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Verna vs SX4 vs City vs Vento - End of the road?

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Few roads can tell you what a car is truly capable of. An open, winding road is one of them. More often than not, it tells you what a car feels like, and whether it has all the trappings of a winner. But sometimes, they kill misconceptions, and bring out newer beliefs. It’s hard to explain, even harder to justify them, but such is life.

The new Hyundai Verna somehow started on just such a page. The previous car didn’t do anything wrong, but it didn’t do much right either. It led a life of mediocrity and therefore was blessed with mediocre performance even on the sales charts. Numerous facelifts, one as recent as last year, didn’t do much to change its fortunes. A sliver of hope, then, lies on the shoulders of the new one, a car that Hyundai hopes will change its luck in the C-segment and above as it plans an onslaught of new cars this year and the next.

The going won’t be easy. In a segment that has a VFM car like Maruti Suzuki’s SX4, a car with engineering finesse in the form of the Volkswagen Vento and the all-conquering Honda City whose only mistake is the lack of a diesel option, the Verna can feel truly overwhelmed. But can it overcome? We hit the open road, a road that truly opened our eyes to a new set of winners. And some really close results.

 

Design

There’s no doubt that the new Verna has shock value. There are enough layers, surfaces and slashes to keep you engrossed. The nose is part of the new ‘fluidic design’ concept that we first saw on the facelifted i10 a few months ago. What catches your eye are those L-shaped fog lamps, which add to the whole futuristic look that makes this car stand apart from the rest of its competitors. In silhouette, you can’t miss the coupe-like roof stance that threatens to take some head room away, but actually it doesn’t. From the stand-out lightcatcher that runs across the length to the E60 BMW 5 Series-inspired tail lamps, this is one busy design. It works in the Indian context, where life cycles are getting shorter and more and more competitors try to jostle for space in the market. It should be good enough for the next three years, when the first major facelift should be around the corner.

Honda hasn’t lost the plot either. For nearly three years, and that too without a facelift, the City continues to look the part, and if anything it’s only the popularity of the car that makes it look a bit jaded. But view it solo and you will still appreciate its athletic stance, those parallelogram headlamps and grille and the abruptly, yet smartly, cut out boot.

The Vento uses the smart nose from the Polo to its benefit and the simplicity of the design has its own appeal. But there are pitfalls too. The tail lamps don’t gel too well and there are already some signs of ageing, especially in the way the C-pillar meets the boot. The SX4’s original design still manages to hold on, even though it’s the oldest of the lot here. That’s primarily because the SX4’s high-stance and crossover background are not in the same vein as the other sedans here. I wish that they had retained the five-spoke alloys instead of the multi-spokes on the ZXI – it looks like an attempt to be ‘normal’.

 

Interiors

Space and features, the two buzzwords for what make a great cabin, right? And it seems that those buzzwords hold true here too. Three of the four cars here have spacious cabins, while two of the four are well-loaded – phew! That surely does make my job tough.

The new Hyundai Verna is the best-loaded of the lot here, as long as you are willing to ignore the price. Apart from the 1.4-litre versions, both the 1.6-litre petrol and diesel motors come with at the very least a single airbag, ABS as well as disc brakes at the rear as standard. That is something only the Honda City can match up to (it has twin airbags, but not the rear disc brakes). The basic Vento and SX4 don’t have any safety kit, but then they are also priced lower. This brings in the typical conundrum – save money but skimp on essential safety kit or spend the extra dough? We believe that the safety kit is cruicial and hope that some day, airbags and ABS become standard across all cars in India.

Nevertheless, the Verna has it right. On test were the SX versions of the petrol and diesel, and both came with features that aren’t commonplace among cars in this segment. Take auto-folding mirrors for instance or the reversing camera with sensors or the auto-dimming mirror or the bluetooth function and multimedia connectivity or the fact that it has six airbags on the option version – they all point out how Hyundai wants to play the value game. Of course, there is a price to pay for all of it, especially with the diesel, which is the priciest of the lot. Overall build quality and fit and finish are of a high order, a substantial leap over its predecessor.

 

The Vento and City don’t compare with the Verna in that respect. Volkswagen have offered a CD player on the Highline, but no aux-in/USB ports and no steering-mounted controls. However, we hear that VW is planning to remedy the situation. Honda, on the other hand, believe people don’t need CD players, so it has offered a USB-based system instead that sounds nice. What the Vento does offer is auto up-down windows on all four sides and a tilt-and-reach adjustable steering, apart from cooling vents for rear occupants. The City doesn’t have automatic climate control, which is a shame considering substantially cheaper cars offer this. Let’s hope the facelift does just that.

