It is not every month that Maruti, India's largest car manufacturer
launches a model that by its own admission will be pivotal to the company's future. It is
not every day that the eventual successor to the indomitable Maruti 800 appears in the
showroom. The little Alto is the big one for Maruti , its great white hope that will
hopefully become the new people's car for this millennium.
Maruti's strategy is to span the entire small car segment, which accounts for over 80
percent of all vehicle sales. Hence, the Alto will straddle two segments. The base Lx
version, which comes with a 796cc engine, will be positioned in the A - segment just above
the Maruti 800, whilst the bigger-engined and loaded VX version is after B-segment car
Internally known as 'ModelA' is the fourth generation Alto which was launched in Japan in
1998 to meet the new 'kei-jidosha' (small car) regulations. Incidentally the Maruti 800
and Zen are all earlier generation Alto's and India is the only market where they are all
The latest Alto, christened for the first time by its true name in India, goes on sale
this month all over the country.
People often under estimate just how difficult it is to
design and engineer, space, efficiency, safety and acceptable performance within the
budgeted constraints of a small car. Some of these parameters are conflicting. Strive to
achieve more of one and you end up losing the other. Though larger cars will do most
things better, they're not shackled by constraints of space efficiency and budget, thus
allowing the designers greater flexibility. One of Maruti's trump cards, key to its
success, has been the awesome small car design capabilities of partner Suzuki widely
acknowledged as exponents of the art, Indian customers are well versed with Suzuki's very
capable small car products. Maruti hadn't launched a new small car for a period of six
the Wagon R came along. The Alto will be the first 'Conventional' small car from Maruti in
as much time.
While the Alto shares its basic platform with the Wagon R, it's literally a new floor up.
Compare the wheelbase of the Wagon R and the Alto and you get a clearer picture of the
Alto's size; even the overall length of the two are identical, as are the Zen Santro and
Maruti decided to beef up the front grille and bumper for the Indian market. While the
Alto for Japan has a drastically chopped and truncated snout, the Indian extension looks
much more cakish and is a distinct improvement. The grille 'proper' has a chrome garnish
in the upmarket models and a much larger than on the Japan version. The front bumper is
also much chunkier and larger, with the front air cam being particularly oversized. The
idea was to convey a robust look for the Indian market. The Alto's headlights, similar in
concept to the Baleno's with it's dark 'Kajal' outline, is a striking feature.
Though not a tall design in the true sense of the term, the Alto stands taller than the
Zen. This substantial and chunky look is further accentuated by the fat and nearly VW
Golf-like C-pillar, which undoubtedly contributes towards the overall rigidity of the
chassis. The rear doors also have a purely aesthetic slash that works well along with the
triangulated tail-lamps. The Alto is not a car that will turn heads but its well -
proportioned looks and stance are unlikely to put anyone off.
This Alto's chassis (codename: Y G-4) was originally developed for the new K-car
regulations in Japan that were revised to make the cars refer them wiser and longer. The
Alto passes all the current safety tests in Japan and as Maruti engineers confirmed, the
chassis needed absolutely no additional bolstering or stiffening for our abominable roads.
While the MacPherson strut and antiroll bar suspension for the front wheels and the three
link rigid axle at the rear are shared with that of the Wagon R, the springs have been
made taller to increase wheel travel and ground clearance, now up 20mm to 160mm.
However, unlike the wagon R, the Alto will roll out on smaller ride friendly 12-inch
wheels with higher profile tyres. A generous eight-inch brake booster is used to aid pedal
Compare to it's rivals, the narrow interiors of the Alto are decidedly cramped.
Even the small Zen has more space. Rear seat passengers have a tough time with legroom and
width in short supply. The seat is too bench -like with minimal contours and lacks the
support you find in the Matiz. The Alto is strictly a four-seater and that too for
average-sized adults. The saving grace is that headroom is very generous which gives tall
passengers some respite.
The fronts seat are again not so generous and could do with some more bolstering,
especially in the lower-back region.
The driving environment however is extremely functional. The all-new dashboard is
characterized by a large instrument cluster, which is easy to read, The LX version gets a
huge speedometer with an electronic trip meter, whilst the VX model gets the speedo and
tachometer cluster from the Wagon R .The dashboard comes packed with lots of cubbyholes
and useful storage spaces. The VX also gets a center floor console with very useful
cupholders and the door pockets on both versions are pretty large for a car of this size.
