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The Baleno is light but rides like a bigger, heftier car.
The Baleno is light but rides like a bigger, heftier car.

Baleno’s back in a new avatar

With the ageing Swift not able to keep up with newer rivals, Maruti is betting on the Baleno to capture the premium hatchback segment

photoMaruti Suzuki has just launched its new Baleno premium hatchback at a rather attractive introductory price of 4.99-8.11 lakh (ex-showroom, New Delhi). This price undercuts its two main rivals—the Hyundai i20 and Honda Jazz—by around 15,000-30,000, and when you see how much the Baleno packs in, you’ll realize Maruti’s track record of delivering good value continues here. And while the company hasn’t fared well in premium segments in the past, the success of the Ciaz and even the S-Cross shows that it finally seems to have got the formula right.

So, does the new Baleno have the substance to outdo the other large hatchbacks in this class?

Besides the name, the Baleno has no relation to Maruti’s mid-size sedan from the 1990s. It’s a hatchback that’s half a size larger than Maruti’s own Swift, but still ducks under the 4m mark that defines “small cars" in India. The overall look is “soft" rather than sporty, and though there are a lot of new elements, like the V-shaped grille and LED-equipped headlamps, the car is clearly identifiable as a Maruti or, rather, a Suzuki.

The Baleno is definitely the best-looking Maruti hatchback we’ve seen in a long time, but it still looks a bit conservative when compared with its competition.

The interior is a familiar one, borrowing its steering wheel, control stalks and other switchgear from lesser cars in the Maruti stable. Still, the V-shaped centre console is quite unique, and the blue-lit dials with an informative colour-screen trip computer between them are really attractive. The quality of materials in some areas also betrays the fact that the Baleno, like all Marutis, is built keeping the cost-conscious Indian buyer in mind.

But Maruti has compensated for the cost-cutting by adding safety features like anti-lock braking systems (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and two airbags as standard on all variants. The top-specification Alpha trim also gets a 7-inch touch-screen audio system with satellite navigation and Apple CarPlay, which replicates your iPhone’s interface on screen; Maruti says the Android equivalent, called Android Auto, will come soon.

The Baleno’s space-efficient shape allows for a genuinely large cabin that can rival the best in class. There’s a generous amount of legroom and width at the rear to seat three abreast, though the flat seat doesn’t hold passengers snug. The large front seats offer generous thigh support and are among the most comfortable in any hatch. The cleverly designed 339-litre boot can hold large pieces of luggage without flipping the split-folding back seats forward. The boot’s loading space, however, is narrower than ideal.

The Baleno uses the same engines as the Swift —a 1.2-litre petrol and a 1.3-litre diesel. Both engines get a five-speed manual gearbox by default, with the petrol car getting an optional continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic. Despite being larger than the Swift, the Baleno is 100kg lighter—and that improves not just efficiency, but performance too. The 74 bhp diesel car, for instance, feels sufficiently sprightly and, in normal city driving, is responsive and nearly as quick as the 89 bhp Hyundai i20 diesel up to 100 kilometres per hour (kmph). It does get quite noisy once you start revving it a bit, and the refinement of the ageing Fiat-sourced engine is poor by today’s standards; the flip side is an exceptional claimed fuel economy of 27.39 kilometres per litre (kmpl).

The 1.2-litre petrol motor is amazingly refined in the lightweight Baleno. The manual version is quick off the line and scoots through gaps fairly well. The gear shift too is slick and, thanks to a light clutch, an automatic transmission may feel unnecessary. The option is available though, and the claim is that it will deliver 21.4 kmpl—the same fuel efficiency as the manual petrol variant. The CVT gearbox-equipped car is incredibly responsive at low revolutions, and as such is much better suited to city rather than highway use. Sadly, the automatic option only comes in the mid-level Delta trim, for Maruti believes a fully loaded automatic would be too expensive.

The Baleno’s suspension handles the roads with a maturity befitting its “premium" status. Cars as light as this tend to feel skittish over bad roads, but not this one; it rides over them with the authority of a bigger, heftier car. Straight-line stability is impressive too, thanks to the long wheelbase and the well-balanced suspension. The slightly soft ride is quite absorbent and, except for sharp edges, the suspension despatches bumps with a muted thud at most. The Baleno’s well-weighted and confidence-inspiring steering is pretty quick, which makes it a joy to drive around corners. And 170mm of ground clearance means you don’t have to worry about speed breakers and sharp verges.

The Baleno is Maruti’s first serious shot at the premium hatchback segment, and to underscore that fact, the car will be sold exclusively through the company’s Nexa network of upmarket showrooms. It looks stylish, is quite nice to drive, and has good performance and fuel efficiency as well, thanks to that light kerb weight. The cabin too is surprisingly practical and spacious, and completely dispels once and for all the stigma that Maruti Suzuki cars are small and cramped.

We do feel Maruti should have made the cabin a lot plusher for this segment, but that said, the company has done well to pack the Baleno with loads of equipment. Combine all this with the very competitive pricing and it’s easy to see that Maruti has successfully delivered a capable premium hatchback with a solid bang for your buck.

If you’re interested, book soon, for prices are likely to rise after the festive season.

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