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Game, Set and Hatch! - Micra, Figo, Polo and Swift face off


There are independent outfits that run parallel to the R&D setups of auto companies. These outfits do a very simple job – bring the car down to every nut and bolt and study them carefully for metallurgy, strength, materials used and longevity in terms of service, before making a report and providing them to rival auto companies. I’m sure that the Maruti Suzuki Swift’s report was in the hands of the companies who make the other three cars here before they went around developing their own.

It really is the class benchmark. When it was first launched in 2005, it came across as a breath of fresh air, and even today with sales crossing the 10,000 units a month mark, it is the car to beat in the marketplace. So there’s no doubt that Volkswagen, Ford and Nissan have done all they can to usurp the Swift. Except that it’s not as easy as it looks.
What the Swift has done is offer a complete package at a price that is still quite delicious to most Indian middle-class palates. And the newest entrant, the Nissan Micra, has its work cut out in not just beating the Swift but ensuring it becomes the new class benchmark. But can it? We drove all four cars back and forth and analysed every single bit before coming to a conclusion. We warn you though, it could change when the next new hatch is launched, which
could be a few months from now. Class benchmarks, from here on, are bound
to change rather rapidly.   DESIGN & STYLING
You can’t really call the Nissan Micra beautiful. Functional beauty is what makes this little Nissan stand out, and yes you can trace back the lines to the previous generation Micras. It will catch your attention, no doubt, but won’t leave you with a feeling of ‘wow’. The large bug-eyed headlamps and grille give it a distinct character, but importantly the greenhouse design, the shape of the roof and the C-pillar make it stand out among the pack of cars you see here. Sitting on high-profile tyres with plastic wheel caps robs the car of that little bit of finesse, but we don’t think most people will complain.

The other Japanese in the corner, the Swift, has managed to age well. The curves may not necessarily be functional here, but the Mini inspiration has worked well to entice a whole generation of Indian hatch buyers. The fact is that the basic design was so good that Suzuki decided its next generation would retain most of the lines (which will hit our market next year). Minor facelifts and changes have only helped the car in still looking fresh – though the fact that there are so many of them around takes away some of that spunkiness.   In contrast, the Ford Figo seems to look a generation old here – already! Despite inoffensive lines, a sharp-looking set of eyes and a planted stance, the Figo can’t shake off the fact that it is based on the last-gen Fiesta. The modified front and rear-end take away some years, but the relatively unchanged profile adds to it. It is typically European in the way it looks, which is the case with the Polo too, but not to the same degree. In this pack, it is the Polo that looks the best. Walter De’Silva knows how to design cars that are inoffensive yet smart and the Polo keeps up to his name. The chiselled air-dam really makes it look young, while the edgy headlamps, prominent waistline and smartly integrated wheel arches
give the otherwise plain-jane design a lot of character.

The Micra has the most comfortable interiors of the three and this is thanks to some really clever packaging. There is good head room, knee room and shoulder room, even at the rear. Thoughtfully designed seats that offer good support all around make it the veritable Hyundai i20 of hatchbacks here – except that the i20 feels a class larger. It is loaded too, just like the i20. The XV model on test here has the smart keyless entry and a Start-Stop button to bring the car to life. Depress the clutch, hold the button for two seconds and you have cranked the engine – a feature we’ve come to see in
D segment cars and above.   But I can’t seem to understand this Nissan fetish with ‘plasticky’. There are just too many surfaces with too many colours and some of the panels are ill-fitting – these despite Nissan letting us know that they have reduced the number of dashboard components. The dials are clear and easy to read, the multi-information trip meter is a boon and the stereo sounds good. Overall instrumentation is of good quality, a very typical Nissan trait. Twin airbags and ABS are standard on this version and a single driver airbag is standard across
the range.

