The fourth car to get the K10 series engine in Maruti Suzuki’s line-up and I had to ask the senior management —how many more engine bays are there left? Amused by the question, they just looked up, smiled and said, “You keep watching.”At first, the Alto K10 seemed improbable, even questionable, but it seems Maruti Suzuki sometimes understands market desires better than the market itself and going by the buzz this model is about to create, I wouldn’t be surprised if it would be a runaway success.
The Alto is the biggest selling car in the country and for many, it is the first four-wheeler in their lives. And that role is something the Alto does beautifully. It is compact, has an energetic engine, easy to hone your driving skills in and gives a gazillion kilometres to the litre. Its reliability and its friendly nature have made it the de facto first car for a whole host of us Indians. But the popularity notwithstanding, it’s 10 years old already.
Enter the new Alto K10 — the first major refresh since the original one went on sale. The refresh is relatively minor, but appearances can be deceiving. Maruti Suzuki has altered the length of the car to make it some 125 mm longer, but all that length increase has been achieved by creating more space for the engine in the bonnet area. The headlamps are new with amber coloured turn indicators in the receptacle, the bumper has a wider air-dam with fog lamps for the VXi model as well as a new chrome strip on the grille and slightly revised slats. On the flanks, the car gets a new side strip, new wheel caps and Zen-inspired rear view mirrors while at the rear new tail-lamps and a new tailgate with a repositioned number plate, bumper and a K10 badge make the difference. On the inside, Maruti Suzuki have worked their charm a bit. While headroom still remains the same, there has been a change with the rear legroom. By cleverly making a scoop under the front seats, Maruti Suzuki engineers have liberated some 50 mm of space for your feet — but it still feels a little tight on the inside. Move to the front and you are now greeted by a new steering wheel and new instrument cluster that looks like a bit of a design disaster. Apart from changes to the seat trim and slight changes to the dashboard colour co-ordination, it all stays the same. Plastic quality still remains inconsistent in places and feels well past what other small cars offer. We would have loved it if Maruti Suzuki worked on the seats a bit to provide some more support, especially side bolstering.
Maruti Suzuki feels there is still some life left in the original 800cc three-cylinder unit of the Alto, so it is available on the bog-Standard version as well as the LX variant. The new K10 motor is what the whole hype is all about, and that is found in the LXi and the VXi variants. Crank the car up and you are greeted by the typical three-cylinder thrum, though the 998cc unit feels a bit more refined compared to the older 800cc engine. Producing 67 bhp at 6000 rpm and 9.2 kgm of twist at 3500 rpm, the K10 engine under the hood of the Alto is no different from the one found on the Zen Estilo, Wagon R and A-Star. What Maruti has done is changed some parameters on the ECU for fuelling purposes as well as gear ratios and this has meant the car can deliver an ARAI certified 20.2 kpl in the combined cycle, a best in its segment. Accelerate hard and the difference is palpable. The car feels more fleet-footed and moves off the block much quicker than its 800cc cousin. Maruti Suzuki claims that it can hit the tonne from a standing start in 13.3 seconds, which makes it some 5-6 seconds quicker than the regular Alto. While we couldn’t verify this figure, the Alto does move very smartly and thanks to some nicely worked-out ratios it didn’t feel like it was losing steam once it entered triple digits. With an improved power-to-weight ratio of 85 bhp/tonne, the Alto makes light work of catching up with several other more powerful hatchbacks in the country, reminding us of what the Alto VX 1.1 used to be when it was offered back then.
The improvement in torque also means you can shift up a gear earlier, although if you do encounter a climb it does necessitate some downshifting to get the car on the boil. Overall driveability is decent, as long as you keep this in mind that it is a three-cylinder unit. But it isn’t entirely vibe free. There are still some vibrations that can be felt through the steering and pedals and we hope to see some of that change as production cars start to reach showrooms.
Nearly a decade ago, the Alto was quite a benchmark in the A1/A2 segment as far as overall dynamics went. It’d be naive to say that it still is, but it is still a fairly rounded package. The Alto K10 now has softer spring rates at the front and rear to compensate for the change in weight and to improve overall ride quality. There’s no doubt that the Alto K10 does ride decently and some, if not all, of the choppiness has disappeared. It feels quite pliant on smooth roads and slightly bumpy ones, but it can’t completely isolate the occupants from road aberrations due to its size and weight. Handling ranges from neutral to understeery. Use the car’s power and gearing to allow for more steering correction and the handling can be termed fair, but shed less speed into a corner and it goes into a constant understeer. Despite sitting on 13-inch wheels and tyres, the amount of grip available hasn’t changed much, so don’t expect it to handle as well as say the A-Star which still is a benchmark in the sub-Rs 4 lakh hatch category as far as handling goes. The steering continues to feel slightly numb and doesn’t provide as much feedback. High speed stability is okay, as long as you don’t cross 120 kph, but here too the A-Star has the better of it.
At Rs 3.03-3.16 lakh, ex-showroom Delhi, the Alto K10 with its features list, new engine and newfound enthusiasm makes for a very compelling package, one that seems to interest even other manufacturers such as Tata Motors, Fiat, Nissan and even Volkswagen. By launching the Alto K10, Maruti Suzuki has pre-empted any such move and it means that the competition will probably have to make some changes on the drawing board before they launch their respective offerings. Maybe by then Maruti Suzuki would have discovered a new segment to enter with the K-series motor and the others will have to play catch up all over again!