Evolution or Revolution? These are two terms that car designers and product planners constantly grapple with, when then get down to the cut and thrust of building a new product. While the radical path of having a revolutionary design is extremely appealing, it does come fraught with dangers. A telling instance is the revolutionary yet tepidly successfully Tata Nano. In that vein, nowhere are these dangers more apparent than in the entry level, small budget car segment, a space where the average buyer prefers the contentment of familiarity to bravado. Viewed in this light, the new 2012 Alto 800, the latest entry level small car in Maruti Suzuki brandishes a brand of “evolution” that has stood India’s largest car maker is terrific stead over the years.
Now, for some time travel. Turning the clock back to the year 2000, a year when Hrithik Roshan took Bollywood and India by storm with his debut movie, Kaho Naa Pyaar Hain, Maruti Suzuki was to embark on a replacement for the car that put India on wheels, the Maruti 800. We’ll explain the Hrithik connection in just a bit. 2000 was also the year Maruti Suzuki ran a teaser campaign, a first of its kind across India. From banners to TV commercials, Maruti launched a marketing blitzkrieg of sorts with the “It’s hot, it’s coming fast” campaign. And to add to the mystery, Maruti even started touting its latest product(then) to be hotter than the current heart throb of the nation, Hrithik Roshan by peppering its teasers with the “It’s hotter than Hrithik Roshan” line.
Fast forward to now, 2012, a time when we have Maruti Suzuki running teaser ads of the new Alto 800 on television, one can’t help a sense of deja vu. So, 12 years it has been since the first Alto rolled out of Maruti Suzuki’s production line and in the ensuing years, it has gone on to become the best selling car of the country, displacing the legendary Maruti 800 in the process. While the Alto was initially launched with a view of replacing the Maruti 800, the older legend continued to outsell the Alto initially, so much so that Maruti has to actually slowly reposition the 800 to make the Alto more successful. This strategy worked and the Alto soon replaced the Maruti 800 as India’s most bought(loved?) small car and has retained this title ever since.
Nostalgia apart, the new Alto 800, which will be launched on the 16th of October, comes 12 years after the first Alto F8D, and firmly sticks to the evolutionary approach. Team ICB just took a spin in the new Alto 800 to see what the car offers to the small car buyer this festive season. Delving straight into the design of the new Alto 800, we were more than a little underwhelmed to cast our eyes on the car, which seems like a assortment of various car parts, quite notably of that of the Ford Figo from front. Given that the Alto 800 is expected to primarily compete with the Hyundai Eon, the Alto 800’s gaudy looks makes the Eon look like a million bucks and that’s saying something given that the Eon isn’t the greatest design around in the first place.
While the new car is wider(1,490 mm to 1,475 mm) than the Alto F8D, it is also taller(1,475 mm to 1,460 mm) and shorter(3,395 mm to 3,495 mm) with significantly small overhangs at the front and the rear. These proportions endow the Alto 800 with slightly quirky looks. Overall, the Alto 800 feels like an uncomfortable blend of modernity stuck in a time warp of conservatism. This means that the design is neither here nor there, yet another example of the “evolutionary” approach Maruti has taken. This approach is expected to work well with the majority of car buyers in the small car segment for whom ravishing looks isn’t usually on the top of the priority list. While the design does feel new, it might not age as gracefully as the Alto F8D, which still continues to have an understated grace about its simple design.
On the inside though, matters are much more positive. The Alto 800 gets a brand new dashboard and center console that feel cheery instead of the depressing grayness that the Alto F8D conveys. The plastics feel better to touch and feel, and this is one area where the Alto 800 definitely has evolved and superiorly so. Cubby holes and storage areas are aplenty on the dashboard too. Silver and Greige(gray plus beige) colors combine in a happy marriage to make for a good looking dashboard. The steering wheel feels substantially better to hold with other material like the door panel inserts and the interior trimmings making the cabin feel better than that of the Alto F8D, given that the Alto 800 could be headed into Hyundai Eon territory, which easily offers the best interiors that money can buy in India.
The front seats get integrated headrests to save a few pennies for Maruti while the rear seat is a bench with no headrests. The behinds of the front seats are scooped out to liberate that extra legroom for the rear seat occupants. While the seats are pretty basic, they come in fabric trim and are comfortable enough to get the job done. The Alto 800 has gotten more spacious on the insides, what with head room and leg room increasing marginally over the F8D model. Also, the car’s extra width and thinner doors make for better shoulder room. The Alto 800 is now a better package for taller drivers and is apt for four adults. The ergonomics are spot on with the controls falling easily to hand. Plenty of parts on the Alto 800 are shared with the Alto F8D to keep costs down. Stuff like the air conditioner knobs and the indicator/wiper stalks are straight lift offs from the Alto F8D and the upside to this is that the car buyer gets tried and tested parts, which will see a lot of usage.
