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Maruti Suzuki SX4

The diesel dash

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The Maruti Suzuki SX4 has arrived with a diesel variant, but finds itself competing against a stylish Italian and a classy German model. Can a made-for-India car hit a sweet spot with buyers? TOI-Crest pits it against the Volkswagen Vento and Fiat Linea to find out.

Good timing lies at the root of most succcessful ventures, and the car business is no different. The Maruti Suzuki SX4 has been around for a fairly long time but hasn't mirrored the sort of success other offerings from the country's biggest carmaker have usually had. It is a good, strong car that manages to please on many accounts, but the thirsty petrol engine kept it from taking on the more popular incumbents. Now, the diesel variant is here but can just the addition of a diesel engine transform a car so completely that it begins to challenge cars that are not just newer, but also come from manufacturers reputed for their diesel offerings?

Clearly, it's a tough field that the SX4 DDiS plans to plough through. On one hand, there is the Fiat Linea Multijet, the popular diesel sedan which can pocket the credit for reviving the Italian powerhouse in India. On the other, there is the Volkswagen Vento
TDI, based on a World Car of the Year winner.

This is a properly plush car and an all-round performer. Few would wish to put their money against Maruti when it comes to understanding the Indian buyer though. Its products have for long given the value and peace of mind that the market wants from cars. Set this faceoff up in the curious compact sedan boxing ring - where buyers want good sense and practicality, but also a feeling of being pampered when inside and glances of envy from passersby - and you have an oil-burning battle royale.

MAKING THE RIGHT IMPRESSION

Let's start with the looks department. All three cars have been around for quite a while, but lined up one against another, it is easy to see which car would appeal to what sort of buyer. Classic lines with a good dose of stylish accents, the Linea is a looker that would appeal to most people. There are a few unflattering bits like the plastic grille upfront, but this is definitely not a car one would mind being seen stepping out of. The Maruti Suzuki SX4, on the other hand, looks like it was built for India from the word go. That's because, well, it was. It carries a decided tall-boy air around itself, which has been cleverly disguised by muscular fenders and aggressive cues. It makes no pretensions about being classy or elegant, but makes up for it with an unconventional and bold approach to design, which Indian streets have now warmed up to.

The Vento looks like a million bucks. Despite being made just for India and Russia, the Vento has the maximum Euro-appeal to it, even more than the Linea. In fact, the harmonious proportions, rakish windscreen and taut, swept-back lines are something that even the Linea's Italian designers could take a leaf out of.

Speaking of interiors, none of the three cars impress much. The Linea has too much happening on the centre console, while both the SX4 and the Vento have too little. The quality of materials used in the Vento though is impressive, and falls well in line with the car's upmarket appeal. Overall build quality is also better on the German sedan as compared to the other two cars. A case has to be made though for the SX4's seats, which are cushy, comfy and well-designed for drivers of all ages.

ROUND ONE FOR LOOKS:

Won by the Vento, by a decent margin.

FROM THE DRIVER'S SEAT

The very reason for this comparison test was the new engine put in the SX4, so let's talk powerplants for a bit. The Linea and SX4 share the same engine, the mighty versatile 1. 3-litre multijet with a VGT turbocharger that bumps up power to a suitable mark around 90PS and torque around 200Nm for the larger sedans. The Vento's TDI engine is higher in terms of displacement at 1. 6-litres and even though power and torque figures are not significantly different on paper - at 105PS and 250Nm - the absolutely relaxed way in which the car is pushed forward with pace is what makes all the difference. While the turbo-kick in the two 1. 3 diesels is more overt - almost disturbingly so in the SX4 - the Vento instead just keeps rolling on, often irrespective of the gear you're in. In terms of the engine and performance, the Vento shines through.