The Swift on the other hand has more dark interiors. There is no beige around and the quality is good by 2005 Suzuki standards, but just a tad short of its more modern rivals here. While we had a VXi model on test here, the ZXi comes with airbags, ABS, alloy wheels and an in-dash stereo with steering controls. The instrumentation is basic and clear and I hope the next Swift does come with a multi-information display screen – it really helps in nudging your fuel efficiency up. The front seats are nicely designed for driver comfort, it’s only that once you move to the rear you feel a little too tightly ensconced. Legroom is strictly okay, and overall shoulder room is compromised.   The Figo’s interiors are bright and cheerful if you ask for the optional red treatment on the dash. It’s nicely put together, but the surface finish isn’t as good as the Fiesta saloon, possibly due to cost cutting measures. The cockpit is functional and there are enough cubby holes to store what you feel like, but it’s the seats that rob it of higher interior ratings. The front seats just about meet the cut, but the rear seats don’t have well designed headrests nor do they offer good back support. Leg room at the rear is quite decent however, but head room is a tad short.

The Polo is a mix of the good, bad and ugly. The good bits are that it is the best built of the lot, the surfaces are nicely textured and it feels more upmarket in there. The instrumentation is typically German and you get enough information from the MID. Get down to the bad bits and you wish there were more features for the price. It feels underequipped and its high price doesn’t win it favours here. But it’s the rear leg room that makes things even worse. There is hardly anything to begin with, and if the front occupants are six feet tall then God save the rear passengers! Nothing wrong with the seat design, but roomy interiors they certainly could have been. Boot space and utilisation is the best here – tied in with the Figo, with the Swift and Micra trailing behind.   POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE
It’s straight away a competition between two four-cylinder 1.2-litre units and two three-cylinder 1.2-litre units. What we’ve found is that while the three-cylinder units aren’t as refined, they sure are torquey, while the four-cylinder units have better performance closer to top whack.


The Micra’s three-cylinder unit is a bit more refined than the Polo. At start up, it is less clattery and if you keep the revs up to 5000 rpm, it feels fairly refined. But go past that and the Micra gets noisy. What also makes things noisy is that most of the road, tyre and engine noise seeps into the cabin and that doesn’t help it make for quiet interiors. It’s still quite a decent performer, with the second-best acceleration times of the lot. The Micra gets to 100 kph in just under 15 seconds and goes on to nearly 160 kph. The in-gear acceleration times too are quite decent and thanks to the best spread out gear ratios here, the combination of city and highway performance is truly commendable. The gearshift however is a tad clunky and not too refined – in fact it’s in places like these that it is hard to believe it was engineered by Nissan! What an engine change can do to the Swift is there to be believed. Not only is it the most powerful, it also the torquiest here.   Combined with the best power-to-weight and torque-to-weight ratios here, the Swift is easily the quickest and fastest car of the lot. A second quicker to 100 kph than the Micra may be one part of the deal, but it is quicker from 80-120 kph in third gear over its competition too. It’s also the most refined engine and one of the best gearboxes too and its overall driveability is very hard to fault – no wonder the Ritz with the same engine won our 2010 Car Of The Year! The engine has enough grunt to take you to an equipment-tested 165 kph. The Figo might be the least powerful of the lot, but it is a pretty eager engine too. Despite having less torque and horsepower than the Polo, it still managed to be a tenth quicker to 100 kph. Though it has the best gearshift around, it is the gear ratios that don’t work in its favour.

Be in the wrong gear at the wrong rpm and it won’t forgive you. The lack of horsepower, lower power-to-weight ratio and overall tuning make it the slowest in the in-gear acceleration times, and it penalises fuel efficiency too. The Polo has a pretty good gearbox, and the three-cylinder unit feels eager, even though the acceleration times don’t suggest so. But the motor is noisy and feels the most unrefined here. It may have been the slowest in terms of flat-out acceleration, but overall driveability is pretty decent. A top speed of 155 kph makes it a middle-of-the-ground performer. In the fuel efficiency stakes, the Polo strikes back, delivering 14.5 kpl overall to the Micra’s 14.05 kpl, the Swift’s
13.2 kpl and the Figo’s 12.5 kpl.   RIDE & HANDLING
Small cars these days have more mature setups and seem to have better dynamics than even last generation entry-level sedans. The Micra is just one of them. The ride quality is set to be soft and that makes it pretty comfortable over bad roads, especially given its overall seat comfort levels. In that regard, Nissan seems to have once again benchmarked it against the Hyundai i20 and have succeeded at it. But it also means that it has a soft handling setup. It isn’t the
most confidence inspiring around corners and the light, slightly vague steering doesn’t make it an enthusiast oriented car. The car’s mechanical grip levels are not at fault, it’s the tyres and their higher profile that don’t make it fun while tackling bends, and they induce a fair bit of body roll.

