India has seen so many 800s and inevitably all of them have been Altos, if one cares to look at what got Maruti Suzuki off the ground. Adil Jal Darukhanawala has the most comprehensive inside line on the all-new Alto 800 (not to be confused with the Alto K10, mind you) which is sure to ring a louder bell in its class for the masses when it goes on sale midway in October 2012
Can one beat the fact that the country’s best-selling car, the Suzuki Alto is finally being refurbished and replaced with a spanking new model? Sounds incredible but with Hyundai having upped the stakes in the entry level segment of the car business with the stylishly put together and very competent Eon 800, the market leader had no option but to respond. And respond it has done but unlike its South Korean rival having taken a novel revolutionary approach to stock up the entry level weaponry in its arsenal, Maruti Suzuki has taken the evolutionary approach and come up with the new for 2012 Alto 800 to see it through the coming years.
The new car has a lot riding on it and with the venerable 800 from the very third year of Maruti Suzuki’s existence in the country still accounting for 2000 plus units per month to add to the over 20,000 plus units per month present-gen Alto, the onus was to make a super smooth transition so that the new generation Alto could not only hit the tarmac running but also keep the numbers rolling in. No wonder then the evolutionary angle of attack and the new Alto has that edge not just of striking the design lineage of its predecessor but also having the modernity without losing the essence of simplicity about it at all, this latter being a key factor behind its overall sales success in the country.
The new Alto 800, for that is how it has been designated, has been an all-Indian development and as such has been made specifically for emerging markets rather than the developed markets where Maruti exports its latest and most modern Altos to. In case you are flummoxed at this statement, look no further than the A-star which is indeed the most modern day Alto in existence, made in India and sold the world over. The new Alto 800, in contrast, would be a made in India for India only (and maybe a few mofussil markets like ours) offering. Nothing wrong in that, given the fact that it is basic motoring for the masses which this automobile caters to, and, as purveyors of this class of motoring, no one can match Maruti Suzuki at this game of horses-for-very-small-courses.
The very evolutionary nature of the new car shows that the Maruti Suzuki design and engineering team has made the transition from the present generation offering to the new one in a very easy and simple manner. The base floorpan remains the common shared ingredient between the outgoing and the incoming Alto but from there on there is a load of change. The floorpan has been stiffened appreciably to enhance the torsional rigidity of the overall monocoque.
Throw in completely recalibrated suspension (MacPherson struts up front and a three-link rigid axle set-up with isolated trailing arm at the rear) borrowed from the outgoing car but now with gas-charged dampers wrought into the package, the entire ride and handling has been taken to an all-new high in the entry level segment. As is the case with present day thought and also with the fact that this is very much an entry level price-sensitive offering for developing markets, the car manages to meet the side intrusion and head-on crash test norms for India while yet tipping the scales (kerb weight) at just 695kg for the base model and going up to 720kg for the top-of-the-line LXi version.
One of the key factors behind the success of the out-going Alto was its power-to-weight equation which delivered massively in the rupee-to-kilometre operational cost. The new Alto should deliver just as well on this count as its outgoing predecessor which was rated at 19.73kmpl (ARAI figures) and while we will have answers on this count once we subject the new baby to the rigours of our road test, the ARAI claimed figures are an improvement over the older car – 22.7kmpl!
In an absolutely delightful manner the Maruti Suzuki boffins have done some nifty tweaks to not just engine but also weight savings across the board to help move the fuel efficiency figure to a more user-relevant higher level. Given that the car now looks a bit grown up visually and larger, the smart moves to try and pare off as much weight as possible has paid dividends while yet maintaining a new enhanced level of body stiffness. This new Alto borrows the same thought for the ribbed roof panel as that seen on the Tata Nano to save weight without compromising on structural stiffness while the ample use of plastic for the wraparound front bumper cum grille treatment also plays its own role in keeping weight down to the bare minimum.
