As things stand, If I was in the market for a small car, I'd be a lot more comfortable putting my money down on a second-hand premium hatchback rather than settling for a new budget small car. My reasoning is simple. While it may have its obvious downsides, especially in terms of having quite a few kilometres already on the clock, a premium hatch would provide me with more features, a decent amount of power and a cabin big enough to squeeze in at least four people in reasonable comfort - all factors that I feel are more important in the long run. So when the new Alto 800 rolled into our garage, the last thing I expected to do was reassess my aforementioned opinion.
Two weeks have passed since the keys to our new long-term Alto were pressed into my hands, and I can genuinely say I'm quite impressed. My 20km daily commute from Andheri to Parel involves gruesome stop-start traffic, but the Alto's light clutch and electric steering have made it a cinch to live with. Add to that the compact dimensions and you have a car that is also easy to negotiate into those almost non-existent parking spots. Where the new Alto really shines is in city conditions. The unparalleled usability of a car of this size was apparent during every traffic snarl, with the Alto slipping into gaps with relative ease thanks to its updated motor, which pulls well from most engine speeds. Simply aim for a gap in traffic, dab the throttle and the little Maruti will happily oblige. On a number of occasions, be it a press conference across town, or tracking-car duty for a comparison test shoot, or even darting through traffic for a wedding I was once desperately late for, the Alto has been a really handy companion. Another area where the Alto has made a step in the right direction is its low-speed ride. The car shows a plushness that you wouldn't really associate with a budget city runabout. Sure, it does thump over bumps, but the suspension does a good job of softening jolts. It's only on absolutely decimated roads that the ride isn't as flat as we would have liked - there's quite a bit of vertical movement thanks to the softly sprung suspension setup.
Out on smooth and empty tarmac the updated engine feels a lot more eager to drive than the previous car's. As and when we needed to keep up with faster cars ahead of us, the Alto always felt up to it. The motor felt a lot more free-revving than the last Alto's, and the 11 percent bump up in torque only helps things along. Taking corners enthusiastically threw up a few chinks in its armour though. I didn't quite like the way the electric steering didn't weigh up at higher speeds and there is a fair bit of body roll when you push the car hard around a turn.
Downsides? We did spot a few of them once we had spent a little time with the car. While the dashboard is completely new and a clear step up from the previous Alto, the rest of the cabin still doesn't feel as well put together as its direct rival, the Hyundai Eon. The front seats lack sufficient thigh support and the front power windows oddly placed right behind the gearlever take some getting used to. This was particularly irritating at night, as I kept fumbling around trying to find the non-backlit buttons. A particularly cranky set of passengers also pointed out to me that the legroom in the rear wasn't great and, combined with the poor headroom, makes this a car that can seat four at best. Maruti's decision to not include a left wing mirror as standard is also puzzling, and made slicing through the city's manic traffic slightly tricky. But what made our trips enjoyable was the factory-fitted music system, which is quite good for a two-speaker setup. Hooking my iPod up to it was easy, and it also comes with aux-in capability for when my music didn't appeal to everyone's sensibilities.
We've been getting 13.3kpl in the city and 17.8kpl out on the highway, which means a very respectable 540km range on a full tank. The 177-litre boot is also good enough to swallow a decent amount of luggage. It has been a joy to live with the car these past couple of weeks. The Alto is quite a capable hatchback that is perfect for city conditions, especially after a particularly long day of work, when the last thing you need is to be bogged down by Mumbai's incessant stream of traffic. It's a good step up from the previous Alto, and all for a marginal increase in price. I only wish Maruti had included a left wing mirror and central locking - things that come standard even on the top-of-the-line Nano LX. One thing is for sure though, with the new Alto 800, Maruti has done enough to ensure that it has a winner on its hands.
Maruti Alto 800 LXi
Odometer : 4,819km
Price : ₹ 3.16 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi)
Test economy: 15.5kpl (overall)
Maintenance costs: None