Maruti Suzuki Esteem(Seconds)

On a tight budget, and looking for a VFM family sedan?You could look at the new Indigo.But then the age-old Esteem is also still vying for attention...

In a perfect world, we would all buy an Italian supercar – finished in red, with two doors, a surfeit of horsepower and an exhaust note with more soul than a congress of R&B artistes. But then we’d also want to date a supermodel or three, holiday in the south of France every now and then and own a penthouse on the Monaco seaside. Not happening anytime soon, is it? Because finances dictate prudence and existence is more mundane than we would want it to be, ‘value-for-money’ family sedans reign supreme on the sales roster. And hacks take time off from their flights of fantasy to talk about budget blasters like the Indigo and the Esteem.

Sold on old?
The age-old Esteem is the veritable senior-citizen of this duo, and the very fact that we can even consider comparing it to a car launched more than ten years later earns it some respect. The erstwhile Maruti 1000 started life as a carburetted 45-horse slug, but its latest iteration, the Esteem 1.3 MPI, boasts a healthy 84 bhp at 6000 revs and 10.7 kgm of torque at 3000. In a sub-900 kilo package, those figures provide for some nifty motoring alright! Style-wise, the M1000 was a revelation when it was launched here and had the buying public in raptures. Now, more than a decade on, it looks passé and no one gives it a second glance. In foreign markets, the Esteem’s siblings (the Suzuki Swifts and Subaru Justys of this world...) have been chopped from their respective manufacturers’ line-ups, but the car labours on in India. Build quality is no great shakes, and interiors look dated now, but for what it’s worth, the car doesn’t threaten to fall apart at the first instance of rough-shod usage. The car is cramped for space and seats are not very comfortable. Cheap and cheerful, the reliable old 1300 CC Esteem continues to provide affordable motoring to those who just wouldn’t consider a smaller hatchback.

And talking of hatchbacks, that’s what the Indigo was before they give the Indica a boot and a new name. Well, almost. Tata Engineering first tasted success in the B-segment with their Indica, and keen on moving up a segment, saw it fit to boot that car into an Indigo. The Indica’s 1405 CC MPFI mill has been tweaked to deliver all of 85 bhp and 11.4 kgm of torque at 3000 rpm (which,combined with a weight of around 1000 kg, still isn’t enough to match the feather-weight Esteem’s power-to-weight ratio). And there’s a new three-link suspension set-up at the back. The car also gets a 50 mm increase over the Indica’s wheelbase, and the packaging has been optimised for maximum rear seat legroom.

The Indigo’s styling has received mixed reactions, and even though it is pure Indica at the front, the new rear-end treatment looks okay and even invokes lots of questions from bystanders whenever the car is parked. Build quality is slightly inconsistent, and new Indigos on our test fleet had some minor squeaks and rattles here and there. Interiors are notably tacky (fake carbon fibre trim etc) and controls feel flimsy, but the Indigo wins hands down when it comes to leg-room (especially at the back) and head-room. On the top-of-the-range Indigo GLX, there are also some nice extras - a knob for adjusting headlamp beam height, and an interior lamp that switches off automatically a few seconds after you’ve locked the car from the outside.

On the move
On the road, both cars perform with a touch of zest. Budget saloons these may be, but they can keep up with much of the more expensive competition. The Esteem’s 84 horses have a mere 875 kilos to propel, and the car does the 0 to 60 in 5.37 seconds and 0 to 100 in 11.93, which is not bad at all. Third gear works all the way from 30 to 160 kph, and the car makes rapid progress through heavy traffic with ease. In fact, like the Maruti 800, the Esteem is one effective urban driving tool. On inter-city runs too, the Esteem manages to hold its own and reaches up to 165 kph – given the right road conditions. 

What is not so impressive is the ride and handling department.The MacPherson strut (front) and semi-trailing arms (rear) set-up is something of a dilemma; the ride is rather choppy at most speeds and rear seat occupants are never really able to get very comfortable. 