When it comes to the drive experience though, both the German engine and the car feel more hardcore, and we don't necessarily mean that in a good way. The clutch pedal is hard enough to build thigh muscles with, and the gear shifts are positive but require effort. Handling is composed, and the chassis communicative, but only as long as the road surface is good. The Linea may not have the grunt, but the drive experience is more welcoming, and the feel from all the controls is much more pleasant. The steering feels wellweighted, but some may find it a little too demanding in terms of effort during parking etc. If it's not about the kicks of acceleration created from liberal diesel torque, the Linea remains a great car to drive, around the city and elsewhere.
And then we come to the SX4, to be pleasantly surprised. No matter how many times we have been taken aback by the Japanese carmaker's understanding of the Fiat diesel, and its ability to tune it almost perfectly to Indian conditions, the sheer difference between the tuning of the engine on the Linea and the SX4 remains startling. Easily the most refined diesel of the lot, it also feels significantly more sprightly, especially during city overtakes. The steering feel is really easy, not requiring much effort. Enthusiastic drivers may not like this much but it's quite a boon around town. While the car feels much less confident going around corners, thanks to its soft suspension and tall dimensions, it excels in all departments as a city drive-around.

ROUND TWO FOR DRIVE QUALITY:

Won by the SX4

FOR THE ONES BEING DRIVEN

Rear bench comfort is an important factor for the segment, given that unlike hatchbacks, few cars in here are ever bought to be driven alone, or with just the front two seats occupied. In this respect, the Vento's stiff ride quality hurts its chances. While the ride itself is well damped and space at the rear is more than that in the SX4 and the Linea, the car begins to show it's high-brow when the going gets rough. The Linea, on the other hand, manages the balance between handling and ride quality very well, offering enough feedback to the enthusiastic driver yet keeping the occupants unruffled through bad roads. Headroom at the rear though has been sacrificed for the swoopy C-pillar, and with the more airy cabins of its rivals, the rear seat in the Linea suddenly begins to seem less attractive. From the passenger's point of view alone, the SX4 diesel offers one of the plushest rides in its class, soaking in bumps and undulations with aplomb. The choice of the wheel sizes, spring stiffness and damping rates on the suspension is spot on, and the result comes quite close to a magic carpet ride. Once again, Maruti's understanding of Indian conditions and the demands of its users manages to trump the European duo.

ROUND THREE FOR RIDE QUALITY:

SX4 diesel

HEAD TO HEAD

While they may share the common trait of being diesel-powered compact sedans, the three cars going head-to-head do not overlap in their appeal, offering totally unique experiences of ownership, of driving, and being driven in. The Fiat Linea Multijet has now been around for long enough to establish an enviable credibility on the streets, and remains a car that does almost everything well - from looking good to driving exceptionally, right through to offering a comfortable ride quality for all occupants - and offering all of this at a price point that undercuts the competition significantly, making it the best value-for-money proposition in this lot. The Linea remains your doit-all diesel sedan, and has good days ahead so long as its makers keep reminding the forgetful market about how good their car really is.

The Volkswagen Vento TDI is the classiest of the lot, has impressive performance when compared to its rivals, and easily feels like the most well-built car this side of Rs 10 lakh. With just two choices of trim levels (of which the base variant is quite low on features ), one gets a feeling of being taken for granted. That being said, in its highline variant, the Vento is set to become the diesel sedan of choice for classy buyers for whom image is an important part of the game. The car offers most things one would want at its price. And yes, we did mention that it is an absolute, total hoot to drive, right? For all that though, connoisseurs will have to shell out an extra lakh compared to the Linea, and half a lakh more in contrast to the SX4. It's a great car, but it shows its value in very subtle ways which the market may not always notice or appreciate.

But ultimately, it is the Maruti Suzuki SX4 diesel that accomplishes something neither of its two competitors manage convincingly - understanding what the majority wants. It remains a 'made-for-India ' product, and delivers accordingly. It does not try too hard to exude an air of affluence, does not attempt to drill or sell an image, and makes no bones about being a fantastic, driver's machine. What it does instead is offer significantly better levels of refinement, a very accessible and welcoming drive for the person at the wheel, and a higher feeling of well-being in the cabin, all-round. For the sensible buyer who still looks at a diesel sedan as a daily-use product and not as fulfillment of an aspiration, the SX4 diesel gets our thumping vote, and an added tip of the hat for being the most realworld car of the bunch. And with petrol prices going up, up and away, the timing for this diesel couldn't have been better.

VERDICT:

The SX4 diesel for combining sense and sensibility.

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