The Alto's boot has more depth than the Zen and Matiz and can take a suitcase lying flat
but not much else. So if you are looking for load carrying capability in a small car, the
Uno and Wagon R make more sense.
The interiors lack any design flair or creativity but everything works and is within easy
reach (it better be in such a small car) to give a no-nonsense impression typical of
Suzuki products. What impressed us was the overall quality of the interiors, especially on
the VX. The smart two-tone seat fabric looks great , the leather wrapped steering wheel
(borrowed form the Wagon R), and the feel of the dashboard and switch gear are amongst the
best we have seen on anything in this segment.
interiors are more spartan and you don't get the same level of equipment found in the VX.
The VX comes with additional features like internally-adjustable mirrors (Similar to the
Zen), central locking, front power mirrors and a rear wash-wipe . You also get other bells
and whistles, literally , like a warning chime for ignition key not removed and light on.
Though the gear levers are identical in both the LX and The VX, the absence of a shroud on
the LX version makes it look more spindly.
The best part is the all-new air conditioning that was designed specially for the Alto.
After years of struggling to improve the cooling on its models, Maruti has put one over
the competition by providing the best a/c system in its class, even better than the Matiz.
Both the LX and VX come with the same air conditioning system in its class, even better
than the Matiz. Both the LX and VX come with the same air conditioning system which has a
massive compressor and super effective condensers and evaporators. The blower is pretty
powerful as well to keep rear seat passengers happy.
While the Alto in Japan is sold with turbocharged 660cc engines, these would
sense in the Indian environment and thankfully there is no restriction on engine capacity
in India. Maruti instead has chosen an ingenious solution to it's power plant requirements
by providing the Indian customer a choice of engine sizes, a first for our market in this
segment. Indian customers willl be familiar with both engines, the smaller F8D unit powers
the five-speed MPFI Maruti 800 and the F10D, the wagon R. There is tremendous synergy
between both these powerplants as they share common pistons, rings, conrods, valves, etc.
The individual cylinder capacity is 265cc and the change in displacement is effected by
the addition of a cylinder to the F10D engine; which displaces 1061cc as against 796. Both
units have identical four valve heads and a cast iron engine block. A little known but
interesting fact is that the Daewoo Matiz engine (F8C) is based on the same Suzuki three-
cylinder engine and has an identical bore and stroke but each cylinder breathes through
only two valves.
The F10D engine also uses a transistorized distributor-less
ignition system to provide more accurate and consistent spark timing. While the F8D
produces a peak power of 45bhp at 600rpm, the F10D unit delivers an impressive 62bhp.
The gearboxes in both cars are also identical except for the final drive ratio which is
slightly taller in the more powerful VX.
Maruti has focused on giving the LX maximum driveability. The rationale is that is
essentially a city car and so it is best to use the limited power and torque available to
improve the bottom-end performance. In any case, this long -stroke engine is renowned for
its lively throttle response. In the city, the LX keeps up gamely with the traffic, the
engine reacts instantly to throttle inputs and hence closing a gap or making it through an
amber light is easy. The LX's timing from 20-801Kph in third gear is comparable to the
bigger and more powerful Santro and Uno.
In flat-out acceleration, the LX is alongside with the Matiz to 80Kph after which the
Korean slowly draws ahead. Of course, the lighter 800 is much quicker.
On the highway, the relative lack of performance makes it hard work for the LX driver,
especially during overtaking maneuvers. Also, when pushed to the redline, the inherent
coarseness of the three-cylinder unit filters through into the cabin. The air conditioner,
which has no throttle cut-off switch, blunts the Alto's overtaking ability and it is the
best to flick the compressor switch off during critical passing manoueveres.
Drive the VX after the LX and it feels like a bigger car, the first thing you notice is
how much smoother the four cylinder unit is. The next thing that hits you is how willing
and eager the engine is. It takes you all of 10 meters to know that the 1061cc engine is
in a different league. Throttle response is sharp and the surge of power instant.
Our acceleration tests, proved that the Alto VX has taken the crown as the quickest small
car in India. It is the only car to crack the 14sec barrier in the dash to 100kph and goes
on to touch an incredible 156Kph.