No worries with the SX4, though. You do get climate control on the ZXI, a USB port and steering wheel-mounted audio controls. Maruti’s policy of VFM pricing ensures that the SX4 doesn’t feel short of kit. But where the Vento and City feel richer, the SX4’s plasticky interiors don’t help matters. Apart from the climate control knobs, the other bits feel a little low-rent. Not that the VW is as well-finished as its more expensive brethren, but it does feel solidly put together.

Space is where the Verna, City and Vento run it close. The Verna, like the City, has a flat floor, so the person sitting in the middle doesn’t feel squeezed. Even the seat is well designed for the middle passenger, unlike the Vento or the SX4, where the hump on the seat renders it useless. Leg room on all three is pretty good, the City feeling slightly short on headroom, while both the Verna and Vento do just fine. The SX4 doesn’t match up here and apart from a higher seating position, there just isn’t enough shoulder room or leg room to play around with. At the front, the Verna and Vento offer little by way of useful side bolstering; the City and SX4 seats feel much better.

 

Powertrain & Performance

The least powerful car here is a diesel, which is no surprise, but the most powerful one is a diesel as well. That just shows how much some manufacturers have developed their motors to become ever-so-powerful. Hyundai has the most powerful motors here on paper, the City runs it close, while the Vento and SX4 find themselves some distance away. But that gap isn’t as large in the real world.

Despite giving away 5 bhp to the Verna, the City is no slouch. Among the petrols, it’s still the quickest and it runs rings around all its petrol competition. The dash to 100 kph comes up in just 10.59 seconds – the Verna does it in a shade over 11.5 seconds. Volkswagen’s Vento does it in 11.7 seconds, while the SX4 clocks just under 12 seconds. Top speeds of the City and Verna are pretty close, the higher horsepower helping the Verna go a little higher than the City, followed by the Vento and SX4. The City even manages the best passing speed times, especially from 80-120 kph and 100-140 kph, but it’s the bottom-end where the car continues to stay the weakest. The i-VTEC motor has nicely selected ratios to mask the lack of bottom-end torque, but they don’t always work, especially around hairpin bends that sometimes necessitate shifting to first.

 

All these cars have light clutches, though the one on the Vento and, to an extent, the SX4 feel a tad heavy. The SX4 motor, now with variable-valve tech, feels more refined than before, the Vento has a nice snarl to it when you start working the gearbox, the City’s engine feels coarse at the top-end, while the Verna’s feels refined all the way through. Of the lot, it’s the Verna and City that have the slickest gear action.

Sure enough, in the diesels, the Verna turns out to be the quickest, but not by much. Despite more power and torque than the Vento, the gap between the two in terms of pure acceleration isn’t much. The Verna manages to accelerate to 100 kph in about 10.54 seconds, the Vento hot on its heels at 11.1 seconds. Passing speeds for the Verna diesel are quicker as well, but by a small margin. Yet, the Verna diesel’s clutch and gearbox action make the car a delight to drive, but the Vento somehow still fights back with well-selected gear ratios and oodles of torque in the mid-range.

Like the petrol, the Verna diesel is incredibly refined, the Vento’s diesel clatter at idle is annoying and a bit boomy at the top end. Maruti have worked pretty hard too to contain clatter, even though the Multijet naturally has low NVH levels to begin with. It feels a little hamfisted in this group; the slower 13.5 seconds to 100 kph and a top speed of 165 kph put it some way down the pecking order. The clutch action is quite light and the gearbox delightful to use, but it lacks the necessary cubes when you give it some stick and in town you need to slip the clutch a bit more than necessary.

 

Ride & Handling

The Verna is blessed with a great low-speed ride and a slightly floaty high-speed one – no change here with respect to its predecessor. But it’s better and worse for the same. The plusher low-speed ride means it handles bumps and potholes with ease, that’s thanks to the adoption of softer spring setups.

The Vento tends to thud around a bit, while the City runs the Verna close. The SX4 isn’t too bad either, the revised suspension in late-2009 doing wonders to make it less bouncy despite its relatively short wheelbase. As speeds start to rise, the City rides with a certain level of stiffness, though the rear feels marginally soft. The Verna loses the plot here. It just doesn’t inspire much confidence in the driver and, coupled with a slightly overservoed steering, it makes high-speed stability a bit of an issue. The SX4 maintains a decent composure, but it’s the Vento that feels most composed and truly unruffled by either road distortions or light-to-medium crosswinds.

