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Working Class heroes

Their looks may not make you swoon but their hard work sure will leave you impressed. Here's an overview of the top three functional cars. Read on for more...

autos Updated: Jun 09, 2010 15:28 IST

The three cars we have before you this week primarily focus on function rather than proportion. Each one of these cars looks the way it does for one purpose — to squeeze as much space from as small a footprint as possible.
The key here is to offer utility over pageant-winning looks, practicality over prettiness, function over form and all within a relatively tight budget. In short, be everything that the fashionable but lot less roomy Chevrolet Beat or Suzuki A-star are not. Meet our working class heroes.

We have the brand new WagonR. The old WagonR was a bestseller and Maruti looks all set to repeat the story with this new car which — at Rs 4.14 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) — for the fully loaded VXi ABS; is incredible value.
Also on our list is the WagonR’s sibling, the Zen Estilo. When it was launched, it didn’t set the sales charts afire but with the upgrade to the K-series engine, fresh looks and a tighter suspension, the Estilo is now a far more competent package.
We also have the surprisingly competent Hyundai Santro. Ten years into production, it seems to have aged well and time has smoothened out its odd proportions. Hyundai’s tall boy, if anything, has been the WagonR’s most serious rival, so this rematch is inevitable.

The Best Frame
Which one of these tall boys is the most practical? Which one should you buy?
You may not mistake the new WagonR for anything but a WagonR, but if you happened to look under the skin, you wouldn’t recognise it. It’s a brand new chassis that is much stiffer than the old one and crucially, has a solid sub-frame onto which the front suspension is mounted. It’s also got the longest wheelbase in its class and uses tailored steel blanks to keep a check on the weight.
In contrast is the Estilo’s chassis, which is based on the old WagonR’s platform. To offset this deficiency, Maruti stiffened the suspension on the Estilo K-series to improve its dynamics. And the Estilo scores over the WagonR in the looks department. By being over a 100 mm shorter, the Estilo doesn’t have the same cliff-face stance as the WagonR, and looks better for it. But build quality is flimsy and the Estilo feels less robust than the WagonR.

Ten years ago, it was hard to digest the Santro’s looks. But the Xing has made it more acceptable. It must be said that the Santro feels the most solid of this lot. The doors shut with a nice thunk and the quality of plastics and materials used feel a wee bit tougher than the Marutis. This, despite the Santro being the lightest of the trio. At 854 kg, the Hyundai is 11 kg lighter than the Estilo and 31 kg less than the WagonR.

The WagonR’s dashboard looks like a big, upright slab of plastic with silver accents to provide relief. Still, traditional strengths remain — the high seating position, good visibility and massive headroom. Other things have improved too. The seats are now far more comfortable, there’s a dramatic improvement in interior quality and there are lots of bits and pieces borrowed from more expensive Suzukis. Maruti has removed that very useful cubbyhole above the glovebox to make way for airbags and the door pockets are smaller.

But the biggest disappointment is the tiny 180-litre boot which loses a whopping 48 litres of luggage space from the previous model. Maruti reckons with the WagonR being a city car, a big boot isn’t as much of a priority as passenger space.
The Estilo’s two-tone dashboard has a bit more character. It’s got quite a few cubbyholes but the plastic quality is the worst of the lot. The seats are less supportive and with the steeply raked A-pillar, visibility isn’t as good as the WagonR’s.

It’s the Santro that surprises with its genuinely good plastics and the simple, easy to use nature of its controls. But look close and you will notice other things. The door pads only half-cover the inside of the doors and the ergonomics are iffy. The gearlever is placed a bit too far back. At the rear, the seats are placed high, so getting in and out is easy but the seats themselves are firm and flat and legroom isn’t great, making the car uncomfortable over longer journeys. At 218 litres, it’s the Santro that has the biggest boot.

More Goodies
If you’re looking for goodies, it’s the WagonR that will please you. This top-of-the-line VXi ABS gets front airbags, ABS, an integrated audio system, tachometer, remote locking, power windows and power mirrors. The Estilo gets everything the WagonR has minus the audio system; the Santro is the least equipped. In the range-topping GLS, it gets front power windows, power steering and central locking. The absence of airbags and ABS even as an option reminds us of the bygone era the Santro comes from.