The Swift’s power, combined with the chassis setup, make it the most fun to drive car of the lot. Add the steering into the equation (which provides decent feedback) and the Swift will provide the most number of smiles on a drive. Because it was designed to be a World Rally car, the Swift has a lower centre of gravity and that gives it very good chassis grip. You can carry more speed around bends and it won’t break grip easily.   Despite that, the ride quality isn’t too bad either. Unlike the first Swifts, Maruti has worked over time to improve the ride quality and I have to say the low speed and high speed ride quality has found a sweet spot now. High speed stability too has improved with the re-tuned rear spring settings, but it isn’t the best here.

The Figo is nicely balanced too. The steering is the most feelsome here and the chassis is typically Ford, with masses of grip and very little in terms of body roll. You really feel that with a more powerful engine, the Figo can easily become a hot hatch and yet has very competent ride quality to boot. The Polo somehow seems to be the best combination between low-speed and high-speed handling as well as
low and high-speed ride quality. It is a bit firm, but the suspension doesn’t feel overly intrusive. The overall body dynamics and control too are excellent and while the steering doesn’t provide the most feedback, it is nicely weighted for both city and highway use.   VERDICT
There are two ways of looking at the final outcome. If value is what you hold prime, then it’s the Ford Figo that wins the contest – no doubt about that. The combination of space, dynamics and features for its price give it a resounding victory, with the Maruti Suzuki Swift, Nissan Micra and VW Polo respectively following suit. But that’s not the only thing we look at, right? And that puts the Ford Figo last in this encounter, but mind you, the gap between the last and the best car is much slimmer than you think. The Figo loses out because of its engine, which could have done with more spunk. Yes, the Maruti Suzuki Swift has been bested by two cars, but not before it proved itself to be the quickest and most fun car to drive. Maruti’s efforts to keep improving the product over time have worked and I would really like to see how this comparison pans out next year when Maruti’s second-generation Swift goes on sale.   Even in its present avatar it is very competent and it would only be sensible to benchmark any new car in this segment against it. The newest kid on the block, the Nissan Micra, has a lot of things going for it. Space utilisation, features, comfort and overall value are pretty good. But Nissan’s core engineering identity doesn’t come through with the Micra. It feels a bit too crude and unrefined and that from someone who makes wonderful cars like the X-Trail, 370Z and GT-R is hard to fathom. Some more engineering finesse and the Micra could seriously have usurped the crown, but not today.

That crown is still retained by the Polo. Three months ago we voted it the best new small car in town (against the Figo and Fiat Punto) and even when pitched against the segment benchmark it surely feels a few steps ahead. It isn’t the most loaded, is the most expensive and doesn’t have the best interior space, but all said and done, it is a well rounded and engineered package. It is enthusiastic enough to be driven hard, has very good dynamics and feels like it will last on Indian roads very well. It is a tough, no-nonsense small car that feels plush at the same time. Specification sheets don’t do justice to this car, real seat-of-the-pants feel does and that is what matters in the real world. Volkswagen’s small car truly is the new benchmark!




PRICE: Rs 3.66 to 4.64 lakh, ex-showroom, Mumbai

Displacement: 1196cc, I-4
Bore x Stroke: 70.6 x 76.5 mm
Compression ratio: 9.75:1
Max power: 70 bhp@6250 rpm
Max torque: 10.4 kgm@4000 rpm
Power to weight: 64.2 bhp/tonne
Torque to weight: 9.5 kgm/tonne
Specific output: 58.5 bhp/litres
Transmission: 5-speed manual

Type: Rack and pinion with power assist
Turning radius: 4.9 m

Front: McPherson struts
Rear: Twist beam, coil springs

Front: 260 mm ventilated discs
Rear: 203 mm self-adjusting drums
ABS: Standard with EBD on Titanium

