly smooth but it still doesn't have the precision or crisp action of more contemporary competition.
The ride is simply outstanding for such a small car and it copes admirably well with everything that's thrown at it. The Alto 800's tall springs and 80 profile tyres absorb potholes and ruts with ease but as expected, the Alto 800 is never as well settled as a bigger car. There is always a nervous bit of vertical movement when the road gets uneven, but it's not to the point of being uncomfortable.
When it comes to driving pleasure the Alto 800 really won't excite you. There's no excess of power for one, and the handling is pretty soggy too. The steering feels a bit vague, especially around the straight-ahead position, and the car doesn't like to be cornered hard. But then, the kind of person who is buying this car isn't going to really care.
The new Alto 800 may not have the same modern feel as the Hyundai Eon but certainly feels a generation ahead of the previous Alto with better interiors, dynamics and performance. It's a claimed 15 percent more efficient than the earlier car (at 22.74kpl) and it looks more contemporary too. Is that enough to keep its popularity sky-high? That will finally depend on the price. However, assuming a Rs. 3.15 lakh sticker for the base, air-con-equipped version, Maruti's latest will continue to be the best-selling car on Indian soil after it goes on sale on October 16 this year.
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.