Just the other day, I was returning home from work. The time was about 10:15 pm with traffic quite sparse. But just as I eased myself thinking about a relaxed fuel efficient drive home, my commute abruptly came to a halt thanks to the road ahead choc-a-bloc with traffic. One moment you’re chilling in a high gear at constant speeds and the next you’re playing constantly with the clutch in first gear. It’s exactly at these moments that you miss an automatic transmission which is so much more convenient when the going gets stuck in bad traffic. And this situation gets aggravated when one travels at peak hours trying to get to work or back home. As a result, the sales of automatic hatchbacks have been steadily increasing with almost all manufacturers adding an AT variant to their hatchback line-up. So what we have done is rounded up the best premium automatic hatchbacks money can buy.
The Hyundai i20 has been one of the most popular choice in its segment and in it’s AT avatar gets a more potent 1.4 litre, 100PS engine. Second in line is the newest and not to mention a very exciting entrant in the AT hatchback segment, the Polo GT TSI. And finally rounding up the comparison is another new entrant in the form of the new Nissan Micra, which has just received a major facelift and more importantly the famous Nissan CVT gearbox. We pit these AT hatchbacks in a bout to see which one comes out as a one foot wonder.
Now I did mention about this being a ‘premium’ hatchback comparison and as a result you will almost be paying the price of a sedan to buy on of these. Thus looking good is paramount in this segment. The i20 is the oldest of the lot here, but by no means does it look dated. Lots of cuts and creases along with that fluidic design theme, the i20 has aged well and even now is one of the best looking cars in its segment. If the i20 is Richard Gere, the Micra looks like Justin Bieber (in a good way). The Micra now is bolder, more aggressive and yet a whole lot more attractive than it ever was. Gone are the oval headlamps and the soft baby look of the front grille and the air dam. Instead, the new Micra sports a headlamp design more in tune with the Nissan family’s current design theme – a nice set of rakish lamps that make the car look angrier than before. While the front end gets that heavy do-over and still manages to gel well with the rest of the curvy car, the changes at the rear are much less subtle. The taillamps retain their existing design but are now lined up with LEDs – another class-first from Nissan. On the outside the only other major change is the new set of very swanky alloy wheels that buyers of the XV and above variants will get as standard equipment.
Now that we have Richard Gere and Justin Bieber covered, let’s have a look at the final entrant in the group. With all three cars standing together, the VW Polo is by far the best looking car and comes out as the Brad Pitt of the group. While there is nothing radical about the design, the Polo offers a terrific balance between a conventional silhouette along with modern lines. Compared to the other Polo variants, this new car really looks no different than the standard Polo that’s available in the market. It has the same blackened headlight surrounds from the recent Polo facelift, the same 15-inch alloy wheels which are standard on the Highline model, et al. In fact, apart from the GT badge on the front grille and boot, a TSI badge at the back and GT TSI stickers on the C-pillars, there is virtually nothing to differentiate this car from any other regular Polo. On one hand, it’s a good thing that it doesn’t scream vulgarity with some gaudy sticker job or racing stripes, and maintains its cool, suave composure.
So if it is looks that is priority on your buying list, the Polo, especially in red makes a strong case for itself. As for the other two, it depends solely on your taste to choose between the evergreen i20 and the funky Micra.
Since this is the place where one will be spending most of the time, the interiors need to be a comfy cosseting place. The i20 has always appealed hugely in this department. Everything from the seats to the soft textured dashboard exudes a premium feel. Even the plastics feel robust and well finished. The buttons and the dials may not work with the same finesse of a German hatch but they more than do their job. The driver also gets an arm rest which is pretty useful when you’re stuck in a jam or cruising down the highway. Space has been the i20’s forte and it still is. The cabin can accommodate five adults in reasonable comfort and haul their luggage too thanks to that large 295 litre boot.
1. Hyundai i20 2. VW Polo GT TSI 3. Nissan Micra
The Micra has received major changes on the inside as well. With a whole new set of seat fabrics and trims, the Nissan Micra now transforms from being the rather dull wash of grey to being one of the classiest cabins in the market. While the basic layout remains the same with the round set of air con controls, the top half of the dashboard has undergone a major revamp and with a piano black finish, it is indeed very pleasing to behold. Also coming in is an all-new music system with horizontal buttons finished in chrome that really stand out against the piano black backdrop. What surprised us though, was how well the interiors are packaged in the Nissan. Believe it or not, the Micra has the most knee room in this lot. There are a couple of niggles though. One was the rear view mirror which for some reason is extremely small and does not cover as much as area as one would want and the other being the location of the side mirror adjustment buttons near your right knee which makes it quite difficult to operate while on the move. Boot capacity though at 251 litres is the smallest of the group.