The Santro’s motor is quite perky and has a strong midrange, which is exactly what is required in the city. However, this engine doesn’t like being revved, which means the Santro is at its best when you upshift early and drive smoothly. The 63 bhp 1.1-litre Epsilon engine in the Santro acquits itself surprisingly well with a respectable 0-100 kph time of 15.29 seconds (re-tested for this story), which makes it as quick as its modern rivals.

The Estilo and the WagonR share the same 998 cc K10 motor and gearbox but there are a few differences. The Estilo has a taller final drive ratio and a lighter kerb weight. However, compared to the Santro’s Epsilon unit, the K10 feels a generation ahead. The buzzy K10 is pretty free-revving but you don’t need to wring its neck to get it to perform. Flat-out acceleration is a different ball game all together. While the Santro and Estilo are virtually on par for the dash to 100 kph, the WagonR is slightly behind. We blame the brick-like aerodynamics and huge frontal area for the extra time.

Both Marutis have hugely benefitted from the new cable-operated gearshifts, which are leagues ahead of their predecessor’s ‘chicken-leg-breaking’ gearshift action. But the K-Series motors’ three-cylinder configuration has that typical thrum at idle and the engine isn’t well insulated from the cabin.

Ride Quality
These cars are all easy to drive. It’s the WagonR, with its tall stance and compact dimensions coupled with a light steering, that has the edge in manoeuverability. The Estilo isn’t far behind either. It’s the Santro with its heavier steering and smaller glass area that more effort in town.

The Santro’s ride is the choppiest too and its suspension is the stiffest of the lot. The WagonR in contrast has been tuned to give a softer ride. Maruti has retuned the Estilo’s suspension too, making it stiffer to improve stability.

Cornering these cars hard is a nerve-wracking experience. With their top-heavy proportions, they prefer being coaxed rather than pushed. That said, the WagonR feels much more stable tackling corners than the others. The Santro’s hydraulic steering is accurate, but it doesn’t feel as relaxed on a twisty road as the WagonR. On the highway, the WagonR again performs better. However, all three cars are affected by crosswinds, their flat sides acting like sails.

The WagonR and the Estilo beat the Santro thanks to their efficient K10 engine and well-chosen gear ratios. We got 12.4 kpl in the city from the WagonR versus 12.3 kpl for the Estilo and 12.1 kpl for the Santro. On the highway, the WagonR’s 17 kpl topped the list, with the Estilo coming second and the Santro third.

Wagon R
Engine: 998 cc, 3 cylinders
Peak power: 67 bhp at 6200 rpm
Peak torque: 9.17 kgm at 3500 rpm
Gearbox: 5-speed manual
Economy: 12.4 kpl (city) and 17 kpl (highway)
Weight: 885 kg

Zen Estilo
Engine: 1399 cc, 4 cylinders
Peak power: 68 bhp at 4000 rpm
Peak torque: 16.3 kgm at 2000 rpm
Gearbox: 5-speed manual
Economy: 12.3 kpl (city) and 16.8 kpl (highway)
Weight: 885 kg

Santro Xing
Engine: 1086 cc, 4 cylinders
Peak power: 63 bhp at 5500 rpm
Peak torque: 9.8 kgm at 3000 rpm
Gearbox: 5-speed manual
Economy: 12.1 kpl (city) and 16.2 kpl (highway)
Weight: 854 kg

For all things practical, it’s the WagonR that is undoubtedly the best. It could have had a bigger boot and been more refined but for the audience it serves, it does the job better than the others. The new Maruti tall boy is the most comfortable of the lot with amazing passenger room and feels the nicest to drive. Throw in all the equipment and the fantastic price and the WagonR is a clear winner. The Estilo doesn’t have the space of the WagonR nor does it feel as contemporary. The Santro has proved to be quite a competent city car. It is well built and feels the most solid of this lot. However, it doesn’t drive as well as the others, isn’t as
well equipped and feels cramped in comparison to the WagonR.

First Published: Jun 09, 2010 11:41 IST