Throw them into a corner and the Verna does truly start to lose the plot. The diesel isn’t too bad, but the petrol has this nasty tendency to step its tail out if you push it too hard and the lack of steering feel can be discomforting. All of this points to the Verna being an excellent city car, but one that’s diametrically opposite on the highway. The City likes corners and the stiffly sprung front-end and nicely tuned steering make it a joy to push it into corners, even though the narrower tyres don’t provide as much grip as they should.

The SX4 has improved too, with better turn-in, good grip thanks to the fat 16-inch, 205-section tyres and decent steering feel. The Vento’s light steering may not provide much feedback, but it sure does grip pretty decently. Pushed hard, it settles into understeer, a more forgiving setup for most. So the City takes the ride and handling trophy here, the SX4 comes up a commendable second, the Vento third, and the Verna, despite its soft riding, last.

 

Verdict

The four-way battle has not one winner, but two. In one case, the winner leads the second one by the skin of its teeth while in the other, it’s a decisive victor. Let’s just split it into petrols and diesels for your convenience, shall we?

Petrol

The Maruti Suzuki SX4 and Hyundai Verna take the last position jointly. Despite having the most power of the lot and being quite torquey, the Hyundai Verna isn’t the quickest. Nor is it the most fun-to-drive car. The controls are light and the overall interior ambience is pleasing with lots of features, but the Verna petrol, strangely enough, is dynamically seriously flawed, which pushes it down with the SX4. At Rs 8.64 lakh for the 1.6 VTVT SX, it’s decent value and as long as you lust after features more than dynamics, then this may be the car for you.

Nothing seriously wrong with the Maruti, it even manages to put a smile on your face when you decide to give it some stick, but it still rolls a fair bit, the interior space is a touch short and the interiors on the whole feel a tad old and plasticky. Nicely priced at Rs 8.14 lakh, ex-showroom, Mumbai for the ZXI, the SX4 has become the sort of Toyota Innova of this segment – if you can’t make up your mind, you can quietly choose the SX4 and you won’t go wrong.

Volkswagen’s Vento petrol makes it here for two reasons – the space on offer and the overall dynamics. It’s these attributes that help it sail past the Korean and Japanese. Ride quality is quite good over a variety of surfaces, build quality is not bad either and the 1.6-litre motor is torquey and reasonably efficient too. It fails to reach the top spot simply because it doesn’t excite while driving, nor is it feature loaded for the price being quoted. At ` 8.46 lakh for the Trendline, the Vento isn’t terribly overpriced, but we hope that the added features in the coming months make it better value.

That brings us to the City. At Rs 9.6 lakh, it’s the most expensive and its lack of features like a CD player or rear-air vents or even auto climate control win it no brownie points. But Honda cars have never been about value as much they have been about in-depth engineering. It’s here that the City shines. The 1.5-litre motor loves to be revved, but even when you drive around town, it exhibits decent driveability. Efficiency is a hallmark, and the overall experience behind the wheel is of sporty handling and reasonably plush ride quality as well as a cabin that’s comfortable. The market may view it as terrible value and the sales charts may not help the erstwhile king climb back to the top spot until the diesel arrives in 2013, but it continues to be the petrol car to buy.

 

Diesel

There is something strangely likeable about the SX4 diesel. The controls are light, the motor (despite its lack of cubes) gives the car decent performance and it’s quite a bit of fun to drive. But the SX4 lacks something that the Vento and Verna have – sparkle and a not-so-keen price tag of Rs 9.1 lakh. It does its job well, but not well enough to take it in the top percentile of this class, and so it has to make do with last position here.

How close the Vento and Verna ran made the job pretty tough to decide a winner. The Vento diesel has long remained our sub- Rs 10 lakh champion for the simple fact that the 1.6-litre diesel motor is torquey, the gear ratios are well selected for relaxed driving or fast cruising and it is blindingly efficient. The mature ride quality and decent handling have also won it friends, but at this price point people also look for features, which it lacks, and that eventually turns out to be the clincher.

The Verna then wins it not just because it’s well-loaded, but because in other departments it runs the Vento close. It has just as good interior space, very good low-speed ride quality and above-average ride quality overall, dynamics that are superior to its petrol cousin and controls that are light – essential on a diesel car. The Vento may have its measure in terms of dynamics, but the gap isn’t as big as is perceived. Eventually, despite the near ` 70,000 price difference between the cheaper Vento Highline and Verna SX, the Verna wins the day by a slim margin.

The open road. It finally spoke.