175/65 R14, tubeless

L/W/H (mm): 3795x1680x1427
Wheelbase: 2489 mm
Track (F/R): 1474/1444 mm
Ground clearance: 168 mm
Kerb weight: 1090 kg
Boot volume: 284 litres

0-60 kph: 6.59 secs
0-100 kph: 16.72 secs
80-120 kph: 12.8 secs
100-140 kph: 23.4 secs
Top speed: 149 kph

Commuting: 11.2 kpl
Touring: 14.5 kpl
Overall: 12.5 kpl
Tank capacity: 45 litres
Range: 562 km


Displacement: 1198 cc, I-4, petrol
Bore x Stroke: 78 x 83.6 mm
Compression ratio: 9.8:1
Max. Power: 75 bhp@6000 rpm
Max. Torque: 10.4 kgm@ 4000 rpm
Specific output: 62.6 bhp/litre
Power to weight: 80.62 bhp/tonne
Torque to weight: 10.8 kgm/tonne
Transmission: 5-speed manual

Type: Electric assisted rack & pinion
Turning radius: 4.65 m

Front: MacPherson strut
Rear: Torsion beam


Front: Ventilated disc
Rear: Drum
ABS: Standard on XV

L/W/H(mm): 3780/1665/1530
Wheelbase: 2450 mm
Ground clearance: NA
Kerb weight: 930 kgs

0-60 kph – 6.14 secs
0-100 kph – 14.78 secs
80-120 kph – 12.3 secs
100-140 kph – 19.1 secs
Top speed -159.8 kph
0-100-0 kph –18.8 secs

City: 11.8 kpl
Highway: 16.3 kpl
Overall:  14.05 kpl   VW POLO 1.2


PRICE: Rs 4.53 to 5.97 lakh, ex-showroom, Mumbai

Displacement: 1198cc, I-3
Bore x Stroke: 76.5 x 86.9 mm
Compression ratio: 10.5:1
Max power: 74 bhp@5400 rpm
Max torque: 11.2 kgm@3750 rpm
Power to weight: 74.6 bhp/tonne
Torque to weight:11.3 kgm/tonne
Specific output: 61.7 bhp/litre
Transmission: 5-speed manual

Type: Rack and pinion with power assist
Turning radius: 5.3 m

Front: McPherson struts
Rear: Torsion beam, trailing arms

Front: 256 mm ventilated discs
Rear: 200 mm self-adjusting drums
ABS: Standard with EBD on Comfortline/Highline

175/70 R14, tubeless

L/W/H (mm): 3970x1682x1453
Wheelbase: 2456 mm
Track (F/R): 1463/1463 mm
Ground clearance: 168 mm
Kerb weight: 992 kg
Boot volume:  280-952 litres

0-60 kph: 6.77 secs
0-100 kph: 16.83 secs
80-120 kph: 11.9 secs
100-140 kph: 22.1 secs
Top speed: 155 kph

Commuting: 13.1 kpl
Touring: 16.8 kpl
Overall: 14.5 kpl
Tank capacity: 45 litres
Range: 652 km



Displacement: 1197cc, I-4, petrol
Bore x Stroke: 73.0mm x 71.5mm
Max power: 84 bhp@6,000rpm
Max torque: 11.52 kgm@1750-3250 rpm
Valve gear: 4-valves/cyl, DOHC
Specific output: 70.1 bhp/litre
Power to weight: 81.55 bhp/tonne
Torque to weight: 11.2 kgm/tonne
Transmission: 5-speed manual

Type: Rack and pinion with speed sensitive hydraulic power assist
Turning circle: 4.7 m

Front: MacPherson strut and coil spring
Rear: Torsion beam and coil spring

185/70 R14, tubeless

Front: Ventilated discs
Rear: Drums
ABS: ZXI variant

L/W/H (mm): 3760/1690/1530
Wheelbase: 2390 mm
Track (F/R): 1470/1480
Kerb weight: 1010 kg
Boot volume: 232 litres


0-60 kph: 6.02 secs
0-100 kph: 13.88 secs
80-120 kph - 10.8 secs
100-140 kph: 19.8 secs
Top speed: 165 kph (achieved)

Overall: 13.2 kpl