Getting into the Polo after the other two cars, it feels like quite a functional place to be. The GT TSI gets all the standard Highline kit with the only difference being the new seat cover design featuring a sort of a two-tone treatment, which not looks quite elegant. Of course, when you look right in between the two front seats, you’ll notice that the standard manual gear stick has been replaced with an automatic drive selector with tiptronic controls for the DSG box and inside the foot well, the clutch pedal is missing. Adding a performance touch is the metal treatment on top of the pedals which looks quite good. As for passenger comfort, the Polo gets excellent front seats, but then the rear is the most cramped of the three with the least legroom as well. Where it does gain some ground is with the boot space. At 280 litres it’s the second best in this group.
So we have premium looking insides of the i20 and the functional cabin of the Polo, but between the three, it is the Micra that offers the best balance of space, features and a contemporary feel.
Under the hood
Let’s start with the Micra here because it’s the only car here that shares its engine with its manually geared variant. Under that shapely bonnet lies a 1.2 litre, 3-cylinder DOHC unit that pushes out a comparatively unexciting 77PS @ 6000 rpm and a maximum torque of 104 Nm @ 4400 rpm which remains unchanged. However, transferring the power to the front wheels is an X-tronic CVT gearbox. The X-Tronic has been seen since the Nissan Teana, the Sunny and now made its way into the Micra. The CVT has been programmed to adapt to driving styles on demand but the focus is clearly on better efficiency.
1.VW Polo GT TSI 2.Nissan Micra Automatic 3. Hyundai i20 Automatic
The i20 gets a different engine to incorporate the automatic gearbox and thank god for that. The i20 with a 1.2 litre engine already feels underpowered and with a power sapping auto-box at hand, it would have just made things lethargic. As a result the i20 AT is powered by a 1.4 litre Gamma engine which pushed out an impressive 100PS @ 5500 rpm and a maximum torque of 136 Nm @ 4200 rpm. No magic tricks on the gearbox front here as the i20 gets a conventional 4-speed torque converter.
One look at the Polo’s lovely aluminium infused gearstick and you know this is the one. DSG, that’s what it says on the top of the gearlever and that is suffice enough to tell you this one’s the best of the lot. What is even more impressive is that lump mated with the 7-speed DSG gearbox. The 1.2 litre motor is the most advanced engine here with direct injection coupled with a turbo. As a result the Polo GT pushes out an extremely impressive 105PS @ 5,000rpm and a maximum torque figure of 175Nm. The smallest engine pushing out the most amount of power, ironic isn’t it?
Putting the power down!
Unless we are talking high end cars like a BMW or a Mercedes, automatics are only considered as a very convenient alternative when it comes to the lower bracket affordable cars. The VW Polo GT though aims to change that. Pedal to the metal, it will hit the 100km/h mark from a standing start in just 10.8 seconds and while that might not be ‘sports car’ levels of performance, it does make this GT the quickest hatchback in the country and it can even give some high end sedans a run for their money if it has to. For driving around normally, the ‘D’ mode is really the best option and the computerised gearbox can quickly shift up or down as required with absolutely no need for intervention. Enthusiasts can also shift into M to manually control shifting, but that being said, developing proficiency in using this mode while driving enthusiastically does require some getting used to. What is sorely missed is the inclusion of paddle shifters on the steering wheel, which would’ve really made this task easier.
With the Polo GT way ahead on the performance front, it was left to the Micra and the i20 to battle it out. On paper, the i20 has way superior numbers than the Micra but out in the real world it was a different story altogether. With both cars in sport mode (for the i20 you simply turn off Overdrive) and the throttle pinned to the floor, the i20 sprints ahead owing to its larger displacement and cylinder advantage hitting 100 km/h in 15.3 seconds. But the Micra is snapping at its heels and is just a tad slower to the ton at 15.7 seconds. At about a 110 km/h they are neck and neck and over 120 km/h the Micra starts nosing ahead.
While outright acceleration will rarely be called for, its how these cars behave in the city that is important. The 7-speed DSG in the Polo shifts smoothly at all times and you are never left in the wrong gear or wanting for power. Drive it normally and before you know it, you’re already in 6th gear. The old school gearbox in the i20 is not as smooth or precise but then it does not give you much to complain about either. With the first three gear being short, the i20 makes light work of traffic, it’s only when you want to overtake that the 4-speeder takes its own sweet time to upshift and downshift. The larger gap between third and fourth gear means it pulls all the way through the rev range in third and then upshifts, if you’ve buried the throttle, making the engine rather noisy which can get irritating.
Get into the Micra and you come to know how the CVT transmission has evolved by leaps and bounds. During normal city commutes the CVT automatic gearbox manages to keep the engine at the optimum engine speed, but push the throttle further and the clever programming of the gearbox immediately gets the engine spinning faster. As a result acceleration feels quicker than it actually is. That said, you never feel bogged down thanks to the gearbox altering the ratios as and when required. However, being a CVT, the typical ‘rubberband’ effect is definitely felt when you nail the throttle for that quick overtaking maneuver.
