Some names command respect, others gain a cult following. Ask the average hop-up specialist about Nismo, and he or she will tell you how different it feels from a regular Nissan. In India, the mere utterance of the name Zen causes some to talk about it passionately, while others get defensive. While some others rue the day Maruti Suzuki removed the badge from the famed torch-bearer and plastered it on the MR-Wagon, or what we call the Zen Estilo. It's not hard to conceive why - after all the MR Wagon is nothing but a latter generation Wagon R and for those who know their Zens and Wagon Rs - the twain shall never meet.
Latching on to a famous brand name meant Maruti Suzuki had a price to pay. The Estilo never got more than a second glance at showrooms and those who did were middle-aged men plonking for 'Purpilicious pinks'. Someone in the marketing department certainly read too much of Philip Kotler and even tried to read 'between the lines' - and failed miserably.
So Maruti have given the car another shot, this time retaining the Zen badge, but with more focus on the Estilo branding. They've also gotten rid of those controversial colours, sharpened up the front end, run an ironed crease on the bonnet, changed the grille and bumper, freshened up the interiors and... huff, changed the engine and gearbox! Now that certainly ranks as more than just a facelift; in fact Maruti have also rejigged the pricing and positioned it as an alternative to the A-Star. Is it worth all the effort? On first impressions, it is. The new ironed-out looks make it feel less boxy and the dollops of chrome on the front grille and the adoption of larger headlamps and recessed fog lamps provide some relief. On the inside too, the new use of shades and fabric have given the car a slightly more upmarket feel, especially the new digital instrument cluster, however there is still quite some tacky plastic around. Space on the inside for four is still decent, even though the high floor sill at the rear does rob you of some more leg space.
Under the hood, Maruti have plonked the 1.0-litre K Series engine from the A-Star. While this engine is smaller and has one cylinder less than the erstwhile 1061cc four-pot mill, it is also more powerful and torquier on paper at least. That means, you get an additional 4 bhp and 0.6 kgm of torque. To reduce vibrations and judder that are inherent in the K series engine, they have also added a re-worked gearbox which is smoother to shift and feels less notchy.
On the move, the Estilo feels a bit sprightly. Due to the rev-happy nature of the engine, the car now hits the redline quicker than before and doesn't have the staccato nature of the 1.1. It is also better damped in the Estilo shell with lesser engine vibes filtering through, unlike the A-Star. The gruntier exhaust note apart, the gearshift has genuinely improved. Gone is the recalcitrant feel and in comes a more positive one, though not entirely perfect. While the car does move positively (a full road test is imminent), it somehow lacks the creamy bottom end delivery of the 1.1. Because the K Series develops most of its power and torque post 3000 rpm, it isn't very comfortable in town and you need to step on the throttle a bit more than expected. The engineers at Maruti Suzuki also claim that the suspension has been reworked while small changes to the wheelbase have been made to make the ride more settled. In the short spin that I took, it seemed so that the overall straightline stability has not only improved, but it's also less prone to the kind of bobbing both the Wagon R and the earlier Estilo suffered from. But this hasn't really altered the Estilo's tendency to develop body roll and it's still rather easy to cock a wheel into the air. The shorter track to wheelbase ratio doesn't make the car a positive handler and can be rather scary at times, with the lifeless steering not helping matters.
But if the new Estilo has cracked it anywhere, it is in terms of positioning. With prices starting at under Rs 3.15 lakh, ex-showroom, Delhi and going all the way up to Rs 3.8 lakh, it has become a better value proposition. With a new engine that makes the car quicker off the block and more efficient, even though its driveability has suffered a bit. As a second or a third car for your family, the Estilo offers most of the creature comforts without burning a hole in your pocket. And for those still craving for a Zen in the garage, fear not, a little birdie tells us a new Zen is on its way in the next couple of years. Time to unscrew the champagne bottles then!