At the same time, the handling isn’t very good either. Riding on 13-inch wheels, the Esteem feels light-nosed, nervous and floaty at high speeds and does not inspire much confidence. It also tends to wander under heavy braking, and gets completely out of shape if you lock up the brakes on slick surfaces – makes you wish the car was equipped with ABS. The tyres – 155/80 MRF radials – provide adequate grip, and the car exhibits safe understeer during high-speed cornering. Brakes can feel a tad over-servoed but show no signs of fading over repeated hard stops. Overall, there is nothing here to get excited about – but you knew that all along, didn’t you? The free-revving engine is the star of the package, with the chassis/suspension dynamics lagging behind by a fair margin. Adequate performance for a ‘family sedan’ – no less, and certainly no more. 

The first thing about the Indigo that gets your attention is the way its engine sounds – nice and raspy – almost like a race-prepped competition machine. You wouldn’t expect such an engine note in a budget
saloon, and it’s fun to rev the engine just to hear it howl in anticipation. And you do need to rev that engine to get the best out of it. The car’s five-speed gearbox is rubbery and rather imprecise, but if you manage to shift quickly and cleanly enough, and give no mercy to the throttle pedal, the Indigo sprints from 0 to 60 in 6.41 seconds and from 0 to 100 in 13.59. Both figures, you will note, are off the Esteem’s numbers by a full second or more; a fact we attribute to the Japanese car’s lower kerb weight and quicker gearshifts. That said, the Indigo never really feels sluggish in traffic, provided you keep that peaky 1400 CC mill on the boil and like the Esteem, it also reaches a top speed of 165 kph. On paper, the Indigo has marginally more maximum torque than the Esteem at the same engine speed, but it doesn’t feel that way on the road – let the revs drop, and the car bogs down immediately, necessitating a downshift or two. 

The car gets 14-inch alloys (wearing 175/65 MRFs) and the Indigo’s four-wheel independent suspension – MacPherson struts at front and three-link at the back – seem to have been optimised for handling and the car feels relatively composed at speed, though we feel that ride quality could have been a little less jittery at all speeds. The Indigo never seems to cruise calmly, and moves around a lot on the smallest of undulations on the road. If the Esteem feels underdamped, the Indigo also doesn’t feel refined enough. And we don’t know what’s needed – more hours in R&D, or better suspension components? Braking performance is just about adequate. During testing, with the brake pedal being squashed to the floor repeatedly from triple-digit speeds, the car went off the straight line and swayed to the right and then left in an exaggerated pendulum fashion. Stopping times were also more than the Esteem’s and the brakes seemed to lack outright power at times.

Back to the future?
The inevitable question – which is the better car? Hmm... now let’s see how I can wiggle out of this one. Okay, let’s do a quick summary. The Esteem is lighter, quicker and more fuel efficient. It’s build quality is more consistent than the Indigo’s, and it’s likely to be more reliable over a long period of time. The flip side is, it looks terribly dated, doesn’t ride too well and will fare poorly if put through modern crash/safety
regulation tests. The Indigo is undeniably more spacious than the Esteem, has a peppy little engine that loves to be revved hard, has some novelty value and attracts attention wherever it goes. Negatives are carelessness in fit and finish, a rubbery gearshift, occasional scuttle-shake, some driveline lash and styling that could have demonstrated a better statement. Compared with the Esteem, the Indigo’s fuel
consumption too is on the higher side.

In ‘which is the better car’ stakes, the above facts speak for themselves. The Indigo GL (base version) is about Rs 40,000 cheaper than the Esteem LX (base version) and is engineered to comply with new safety regulations better than the much older Esteem. Nevertheless, the Esteem still feels the more cohesive package and offers more refinement than its challenger. The Indigo is definitely a step in the right direction for Tata, but for now we’d still take the Japanese car.