After driving the three cars back to back, its pretty obvious that the Polo is the superior car when it comes to engine, performance and the gearbox. It’s a close fight between the i20 and the Micra. The i20 has the oomph but does not have the tranny to utilize it well which gives the Micra the upper hand over the Hyundai.
On the road
Since most of these cars will be spending their time around the city, ride quality is an extremely important factor. How the cars feel over manhole covers, concrete joints, potholes and badly made flyovers is what needs to be seen rather than how well they hit the apex of a lovely corner. That said a quick spin in the Polo GT and you know this car is more about handling rather than comforting your behinds. Ride quality is on the stiffer side but not jarringly so. However sharp edges do upset the car and are felt inside the cabin as well.
Another car which is stiffly sprung here is the Micra. This is one car where you need to check tyre pressures regularly. Over inflate it and the car will let you know immediately as you go over every pebble on the road. But with everything under check, it feels pretty nimble in the streets. Trying to drive it like a GT-R though and the Micra starts feeling skittish. The Micra feels at home driving in bad traffic conditions thanks to its relatively dinky proportions and the very light steering. You can literally dart into gaps and make it before the signal turns red. Lovely little city runabout this.
Getting in the i20 after the other two cars feels like you have plonked yourself on a plush sofa. The Hyundai is sprung quite softly and for most of the time you really enjoy the soft plushy feel. However as speeds increase, it becomes clear that plushy soft is not really an ideal set up. Very soft damping means the car wallows over crests and troughs and that is not a very good feeling especially when you have about 4 people on board. Its extremely comfortable in the city though and the extremely light steering is a boon. While it does not feel as agile as the Micra or the Polo, it is still a comfortable drive around town.
The three cars offer a very different feel in terms of ride and handling. The enthusiasts will love the Polo, while city slickers will have to decide between the i20 and the Micra. While the i20 is comfortable, it is too softly sprung for its own good. The Micra on the other hand offers a good balance between ride and handling. Neither can keep up with the Polo in the hills, but more than make up when it comes to ride quality.
In the past, fuel efficiency was one of the major reason why AT variants trickled out of the showrooms compared to their flowing manual counterparts. With technology have reached the moon, it’s a different story altogether with today’s automatic transmission. The i20 is the only car here running an old school torque converter set up and it shows in the efficiency figures. Managing 8.2 kmpl in the city and 11.4 kmpl on the highways, the i20 managed a poor overall figure of 9 kmpl. The 4-speed auto-box not only saps power but a lot of fuel as well.
In comparison, the Polo GT shows how you can mar good efficiency with an auto-box. The Polo dished out an impressive 11.6 kmpl in the city and a fantastic 15.4 kmpl on the highway. While these figures look good, one needs to drive around with alight foot in order to keep the numbers look good. Start hurrying up things though and the efficiency figures start plummeting quickly.
A gearbox that manages to keep the engine at optimum speeds, sounds good doesn’t it? That’s exactly what the Micra has and as a result, it manages some very decent figures. With 11.4 kmpl in the city and 14 kmpl on the highway, the Micra AT gives out an overall figure of 12.05 kmpl. While the figures on the Polo might look better, the Micra’s numbers do not crumble like in the Polo when you decide to step on it. As a result, the Micra’s X-tronic CVT manages to give it a slight edge over the DSG equipped Polo when it comes to fuel efficiency.
Which is the ‘one’ then?
Frankly, the VW Polo GT feels out of place here. It’s the first of its kind which being an automatic is aimed at the enthusiasts. But then our market hasn’t matured enough, nor does it have any other contender in the ‘enthusiast automatic hatchback’ segment, if there is one. And hence you see it slugging it out here in the premium AT hatchback comparo. Now the Polo GT is extremely well equipped, has the best engine transmission here and looks the best too, but one look at its sticker price and you know that the mentioned parameters are simply not enough to overcome that price tag. At Rs. 7.99 lakh, it’s the most expensive car here. Close on its heels is the i20. With the AT available only in the Sports variant, it does lack a few features. No keyless entry, no passenger airbags and no rear washer wiper either. And at Rs. 7.88 lakh, it’s quite an expensive proposition. Hyundai has the engine, but needs to upgrade to a more modern gearbox soon considering the competition is really belting out the goods. Nissan on the other hand, have done extremely well with the Micra update. The car has lost that feminine character and now boasts a more universal appeal and looks good while at it. It’s loaded with the goods as well with the Micra getting remote keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity, driver-passenger airbag and then some and this at a fantastic price of Rs. 6.39 lakh (all prices ex-showroom Delhi). Not only is the Micra the best value for money here but also offers the best of almost all worlds in a tiny albeit a very impressive package which makes it our best ‘one foot wonder’ in this test.