Stylistically, the new Alto seems to extend the design language of its predecessor while differing in the detail treatment. The new styled valanced bonnet adorned with the petal-shaped headlamps with black accents to set off the main beam and the turn signal indicators characterises the front end along with the new two-part grille which incorporates the Suzuki ‘S’ logo and a chrome-plated flanking strip on either side. It is different yet retains that very Alto-esque appeal and this same thought pervades all across the rest of the car’s exterior.
The pronounced cab-forward design harks back to a very raked A-pillar with a roof line which is tall and swoops back in a sporty manner to the tail end of the car which is familiar but has been stylised with welcome character lines breaking up the dull monotony of the near flat tailgate. The large tail lights are chunky yet so in proportion to the overall mass of the vehicle, making them stand out crystal-like on the rear end. And when the new Alto appears in profile, the pronounced character streak running from front to rear at the belt line and the delicately styled slash from the rear wheel arch projecting forward plus the slightly pumped up wheel wells do impart more than a modicum of refreshment to the what was earlier a very bland side surface.
The entire vista works very well given that the car yet rides on 12-inch steel wheels shod with 145/80-R12 Apollo Amazer tubeless tyres while making do with the very same 2360mm wheelbase which it shares with the outgoing model. Given the overall proportions it is interesting to note that the new Alto is a snip shorter in overall length than the one it replaces, 3395mm instead of 3495mm but is wider (1490mm against 1475mm) and taller (1475mm against 1460mm) than its predecessor. The ground clearance of 160mm is the same as on the Alto which is being put to pasture but the new model does have a very pronounced hitched up stance when viewed from certain angles, not ungainly but certainly different and which will take some getting used to.
The biggest changes however are under the bonnet and in the interior and let’s start with what makes the car tick and should help purr its way to continuing the legacy of its predecessor. Mind you, this is not the modern K10 engine which yet continues in the Alto K10 model (carries on unchanged in familiar guise) and also the A-star but given its sharp focus on costs, simplicity, return on fuel efficiency and what have you, the product planners have stayed faithful with the same F8D engine as in the outgoing Alto but this has now been subjected to a major revision. Friction busting was one of the main aims behind making the small 796cc three-pot 12-valve engine stay compatible with legislation yet without being dumbed down on performance, driveability or fuel efficiency.
For starters, the compression ratio has been bumped up, the induction system has longer and angled intakes for more ram effect, and reciprocating masses have been lightened with short skirt pistons with new type low tension piston rings. Lightened connecting rods and crankshaft lobes are other key details in the revised F8D triple. Helping cut the frictional losses further has seen the adoption of narrow width crankshaft bearings coupled with a micro-groove to operate in.
All these changes have resulted in the engine delivering big on torque and this is exactly what you crave for in not just this class of car but also the environs which it will be operating in. Absolute power and torque figures have increased and both of them are now made at slightly higher engine speeds, those lightened and better balanced reciprocating masses helping in this regard. Torque has been bumped up by a massive 11 per cent, from 62Nm at 3000rpm in the previous Alto to 69Nm at 3500rpm, while max power developed by the revised motor is 49PS at 6000rpm as compared to the original F8D’s 47PS made at 6200rpm. What comes across is a better breathing small mill eager to rev yet big hearted enough to pump out the twist force which delivers big rewards in driveability and by extension the fuel efficiency.
The same five-speed manual gearbox is used but this also has been given the make-over with a new cable-actuated shift mechanism which helps in even slicker and smoother shifts. To help make downshifts from fifth to fourth, there is a new DSA (down shift assist) mechanism incorporated into the gearbox as is the new DPT (Detent Pin Technology) which further helps slash friction during shifting. Overall clutch pedal feel and pressure are just the same light and positive aspects from the previous car but along with the new changes in the transmission system, the entry level user now gets many technologies which have filtered down from a class above.