Cost cutting bits abound on the Alto 800 and this is quite understandable given the segment in which the car will operate in. However, in a bid to lower costs, it seems like Maruti has pushed things a bit too far. For instance, a major disappointment is the absence of the left hand side wing mirror, a potential safety hazard, even on the top end model. This glaring omission is something that isn’t expected of Maruti Suzuki and is quite a let down. The other iffy bit is the positioning of the power window switch between the front seats behind the gear lever. Apart from these two bits, another eyesore was the uncovered hatch door latch, which again is something that Maruti should have avoided. All these things, while not being deal downers are something that take away the allure of a new car, especially one which has come 12 years after the original.
Now, let’s get to the real evolutionary bits that won’t be seen but will be felt by users over both the short as well as the longer term of ownership. The F8D-3 cylinder, 796cc petrol engine, is in its most technologically advanced state of tune on the Alto 800. Peak power has gone up slightly to 49 PS(up from 47 PS) at 6,000 rpm. Notably, the peak power is produced 200 rpm lesser than on the Alto F8D and this results in the power band being lowered for better performance in the city with improved driveability. The bigger talking point is the torque, which at an additional 15% over the F8D model, with 69 Nm of peak torque instead of 62 Nm, makes the Alto 800 more peppier than the F8D model.
The F8D engine comes with a host of changes internally to improve power, torque and fuel economy. Chief amongst these changes is the adoption of low friction parts in the engine. Some engine parts like the connecting rods and crankshaft see lightening to make the engine more rev happy. This has resulted in an engine that feels more eager than the one on the Alto F8D. Fuel injection is standard and the engine is mated to a 5 speed manual gearbox. The gearbox is another bit which is an improved unit with detent pin technology and diagonal shifting. This means that shifting from gears like 2nd to 3rd and 4th to 5th is seamless, making gear shifting a big improvement in the Alto 800.
Even with 3 adults aboard, the Alto 800 managed to pull in all its gears and proved to be decently peppy in town. If given the stick, the Alto 800 will top out at about 140 Kph while the 0-100 acceleration will come in at about 18.5 seconds. These performance figures will be perfectly acceptable to the small car buying hordes as long as the Alto 800 manages to deliver on the fuel efficiency front. Speaking of which, Maruti claims that the Alto 800 will deliver an ARAI certified fuel economy figure 22.7 Kmpl. So, expect a real world mileage figure of about 16-17 Kmpl in the city while highway runs should see that figure rising to about 20 Kmpl.
The Alto 800, which while retaining the existing platform of the Alto F8D along with the wheelbase, comes with a stiffer floor pan. This stiffening improved rigidity of the monocoque chassis while the suspension gets gas shock absorbers to improve ride quality. So, the Alto 800 is mainly aimed at the city small car buyer whose top most priority is a good ride quality. In this aspect, the Alto 800 improves significantly over the older model. Handling is nothing to write home about although the Alto 800 will hold its own against competition in its class with a safe and assured handling package.
A great steering feel isn’t the strong point of the Alto but the steering does feel very light for darting in and out of city traffic, another aspect which highlights the overall design of the Alto 800 being fine tuned to suit the rough and tumble of city usage than high speed highway runs, where a well weighted progressive feeling steering like that on a Ford Figo comes into a league of its own. High speed stability, if the Alto F8D is anything to go by will be good although quick directional changes at higher speeds of over 80 Kph isn’t very confidence inspiring given the suspension tuned more towards good ride quality.
Braking is adequate with ventilated disc brakes up front and drums at the rear. Keeping its segment in mind, the active(and indispensable) safety feature of ABS is not offered even as an option on the Alto 800 although car buyers do get the option of a driver airbag on the top end variant of the car. Maruti will also launch a CNG powered Alto 800 in India, under the Alto 800 Green moniker. The petrol-CNG dual fuel model is expected to be priced about INR 40,000 over the petrol powered version, which itself could start at about INR 2.49 Lakhs. In a nutshell, the Alto 800 is quite an improved car over the Alto F8D in most respects except perhaps the looks, which is a subjective matter anyway. So, if Maruti Suzuki does get the pricing right, which we anticipate it will given the razor sharp focus on cutting costs, the Alto 800 could turn out to be yet another best seller for Maruti Suzuki.
Team ICB thanks Sumankirti Cars Private Limited, an authorized Maruti Suzuki dealer based out of Baner in Pune, for giving us an opportunity to test drive the car for this report. You can get in touch with Sumankirti Cars on 020-64006100 for buying any car in the Maruti Suzuki line up.