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Is it strange that even today the Indian car market is so overwhelmingly dominated by the small car? Is it strange that we call everything from a Maruti 800 to a Honda Jazz a “small" car anyway? And finally is it then also strange that we spend so much time analysing and writing about this vast and volumes-heavy segment? The answer to all three questions from a practical standpoint is “No". The Indian car market has been booming—across segments—thanks to the volumes platform the hatch space provides. So it is no surprise that over the past five years, the rush of global auto makers setting up capacities in India has all concentrated on the small car.

Driving in, soon

The Hyundai i10 Kappa and last year’s Maruti Suzuki Ritz both sport a 1.2-litre petrol option. Then came the 1.2-litre options on the bigger hatches such as the Honda Jazz, Fiat Grande Punto and the Hyundai i20. This year a number of cars will join that brigade. The Chevrolet Beat drove in last month with great prices. The Toyota Etios arrives by Diwali, but around the corner are others such as Nissan’s Micra, Volkswagen’s Polo and the Ford Figo.

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I recently drove the upgraded Maruti Suzuki Swift (yes, it too has a 1.2 litre engine now) and the Ford Figo. Despite attracting a lower excise duty now, the Swift isn’t getting cheaper. That either means fatter margins for Maruti or a way to dull the rising input cost pressure for the company. The car handles just as well as the 1.3 litre version, the pick-up is good, and, of course, it’s all familiar territory as this is the same K12M engine from the Ritz. The engine is refined, efficient and smooth.

Always on the move

Ford’s big gamble with its Figo is somewhat similar in strategy to what General Motors is doing with the Beat. It is a small car that aims to offer a bit extra at irresistible prices. It is the car Ford hopes will take it to a large volumes trajectory in India. The car follows the company’s Kinetic Design language, which means it has to look like it is moving even when static. The front end is appealing, the car’s sides are muscular, but I find the rear a tad boxy, which may take away from the visual momentum Ford wants.

The profile and rear, in fact, remind you of the Fusion and the previous generation European Fiesta. The car is based on a derivative of that previous generation Fiesta’s platform, just like the current Fiesta sedan in India. The build quality and the surfaces on the exterior are impressive. The Figo is smart, but lacks the massive visual impact delivered by the bold face of the Chevy Beat or the flowing lines of the Hyundai i20.

Step inside and things start to get different. Ford has tried something new here—new for India. The high-end version of the Figo comes with coral-coloured plastics all around. This is embellished with some brushed-aluminium look inserts such as the central console and AC vents. The Ritz has a nice subtle combination of blue and grey plastic too, but we’ve never seen such a stark use of plastic that is not grey, black or beige.

As far as interiors go in the small car space, we have started to see some colour and flamboyance. The Chevy Beat has plenty of metal finish plastic, and even a superbike-like instrument cluster. It was the i10 that made beige plastics popular, with dark brown, bark-like inserts. And just like that really caught on, with many cars going beige, you might see a lot more experimentation from other car makers too if Ford’s gamble works.

So the Figo’s interior gets noticed, and is definitely different. To be honest, it doesn’t really work for me, but I suspect a lot of buyers will be smitten by it. It also depends what exterior colour you team it up with, and is not going to be available with the deep red paintwork.

What you do get as an option on the higher spec, and standard on the lower variants, is a sporty black finish for the dash. The interiors are extremely spacious though, with ample legroom and boot space.

High on options

Like other hatches, the Figo too will offer a diesel variant: the very capable and proven 1.4-litre mill from the Fiesta/Ikon/Fusion that we know well. It is responsive, torquey and very efficient. This is a derivative of an existing Ford engine, but the reworking is what makes it pretty new. My first impression was of a car with a larger displacement engine. The response is ample and the car’s power limitation is obvious only at higher speeds. The gear shift is notchy and smooth, and I feel this will be a big plus in city driving.

The Figo is expected to sport a Rs3.5-4.5 lakh price tag. For this, it has done away with power windows at the rear, or an adjustable steering column. The Chevy Beat, though, gives you climate control and the features missing on the Figo at under Rs4 lakh. But the Figo is spacious and works better as a family car. The prices will make a difference, and by the time the Figo launches in March, we should also know how the Nissan and VW models will stack up.

The bottom line is that the buyer has never had it so good. Now let’s just hope that the interest rates for car loans stay where they are.

Siddharth Vinayak Patankar is editor (auto), NDTV.Write to Siddharth at roadrunner@livemint.com

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