The new Alto 800 will also come with a CNG-fuelled version badged as the Alto 800 Green. This would, according to its maker, deliver mileage to the tune of 30.46km per kg of CNG, making it one of the most economical to operate not to mention one of the cleanest small cars there is in the country.
From what moves the car to the emotive appeal within the cabin of the new Alto which is a fresh new place to be in! Having been trumped by the Hyundai Eon with its funky and youthful interiors, the packaging designers and engineers at Maruti-Suzuki were all too aware of having to up their game in this regard and here again the new fresh but evolved philosophy has been brought into play. To tackle a small car one needs to be more than conversant with the needs of its users plus also stay away from larger machines when you want to be objective about them. Jumping from a larger car, even a larger hatch like the Ritz or the Swift will have many deriding the smallies and their cabin but stay with the likes of the 800, Alto 800, Santro, Beat and Eon and you will get a grip on what the Alto 800 delivers.
There is more room for all, the cabin is fresh and appealing with new accents, new plastics, with even the dashboard now moulded in a new shade of colour which is carried all round on the door pads. The claddings on the A-, B- and C-pillars are well defined yet simplistic yet well crafted while the fabric upholstery has a new design woven into it. Given the choice of materials, the cabin strikes out as a step up in feel and overall, given the enhanced roof line there is more head room while it is pretty comfortable going for all the occupants in the cabin as regards leg room and shoulder space. The simple expedient of large-sized cutaways below the front seats liberates ample foot space for the rear seat occupants and while the front seats seem beautifully sculpted, for my large frame I would have liked both a bigger and wider seat squab as also a better cushioned and profiled back rest with side supports to match.
The dashboard is all-new and while very simple it yet has a nice ring to freshen up the senses every time one steps into the car and gets behind the wheel. The three-wheel steering wheel is nicely configured with a large central pad and the overall ergonomics are faultless, the stalk switches, the gear shifter and the air con control switches falling easily to hand. Instrumentation is pretty basic comprising of a large speedometer flanked by telltale lights. The central console has large air vents on the top while immediately below are the rotary knobs for the air con system. There is place for a just a single DIN head set for audiophiles but overall there are ample places on the dashboard and the rest of the cabin for storage of odds and ends.
Probably the one retrograde step I can think of, in the cabin, has to be the placement of the power window switches on the lower central console just behind the gear shift lever! And to think we used to deride the earlier Tata Indicas for the same! A single manually adjustable PRVM on the driver’s door is standard but I would have loved to see another on the passenger’s side as well. Here I think Maruti Suzuki has to be up front and not compromise on a basic safety tenet, behaving like a leader and not a penny pincher. Speaking of safety, the new Alto 800 comes without any air bags as standard fitment though a driver’s side air bag is listed as an option.
Just before this issue was going into print came the call to drive the new Alto 800 in and around Kochi and on great roads the new baby impressed in god’s own country. There is a crispness to the throttle, the extra torque makes for smooth getaways and overall the way the engine spins up so very effortlessly means that much of the work on the old motor has seen it get a new lease of life. The overall actions on the pedals, the steering and the gear shifter are traditional Alto hallmarks improved even further while the air con is a terrific performer. However its true test would of course come in the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle in the major metros as well as the secondary towns all over which is where the price conscious segment resides.
The new Alto 800 impressed majorly in its ride quality and while the car I drove definitely had an issue with brakes that didn’t offer the right bite, overall the car registered very high on the appeal factor. Its ease of use and operation, its utility value and also its operational consciousness have been bumped a notch higher and that will help the Alto nameplate not just maintain its leadership perch but also stretch out the margin over its rivals. As I said at the very beginning, it is the classic evolutionary aspect prolonged and in this battle of evolution over revolution, it will be interesting to see which school of thought prevails, and by what margin.
Till then though the writing is on the wall. Say hello and welcome to a fine new take on a car India and Indians know all too well. And just on this count it is sure to hit the ground running and in the lead…..