But these figures tell only half the story. What sets the Alto VX apart is the manner in
which it delivers the goods. The effortless nature in which the F10D engine wafts you to
some pretty serious speeds is amazing. Use all the 6700rpm available to you and mid-size
cars like the Siena and Cielo are left behind in the Alto's little wheel tracks.
The linear power delivery and wide torque spread will be appreciated by many. Unlike the
Zen's buzzy engine, which begs to be revved hard and is loved by enthusiasts, the Alto's
long-stroke unit is better suited for everyday driving.
The only fly in the ointment as far as the F10D engine is concerned is an unpleasant
resonance or boom that occurs between 3700-4000rpm.
The Alto is a very nimble car with a tight turning circle,
quick steering and displays remarkable agility that can be expected from a car of its
sizee and weight. However , a big disappointment is the steering effort which is on the
higher side and most evident at parking speeds. The steering is a bit obstinate to shift
from the straight-ahead position and its strong tendency to self-centre requires you to be
firm when holding the car through a long corner. However , the upside is good feedback
from the road to the driver.
The Alto's ride quality is one of its best talents. On our test we were amazed at the
manner in which it breezed over bad roads just like a big car. In fact , it has a big-car
feel that belies the car's diminutive dimensions. The suspension simply cushioned all the
bumps and potholes we encountered with a muted thump. It's only on vary rough patches that
the Alto's back end tends to get skittish and step out of line. The stiffness of the
suspension is only felt at low speeds and is otherwise quite pliant and comfortable.
Maruti's engineers must be complimented for optimising the ride comfort of the Alto which
is possibly the best amongst small cars besides the Uno.
The Alto comes with an incredibly stiff chassis and this is singularly responsible for
giving it such superb dynamics. Unlike the body structure of the Maruti 800 and Zen which
groans and creaks over rough roads, the Alto feels taut and rigid the main reason for its
utterly predictable handling and near-neutral behaviour. In fact, after two days of
throwing the Alto around on twisty roads, we doubt any other small car handles as well as
Maruti's new baby.
The brakes again are superb, well weighted and progressive and the Alto stops from 80Kph
in less than 32 meters , a big achievement on those skinny tyres.
The taller 80 aspect ratio tyres help in cushioning the Alto from shocks but if you are
inclined towards sportier handling, we strongly suggest you trade in your 12-inch rims for
sportier 13-inchers and lower pro 70 series rubber. However; be prepared to lose out on
Another victory for the Alto here. The smaller-engined LX is the
most fuel-efficient car around, beaten by only, you guessed it, there Maruti 800. The LX
beats its main competitor; the Matiz in the Kpl contest to return 13.5Kpl in the city and
18.8Kpl on the highway. The pretty throttle response and good driveability means that you
can drive the LX with a light foot which helps fuel economy. The air conditioning however
has an effect on consumption as there is not throttle cut-off switch.
The VX fuel economy figures were not too far away from the LX,
giving 12.5kpl in the city and 17.7kpl on the highway. Compared to other one-litre cars
like the Zen and Santro, the larger-engined Alto VX is clearly more economical. The
shocker was on our steady speed run where the VX proved to be more fuel efficient than the
LX! This is due to the taller gearing of the VX which allows it to run at lower engine
revs (hence burning less fuel) than the LX.
The Alto comes as a breath of fresh air to Maruti's small car range. It is extremely well
made with superb fit and finish for a car that sits at the absolute bottom end of the
market. The stiff chassis, combined with the superbly calibrated suspension, manages to
give the little Alto a big-car feel and ride over our roads with aplomb.
The rigid bodyshell will hold together for years and squeaks and rattles, which typically
surface early on in the life of a Maruti car, should be a thing of the past.The interiors
are fresh and functional and the quality of materials used is of a high order for a small
car.The Alto comes with two proven powerplants which score in key areas like fuel economy
and performance but could do with a bit more refinement. Both versions come with all-new
air conditioning systems which, as our tests revealed, provide the most effective cooling.
The cheaper LX, priced below Rs. 3 lakh is unbeatable value for money and Maruti has once
again taken the role of a price leader in this game. The VX, which sits in the price range
of the Zen, comes with better features and performance and is clearly the more desirable
of the two and the one to have if you can afford it.However, the Alto does have some
serious limitations. Internal space is more in the league of the 800 and hence too small
for today's one-car family. The styling may be on the conservative side and could fail to
excite the aspirations of several car buyers.
If space is not a consideration, the Alto is the best small car you can buy today.