Ideally, I should be moaning about how the illustrious Zen badge has been usurped by that vile Estilo, while it should have been here, on the neat butt of the new A-Star. But I won’t, despite the fact that this new compact from Maruti Suzuki has the right ingredients to become the 21st century version of one of India’s favourite hatchbacks. (Why? Perfect and compact anti-tall-boy dimensions, a wide, planted stance plus of course, the return of the 1.0-litre powerplant although a cylinder less). So instead of moping about what a lovely opportunity it would have been to introduce the A-Star as the real Zen and portray the Estilo as the masquerader, I’ll celebrate the arrival of yet another all-new Suzuki with global ambitions.
Yes, as everybody knows, this car replaces the Alto in global markets, but in India, it will co-exist with the other members of the happy, virtually deathless family of Maruti Suzuki. Though the production model looks quite different from the strangely attractive concept that was shown at the Auto Expo, the A-Star looks different, all right. I really like the fact that it is not a tall-boy, and have fallen in love with its perfect urban runabout dimensions. It’s wider than the other ‘kei’ cars like the Wagon R, Estilo and the Alto, and Maruti Suzuki is especially chuffed at the fact that it sits on a wider front track and has a very good
co-efficient of drag (officials say that they have done extensive testing in the wind-tunnel with full size models).
When it comes to the overall design, the large, Audi-like beard that every modern-day car seems to be wearing nowadays gives it a bit of aggression, and more importantly, makes it a different looker from not just other Suzukis, but most other hatchbacks on the road as well. Oh, but the pulled back headlamps, the front fenders and the way the waistline tapers upwards are elements that we have already seen in the Hyundai i10. Though the upward kink of the waistline is tastefully done, the design highlight of the A-Star is the cheeky rear end. Smooth and flanked by large, individualistic tail lamps, it’s something you wouldn’t mind seeing while being stuck behind at traffic jams. On the inside, the A-Star cleverly uses common Suzuki bits, for instance, the three-spoke steering wheel, the gear lever knob, the switchgear, etc. But since it is designed somewhat differently, you almost forgive Suzuki for regularly fishing in that parts bin. The thing that strikes you as soon as you open the door of course is that pod that houses the rev counter placed externally, as if you just had it installed at your neighbourhood tuner’s (a shift light? Too optimistic, aren’t you?). That apart, the A-Star’s dash looks different enough to make you feel good that you have got yourself a really new Suzuki. Especially in the night, when the crimson highlights come on. But does that mean there are no niggles with the A-Star’s interiors? Well, not exactly.
Maruti Suzuki has used a duo-tone grey combination that makes it much better for our eyes that have got jaded by their bog-standard beige plastics, but the quality is not that impressive. Okay, I’ll admit it is better than what we have got in Suzukis so far, but there’s clearly some way to go. Besides that, the lack of fabric inserts means that for a small car, you are confronted by a vast ocean of uninterrupted plastic. As regards trim levels, the ZXi I had has an integrated music system, airbags and ABS, automatic airconditioning etc. The LXi will come with power steering and manual airconditioning controls, while the VXi will have power windows all around, among other features. There are no alloys as standard in the ZXi, while the tyre size is the same across the variants – 155/80 R13s. Oh, and there is no adjustment for the steering angle and there is no dead pedal either. And like the i10, the A-Star also gets front seats with integrated headrests, while fitting three grown adults at the rear can only be described as a very, very private and intimate experience. So it’s the driver’s seat for me!
Fire up the car and the true highlight of the A-Star comes to life. Yup, it’s not the newness, that extended grille or the size of the new compact Suzuki, but what’s inside that tiny, light hood. A brand new engine, folks! As I mentioned earlier, it’s not just the return of the 1.0-litre, but the introduction of a new three-cylinder motor. Heck, India is still predominantly a three-cylinder car country (imagining totalling M-800 and Alto sales), and a new three-pot motor can only mean more of us are going to buy more of it! Why? For the same reason that the Alto and the Hero Honda Splendor are the top sellers in India. The new engine (FYI called the K10B, for those of you to whom such model codes give erotic pleasure) is a tremendously compact engine. The engine bay of the A-Star is already small, and despite that, there is plenty of space inside the engine bay. Combined with the raised bonnet, it can only mean better pedestrian safety standards. Anyway, the 12-valve DOHC 998cc engine develops a healthy 66 bhp at 6200 revs and 9.3 kgm at just 3500 rpm. Before I tell you how the car is to drive, I might as well tell you that the all-aluminium engine has been developed by Maruti Suzuki to be lightweight, minimally thirsty and generally energy efficient... essentially, terribly eco-friendly. Expect it to be seen in many more Suzukis, then. Oh, the newness doesn’t end here. The engine is also paired with a new five-speed manual gearbox. So this car – this Maruti Suzuki – my friends, is really new-new and not just any old-new. What miracles a badge-engineering contract can do! This car is also the Nissan Pixo, remember?
