It’s easy to look at Maruti Suzuki’s history and the company’s misfortunes whenever they’ve tried to cut high into the premium arena. The Suzuki Grand Vitara wasn’t the most preferred SUV on the market thanks to it being available only with a petrol engine and then the Kizashi is a story well known – another very capable car but its extreme thirst for fuel and the price tag at launch meant that not many wanted to touch it. And now we have the S-Cross – what Maruti Suzuki is pegging as a premium crossover, and we agree too because there’s no other car in India right now that has been purpose-built to be a crossover in this price bracket. It is also the priciest product from the Maruti Suzuki stables at the moment – with a price tag that starts from Rs 8.6 lakh to Rs 11.1 lakh (for the DDiS 200 variants) and even higher for the fabulous DDiS 320, it is just slightly more expensive than the very well-received Ciaz (Rs 8.4 – 10.6 lakh, ex-showroom Delhi for its 1.3-litre diesel variants). Some have argued that for the extra price on the S-Cross Maruti is selling a gimmick with their new network of Nexa dealerships. We disagree.
This is where we think Maruti Suzuki’s think tank comes into play. There is no doubt about the fact that India’s largest manufacturer has been trying hard to move up the ranks in terms of its flagship model’s positioning. Where the Kizashi and Grand Vitara were individual, isolated attempts at achieving this premium perception from the masses, the S-Cross is part of a much bigger, long-term plan. It’s quite an effort too, and must have involved a massive brainstorming session. The way we see it, there are two ways to achieve the premium tag – first is the simple method of making a product that is in essence a total departure from everything you’re known for – much like the Kizashi, which was bigger than any other car from Maruti we had seen and came kitted with a 2.4-litre petrol engine. There was no connect in terms of the product with the rest of its stable-mates whatsoever. Maruti’s USP has always been its small cars and despite the S-Cross being a crossover, it is essentially perceived in the common mind as being a big hatch built to also fight the small SUVs thanks to its body style. Yet it brings with it premium features, superior quality and a price tag that goes as high as Rs 14.2 lakh for the top-of-the-line DDiS 320 Alpha variant. Maruti has taken the second path to the premium tag – it has gradually added the high-end persona to its existing USP – hinting at it first with the Ciaz and then displaying it out in the open with the S-Cross. Is it working? Well, over 35,000 enquiries and 6,000 bookings by the time of the launch seem to suggest that it is.
Baleno, Part 2
It doesn’t end there – the next step in this game plan is going to be the small car based on the Suzuki iK-2 concept and the one that has till now been known by its codename YRA. Spy shots of the vehicle have already surfaced and the official announcement of the production version’s presence at the upcoming Frankfurt Motor Show reveals a lot about it. Internationally, the new hatchback is going to be called the Baleno – a name which has previously seen its time in India for the predecessor of the SX-4 sedan. Back then, it was an unconventionally designed car which didn’t quite find unanimous acceptance but those who did buy it, swore by it. We all remember those epic rivalries between Suzuki Balenos (or should it be Baleni, if you consider the Roman trend of plurals) and the Honda City on makeshift Indian drag strips and race tracks in the early 2000s! The new Baleno though, as mentioned is a hatchback and a really good looking one at that. There are styling traits that are an evolution of the Swift’s design especially when you look at the shape of the headlamps, but not much else carries forward from the super hit car that the Baleno will stack in above, as far as Maruti’s portfolio is concerned. There’s a new grille and the silhouette is that of a very sleek hatch that looks extremely dynamic even at stand still. Move over to the rear and a whole new design philosophy emerges – in fact, it even looks somewhat similar to a Mercedes-Benz A-Class in terms of its stance but we’ll talk a little more about that later. Fact is, that considering the side profile from the official photograph released by Suzuki, and the previously known dimensions of the iK-2 prototype, the Baleno is cutting it real close to the 4-metre mark at 4,023mm.
This most likely means that through a little bit of trimming here and there, the Baleno will make it to India with at least 24mm less on its bodywork – much like the Hyundai Elite i20 did on its journey here. With that being the case, the Baleno will need to have a petrol engine not bigger than 1.2 litres and a diesel not bigger than 1.5 litres in capacity to take full advantage of the excise regulations. It’s been made pretty clear that the European Baleno will sport a brand new 1-litre Boosterjet engine and no, it doesn’t have an after burner – this is Suzuki’s turbocharged 1-litre petrol engine. Maruti Suzuki also has the option of using the proven 1.2-litre petrol from its current range and of course the 1.3-litre Multijet as the oil burner. All that will be the norm, but what we’d really like to see Maruti do is play the game a little differently. If Maruti is to appeal to a higher class of customer, they really should consider bringing in the 1.4-litre petrol mill from the Ciaz as a bigger petrol option, or even better – the 1.4-litre Boosterjet that is available on other Suzuki models abroad. Yes, we know that is wishful thinking. What isn’t wishful thinking though and does make a lot of sense for us is the newly introduced DDiS 320 diesel engine as an added option to the DDiS 200 mill, just like on the S-Cross. This will not only instantly make the connect with the bigger S-Cross for the Baleno but it will also peg the new small car as nothing less than a hot hatch and people have been wanting a true fire breathing hot hatch for years. What this will also do, is get everyone prepared for that next big step that is set to arrive early in 2016 – the YBA compact SUV from Maruti Suzuki (update: now called the Vitara Brezza) which will most likely have these engine options at inception.
Update (20 Oct 2015): We’ve finally driven the Maruti Suzuki Baleno. Click here for the First Drive report.
Could it be?
With these new models coming in from Maruti Suzuki we can draw a little bit of a parallel here and we’re going to stick our necks out when we say this. They may not be in direct competition, but isn’t the S-Cross to Maruti what the X1 is to BMW – a proper crossover? In extension, the Baleno seems to be creating the aura of a Mercedes A-Class as well and not just in terms of the style but also in terms of the fact that a compact SUV will spawn from it soon. Mercedes did the same with the A-Class and the GLA and of course there is the CLA as well – could there be a Baleno sedan coming in the future? All this may just be our needy minds playing with us but why not? Could it be that Maruti Suzuki’s new cars are going to offer spiritual succession to the big Germans – not in direct competition of course. Think about it though – most people who buy any car always dream of a bigger one either in size or in brand image and with the S-Cross, the Baleno and the incoming YBA, Maruti seems to be providing this aspirational fulfilment at a more affordable cost. What Maruti has definitely done with its new style of selling cars through Nexa dealerships though, is isolate its regular, mass market cars from the premium ones, instantly being able to gain that much value in perception – the second method of going premium that we talked about earlier.
All of this falls directly in sync with what we were told when we went in to sample the S-Cross earlier last month – Maruti is in its third phase of customer engagement. First, it was all about getting the Indian populace on wheels with the likes of the 800, Alto and the Wagon R. The second phase came in with unmatched service and a solid foundation which they have no doubt achieved with a range of their products over the years. This phase is about providing an experience. And that is the singular definition of the strategy that all of this is about – the S-Cross, Nexa and the Baleno are tied in with one big string that will only keep getting stronger with every premium product that follows. Maruti Suzuki, welcome to the premium circle.