Maruti cars have ruled the Indian roads since 1984 and continue to dominate the small and medium car segments, but they had never been able to make a serious dent in the larger passenger vehicle segment. Apart from the public perception about Maruti’s small-car image, there is also a problem with its roughly 700 dealers who are so focused on small cars that they do not provide the classy ambience that big car customers expect. Maruti’s larger cars, like the Baleno sedans, SX4 and Vitara SUV, were all good but failed to make sufficient impression.
Maruti is now trying to change this with the launch of its S-Cross described as a premium crossover in a set of spanking new NEXA showrooms. The new S-Cross, Baleno and other models in the pipeline will be promoted by a set of hungry new dealers trained and staffed to handle premium car customers. It has been a demonstration of faith for the scores of dealers who had to invest small fortunes into building snazzy new showrooms and workshops for unknown new cars. Maruti plans to have 100 NEXA showrooms by the end of 2016.
It has been a very long journey since Maruti Udyog first introduced its little 800cc Maruti in 1983. This quick, reliable, fuel-efficient and easy to drive car was like a breath of fresh air after the clunky Ambassador and Padmini and it quickly revolutionised the Indian automobile market, opening the way for a number of other modern cars. It’s phenomenal success, however, branded Maruti as a small car-maker and the brand persona was not grand enough for many buyers looking for a premium image, especially with premium saloons being offered by international companies like Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Ford, Chevrolet, Fiat Renault, Nissan and Volkswagen. A lack of premium image also affected Tata Motors and Mahindra & Mahindra in their effort to enter this segment. Being a public sector company, the Indian government gave it such support that its success propelled Suzuki from a minor Japanese automobile company to a major global player, with India as the production base for the export of many small models.
Apart from numerous test drives, I first got to really know the Maruti 800 when I drove my wife’s new car through the mountain tracks of Garhwal and Kumaon. The cute little car was quick and economical on the highways and surprisingly nimble on twisty and rough mountain roads. Being so light I was once even able to bodily lift it, with the help of a few locals, when it got stuck. Maruti owners soon found that the car not only worked well but was also easy and cheap to maintain with inexpensive spare parts available at the many Maruti dealers. These features also appealed to scores of women drivers who quickly became fixtures on Indian roads.
In July, Maruti let me drive its new S-Cross. Several “crossover” cars had earlier successfully widened the market of India’s conventional car segments. Two-wheel drive “crossovers” were not true SUVs but SUV styling and bigger tires widened the customer appeal of several conventional hatchbacks and saloons. The Toyota Etios Cross was, for example, much more attractive than the “plain Jane” Etios Liva hatchback. The huge success of cars like the Renault Duster, Hyundai Creta and Ford EcoSport made “crossovers” very appealing, especially for younger buyers and all automobile companies began adding bigger wheels and SUV trims to widen their customer appeal.
The sleek new Maruti S-Cross is roughly the size of a Honda City, except for big 16-inch wheels that offer much better ground clearance and road grip. In looks it seems more like a luxury saloon than an SUV and is also provided with numerous luxury car features for excellent ride, comfort and entertainment. Like the Ciaz, it has also opted for a curvaceous classic look rather than the angles and bumps that many competitors have preferred. It is also powered by two excellent new diesel engines of 1600cc and 1248cc capacity that belt out surprisingly peppy performance with exceptional fuel efficiency. The new platform also soaks up road noise and provides great stability at high speeds. It is not cheap but is great value. It may lack the appearance of a Hyundai Creta but offers so much that there is already a waiting list of some 11,000 bookings.
The S-Cross saloon will soon be joined by the Baleno hatchback that, at a lower price band, will appeal to a much bigger customer base. Actually, it is not really a hatchback but its sloping, stretched sporty roof makes it look like one. It will complement Maruti’s Swift Dzire, which has become India’s top selling saloon, but with more generous legroom and many attractive features. No doubt these will make it cost more. Its price we will soon know, when the Baleno is formally launched near Diwali.
I greatly enjoyed driving a fire red Baleno last week around Jaipur. The first impression is naturally the appearance that also has the curvaceous lines of the S-Cross but with a very attractive front face. All car companies have tried to make their grilles distinctive but Maruti has succeeded with a fluid design that gives the impression of the bow wave of a motor boat.
The interiors are not only attractive but surprisingly spacious for a car that has been squeezed in to measure less than four metres. It also follows the new engine philosophy of squeezing huge power and performance out of small engines. In addition to the conventional 5-speed gearbox, the top petrol model offers an automatic CVT (continuously variable transmission) that makes city driving very relaxing.
On the road I was immediately impressed by the new platform that not only absorbs road noise and vibrations but is also so rigid that the car feels very stable at high speeds of over 140 kmph. On the twisty drive up to Jaigarh Fort, the car handled the curves without a squeak of complaint. The manual, voice activated or steering controlled entertainment and navigation system is brilliant and the dashboard display is a class apart.
As in the S-Cross, the new Baleno also has reverse assistance with a rear camera to let you know what lies behind, both during the day and at night. The big backlit blue panels not only show speed and engine revs but also every other parameter of fuel consumption and temperature in several different graphic styles. It is powered by 200cc petrol and 1248cc diesel engines. Fuel efficiency and good air-conditioning is a given for any modern car, so these are not matters that deserve comment.
Baleno bookings are open and there seems to be such a rush for them that the NEXA dealers who might have earlier despaired must now be smiling.
Engine cc: 1,197 (petrol), 1,246 (diesel)
Power/RPM: 84 (62 KW)@6,000 (petrol), 74 (55KW) @4000 (diesel)
Max torque: 115@4,000 (petrol), 190 @2,000 (diesel)
Transmission: 5 speed MT/CVT (petrol), 5 MT (diesel)
Price: Not available