The new engine, like all the new Suzuki motors we have seen recently, is slightly buzzy at higher revs, but matches it by giving you an equivalent amount of driving buzz. What’s important is that despite it being a three-cylinder motor, it doesn’t feel crude or unbalanced. Maruti Suzuki seems to have worked hard to ensure that you get the refinement and performance (well, almost) levels of a small four-cylinder motor, without compromising on the ridiculously superb fuel consumption that you typically get from a three-cylinder engine. Now this is important. That’s because the basic theory is that with such a small car with such a small engine, you would tend to use it for the city commute and you wouldn’t ideally try fourth gear wheelspins on deserted portions of the Golden Quadrilateral. That’s the reason why the Engine makes decent torque at low levels – remarkable in a Suzuki motor – and quickly runs out of breath at highway speeds (not so remarkable in most Suzuki motors!). We did manage to reach its indicated top speed of 155 kph quite easily, but the point is that you don’t want to do that in this car. You want to use its torque to dart between other sedans in the roundabouts of Delhi or squeeze between rickshaws to be the first at Mumbai’s traffic signals.
While I didn’t get a chance to do that in this initial drive, my guess is that this car is going to be a hit for these reasons –
1. Easy access to torque
2. Low kerb weight
3. No compromises in fuel consumption.
So what happens when you do take it out on the highway, then? The marvel of this new hyper-smart, tiny Suzuki motor is that it can sit at 100-odd kph at just 3500 revs almost all day (not bad actually, but remember, no foot-rest). By the way, the manufacturer claims a 0-60 kph timing of 6 seconds, 0-100 kph in 15 and an ARAI figure of 19.59 kpl. Yup.
Okay, so the engine is a marvel, but what about the rest of the car? The first thing that strikes me is that new five-speed transmission. More than the gear ratios and the speeds in each gear (await the full test please!), it’s the quality of the gearshift. It’s much better than the vague, open-ended gearshifts in the Wagon R/Estilo and is much more positive. No, it’s nowhere as snappy as the i10’s, but it’s an improvement nevertheless. Plus I think that rounded gear lever borrowed from the Swift/SX4, plus its stubbiness here, has also helped matters in this car. The gearshift quality aside, the new gas-charged shock absorbers (and, as Maruti Suzuki says, the ultra high-grade steel used in the coil springs) have given the A-Star a damping quality not seen in Suzuki superminis before. It absorbs impacts quite well, but the offshoot is that the ride quality is a bit firm. A nice firm, not the Swift-levels of firm.
But the important question remains: is the A-Star’s handling as good as the ORIGINAL Zen? Is it just as chuckable? Well yes, despite its taller stance. The wider track gives it a better sense of roadholding and confidence. It’s quite nimble and stays planted – the standard McPherson struts at front do their job, while the isolated trailing link at the rear quickly follow suit. I would say that the original Zen’s lower CG will give it more points when it comes to corner carving, but remember, this car is much safer in both active and passive safety terms and is truly a modern automobile. But that doesn’t mean that everybody at Maruti Suzuki who is reading this can congratulate themselves. The steering could have been way more superior and precise – okay, it’s not as lousy as the EPS on the Zen in its dying days, but it could have offered better feedback and feel. Besides, I wish Maruti Suzuki had given this car a smaller steering with its own independent design. The Swift steering feels large in this application and is now over three years old. C’mon Maruti Suzuki, do enlarge that parts bin of yours!
So till the time that they get around to doing that and yet remain profitable, let me say this: the new Maruti Suzuki A-Star is a capable small car. We Indians are going to love it for many things, especially for that fuel consumption bit, but there will be others who’ll mourn the unavailability of the hallowed Zen badge.