As a vehicle of individual mobility, the legacy of the Maruti Alto is unparalleled. In a lifespan of just over a decade it has built an enviable reputation for itself, superseded perhaps only by its predecessor - the Maruti M800. The best-selling car for the last 8 years on the trot, it has fended off competition from the likes of the Tata Nano to the Hyundai Eon brilliantly. Not surprising then, its biggest adversary today is not any other car, but fuel prices. This year has been one of the toughest for the world's best selling small car. Sales have declined by 15% in the first nine months of this year. Though work on a new Alto began long ago, its launch could not be better timeed. Still petrol-driven, but the face-lift may just put the mojo back in.
If that means whether it looks as radical as the Eon, then it is not. The new Alto 800 stays true to its no-nonsense built-to-a-cost mantra. Another stumbling block could be that the existing design would continue at least for sometime on the K10, the bigger, peppier - more expensive - sibling. For the better part, it does look like a mix-and-match of various other cars on the road. From the front there is a whiff of the Ford Figo, especially with the headlamps, while from nooks and corners, the Maruti A-Star peeps through. It is sharper and more muscular - but only just. Dimension-wise, it is shorter than the existing version, but the wheelbase remains the same, so does legroom. Overall, the novelty factor is missing, but it gels well with the surroundings and there are no grudges on this count. For a car that will become ubiquitous on the road, it hardly matters if it turns heads or not.
The interiors are brand new. Comparisons with the Eon are inevitable, butprice-wise, the insides are value for money. For a car this small, space is always a premium but there is good use of it. Take, for instance, the bigger boot and better head room at the back, thanks to the overall increase in height. The dashboard and centre console are basic but the quality of plastic has improved - just about. Fit and finish are par for the course but it feels under-spec'd as far as features are concerned. Lack of a remote boot opener as a standard feature or a music system at the top end, are sore points. While the addition of a driver-side airbag in the top-end is welcome, it still does not have the best boot space, or the best rear seats. But for the price, it gives you pretty much everything.
Performance, ride and handling
The new car retains the tried-and-tested 796cc 3-cylinder petrol engine but has been remapped to deliver 2% extra power and a significant 11% more torque. At 48 PS power and 69 Nm torque, it measures up well to the Eon as it weighs 50 kgs less. Other important changes include upgraded cable type transmission that is carried over from big brother K10, and a suspension set up that is slightly stiffer for better handling. As a result, the car drives and handles well in city traffic and gets off the mark without a fuss.
The extra torque means better mid-range acceleration, so, on a helpful day, you can think about racing with the likes of a Wagon-R or a Figo in city. On the highway too the car performs better than its predecessor. The sheer lack of power means it is constrained at three digit speeds and gets noisy beyond 80 kph. The one big strength is Alto's trusted ride and handling characteristic - which is, at the same time, a sore area for the Eon.
This section is becoming more like a one-upmanship game between Maruti and Hyundai with both taking turns to outdo each other with every new product. So it is with the new Alto. Maruti claims a best-in-class fuel economy of 22.7 kpl that puts it ahead of Eon's 21.1 kpl. Considering that the Eon is a single product that tries to walk the middle path between an 800cc and a 1-litre Alto, we would say it is even-stevens here. With the AC on and in real city conditions, Alto should always return figures of over 16 kpl.