You have to hand it to Maruti Suzuki for being masters of the small car scene. That they can repackage a non-starter like the Versa, reposition it and price it rather temptingly from Rs 2.78 to 3.09 lakh (ex-showroom, Mumbai) is one that could very well be the next big case study for premier B-schools in this country.
In short, they could very well have written yet another chapter in their successful story, considering how a whole host of B-segment hatchbacks have now come in the Eeco’s ambit. But is it really worth the hype? We drove one, lived with one and put one through its paces to find out if the Eeco is making every other manufacturer very conscious.
WHY DID MARUTI WANT TO BRING BACK THE VERSA AS THE EECO?
The Versa’s below-average performance apart, Maruti needed a differentiator in the price band of Rs 2.5-4 lakh that could work as an alternative to a family hatchback. Moreover, the company also needed a product that could work well as a cab in metros, with good luggage capacity being one of the requirements, especially after the Esteem was discontinued. The Versa fitted, but in its current, avatar wasn’t working well. So, stripping it off luxuries and making its price competitive by putting in a smaller engine to gain excise duty benefits, Maruti Suzuki embarked on this project. Months of R&D and Rs 60 crore later, the Eeco was born.
SO IT IS STILL THE VERSA, RIGHT?
Yes, it pretty much is the Versa all right, considering the platform and most of the body panels, but it is a de-contented one. Which means most of the creature comforts of the Versa have been snipped away. The first visible sign is the lack of a high roof, the bumpers are now matte black and gone is the excessive stickering, plastic wheel caps and/or alloy wheels, rear wash-wiper and rear spoiler on the higher end DX2/SDX versions. All of these add to the cost of the car and doing away with them has helped Maruti pass on the benefits to the customer. What you get though, is a new grille, new clear-lens head lamps and tail-lamps and new Eeco badging and stickering along the flanks. On the inside, the seating arrangement has been changed too. In front, you now get single-piece seats with non-adjustable head rests and a bench seat with no head rests for the middle row in the five-seater, while the seven-seater gets an additional bench at the rear. The advantage is the less use of material and lower complexity involved, thus saving on costs. Maruti’s engineers made good use of the scissors in other places as well, so the wheel arches on the inside are now of the exposed variety while there is less plastic cladding on the inside around the pillars and doors. The cladding on the doors itself is now of a thinner variety with the front doors now sporting wind-down windows rather than the electric variety, while the steering is a thinner rim (with no power steering) that seems to be borrowed from the Alto. Instead of two sets of blowers and the Baleno A/C compressor, you now get only the ones on the dashboard with a smaller compressor. There is also no 12 V socket/cigarette lighter, but you do get a Kenwood music system as standard with four speakers.
OKAY, SO NOW WE KNOW THAT IT IS REPACKAGED AND REPOSITIONED. BUT IS IT ANY GOOD?
Under the seats, lies a new engine. Okay, not entirely new since it is the same 1298cc, G13 series engine made smaller by reducing the bore by 4 mm to a 1198cc unit, now nicknamed the G12 series. Logic says that Maruti could have used the K12 unit from the Ritz and Swift, but it wasn’t possible from an engineering standpoint considering the engine placement, which is why Maruti had to re-engineer the G13. Other changes include the addition of knock sensors, revised compression ratios and a new injection system. Since it already measures less than 4 metres, the Eeco falls into the 10 per cent excise bracket instead of the earlier 22 per cent bracket, which is the major reason why it is so deliciously priced. A new gearbox from the Maruti Estilo using Diagonal Shift Assistance technology means you don’t have to make those H-shaped shifts, and can just slot the gears diagonally. It’s that simple.
On the move, the first hint is that the new engine feels slightly less sprightly and rev-happy. Producing 73 bhp@6000 rpm, it is nearly 10 bhp down on the old unit, but the torque is nearly identical at 10.2 kgm@3000 rpm, a mere 0.2 kgm less. This torque figure, as well as a low kerb weight of 928 kg, some 47 kg lower than the Versa allows the vehicle to move smartly. The gearbox, with its slightly revised position, is a delight to use with its positive shifts and short throws. This helps it achieve a 0-100 kph time of 16.2 seconds, nearly as quick as a contemporary 1.2-litre hatch like the new Ford Figo. But it does feel strained if you keep shifting closer to the redline with the engine sounding a bit coarse. Despite its bread-box design, the Eeco can hit a top speed of over 130 kph and deliver a healthy 12 kpl.
HMMM... CAN I LIVE WITH ONE?
There are good bits and bad bits. The good bits are its size and driving position. Because you sit pretty forward and a bit higher up, unlike a hatchback, you get a commanding view of the road. Despite the lack of power-steering, it is very easy to manoeuvre the Eeco even at parking speeds, but the steering itself feels quite flimsy to hold on to. At high speeds it does tend to get affected by bumps and you constantly have to make minor corrections — not very different from the Omni there.
The front seats aren’t as thickly padded and don’t provide good back support. In fact, the passenger seat doesn’t have any fore and aft movement and can only recline. The rear bench seat is wide and there’s good legroom but it’s a little short on comfort. In the five-seater, the boot is large and you could literally move house if you wanted to. Because there is no weight sitting on the rear axle, the tail does tend to have a mind of its own. The Eeco can get bumpy on the move unless there is luggage in the boot; this can make the drive a bit tiresome on less-than-perfect roads. Despite all that, the Eeco handles reasonably well and doesn’t feel as top-heavy as the Versa. The brakes feel nice and sharp but it does take some getting used to with regard to brake modulation.
THE PRICE LOOKS TEMPTING. BUT SHOULD I STILL CHOOSE IT OVER A HATCHBACK?
The two operative words here are MPV and hatchback. The Eeco falls in the same gamut as a Maruti Alto or an Estilo/Wagon R at the lower end, with the base versions of newer hatches like the Chevrolet Beat and Ford Figo at the other. Yes, the Eeco has the advantage of space, especially luggage space, and if you choose the seven-seater, then a hatchback would feel like a tin of sardines. Maruti Suzuki have made a good effort in trying to make the Eeco nearly as quick as a hatch and car-like to drive, but it doesn’t feel as contemporary, nor does it have the predictable dynamics of a modern B-segmenter. So, if you need all that space and are Mr Sensible, then the Eeco is for you. But if you want to impress your prospective mother-in-law, stick to a hatchback.