The pothole came rather quickly. I was behind the wheel of Maruti Suzuki's new Wagon R and ideally I should have noticed it rather easily, what with the car's high perch design. But I didn't and when I did realise my folly it was too late. What followed was a series of thuds and crashes, but they sounded rather muted, more like a larger car, and in that instant it changed the opinion of a Wagon R owner like me.
For the last five years or so, my family has been in the company of a Wagon R and while the purchase decision wasn't mine, I did grin and bear it. Yes, the Wagon R is practical and frugal and easy to manoeuvre and torquey in town but other than that I was always struggling to find a reason to like the car. The boxy appearance apart, it wasn't the best car to be in while cornering, the seats were as supportive as a coalition government and the gearbox, simply put, was rubbish. The steering was numb, the brakes difficult to modulate and the ride was somewhere between being thrashy and crashy and at times both! That, dear ladies and gentlemen, has been consigned to a book in the corner of the Asiatic Library. What Maruti Suzuki have done, and thoughtfully so, is get rid of the old platform. Based on the current fourth-generation Wagon R (called the YR9 platform) that is sold in Japan, the new Wagon R is taller, wider and longer than before. Measuring nearly 3.6 metres in length, it has helped offset the height balance, and it now stands at 1.7 metres, up from 1.53 metres. Using tailored blanks for the body to provide stiffness yet keep weight in check, it still appears boxy, though the rising waistline provides some relief. The headlamps and chin look like a variation of the one found on the Japanese Wagon R, except that it is more Maruti-ised with a typical grille and those blue-tinged lamps. You may or may not like the tail treatment, what with the Ford Endeavour-esque chrome badging at the rear, but it does provide some more relief. While the car appears wider, it is just 5 mm more than before, while the wheelbase has increased by 10 mm only.
On the inside, there's more space and that is evident as soon as you enter. The doors open wide, the seats are wider and finally feel more supportive, with better shoulder room. Three at the back feels less of a squeeze than before and with the flat floor at the rear, there also seems to be better leg room in the process. Pretty much everything on the inside is new, and the dashboard is the first sign that the quality has improved. With tactile feeling buttons and good quality surfaces, this isn't the Wagon R of yore. The scratchy surfaces are gone, and while on the face of it there seem to be less storage bins, it isn't actually so, with nice push-type cupholders (a la BMW), a bag hook just under the glovebox and a storage bin under the front passenger seat. The integrated stereo sounds good, the AC chills well and the rear split-seat makes a comeback! So far the Wagon R seems to have banished a lot of ghosts and as I got behind the wheel it was sweeping away the last remaining ones. The earlier Wagon R used a 1061cc engine that produced around 64 bhp. Best for its torquey nature, it owed its genesis to the Maruti 800, using the same cylinders but an additional one to make it, er, balanced. The new one shifts to the three-cylinder 998cc K-series unit from the A-Star/Estilo and at first it had me worried. In the Estilo, the unit has been a bit of a laggard, struggling to move all that mass and neither coming across as sporty or luggable. To counter that, Maruti have used the brilliant cable assisted diagonal shift gearbox from the Estilo, revised the ratios and in turn made the engine feel more like a transverse four.
On the move, it feels pretty refined and there's enough get up and go to carry it to speeds up to 130 kph before it starts to run out of steam. The imbalanced feel of the three-cylinder unit is close to non-existent, as we found driving from Puri to Konarak and back, but that we shall find out for sure when we put it through a full road test. It doesn't sound harsh either at the higher end of the rev-range, unlike the outgoing four-cylinder unit that always sounds like an engine that needs bedding in even with 50,000 km on the clock. The fruity exhaust note apart, the gears slot very well and I can imagine the look on the faces of all those current 800,000 Wagon R owners across the country when they try this one out. The gear knob has been designed to fall easily in your palm, though I don't like the way it looks. The other advantage of the new platform is the new suspension setup. An L-shaped unit at the front, with its own sub-frame, replaces the pure McPherson units. What this has done is make the ride more pliant and less susceptible to vertical motion. It also makes the car better tied down and allows for better weight distribution across the front wheels. Placing a new steering unit above the front axle, the car turns in with more positivity, less body roll and more grip. Thanks to the 165 section 14-inch tyres, there is more lateral grip and with the tyres being 65 per cent of the profile, there is less bobbing too. The steering on the Wagon R provides more feedback and better feel of the road. To be honest, it behaves so much like the Suzuki Ritz on the road now that one can hardly make out the difference between the two.
This can only be a good thing as long as potential buyers don't switch sides. But even if they do, Maruti wouldn't mind, because right now they are running at 125 per cent of their capacity in one plant and the other is also getting there rather soon. So despite increased competition, Maruti is holding its head high and sailing past them all. With the new Wagon R, they can stamp their authority even further, even though there won't be a Duo version to begin with (which contributes nearly a quarter of all Wagon R sales).
The new Wagon R with its bevy of features and sound engineering, looks like a sure-shot winner. And those who buy one can now stop worrying about small potholes.
Maruti has revealed the pricing for the new Wagon R as follows
LX: Rs 3.28lakhs
LXi: Rs 3.57lakhs
VXi: Rs 3.81lakhs
VXi (ABS + Airbags): Rs 4.12lakhs
All prices ex-showroom, Delhi.