Four wheels carry stuff quite well. But then someone, very early on in the history of chariotry, started having fun doing this. Hence was born the utility vs sport, the measure vs leisure question that has existed since, and been the bane of carmakers that have attempted to profit legitimately from selling the said chariots.
Maybe it’s not an either-or stance, nor is it a debate. Some people enjoy risk, some don’t – that’s all. But everyone, I say everyone, likes a little kick in their pants as they are rolling. It’s just that some, especially in our environment, want to be sure that the machine will not become excessively dearer to run, or fall apart sooner than it should, as it provides said kick in the pants. And how do you take someone’s word that it won’t? Indians don’t, obviously. Instead they wait and watch over decades, then entrust, and hope to never worry again. It is a system that works. I write this from a quaint town in Uttarakhand, and I can tell you from experience that in this large nation of ours tied together by the Rupee, there are some people who may never buy a German car for nothing save a lack of trust. But if they’re offered a Maruti that goes like stink, they may take it.
Cut to a rear-light, front-wheel-drive machine, piloted by a one-lap old driver, bewildered after having spent around ten seconds at about 90km/h into the seemingly never-ending right-handed Parabola between Turns 10 and 11 at the Buddh International Circuit. The tyres are holding fine to the grippy F1-spec surface. Each instant, the corner speed exceeds the grip and the car starts running wide, a little off the connected and responsive throttle and it’s all back in check.
On and off the fast esses, there is the secure, floaty feel of the EBD doing its thing and keeping the lines Xbox-One clean despite the light steering. But this situation is different. Theory has given in to instinct and the driver finds himself on the inside of this beautiful corner as it tightens furthermore before the exit. At the edge of grip, the only way out is the one that runs wide. Out of trackspace and initiated by an under-educated amount of steering input, the rear decides to resign, taking the package of wheels and driver with itself. The spin is elegant – a taut suspension keeps things level despite the unholy dynamics. Once around, almost twice as the car exhausts its momentum, facing the lonely stands. Doubt if the Fitbit on the driver’s wrist measured anything other than a couple of skipped beats though – it was that smooth. One safe adventure for one safe city boy.
At the BIC for the first drive of the Maruti Suzuki Baleno RS, words like adventure, thrill, passion etc are flying high. That’s why the Fitbits on the driving journalists’ wrists, to prove a point as to how exciting the new car is. Seems to be working – I see an amazing readout of 164bpm from a driver on one of the screens inside the pits serving sushi that all the Delhi journos skip assiduously. It’s an important step for a carmaker that has, in the recent past, put its large resources into a revamp of image to appeal to a new segment of the urban and neo-urban buyer, one that wants more experiences from its automobile.
While Maruti Suzuki’s Nexa sub-brand seemed to clearly target a more classy chunk of the pie, the introduction of the RS (RoadSport) badge with the Baleno has made evident the carmaker’s desire of bringing the sport-intended young buyers into its fold too. The first step has been a brand new engine aimed at making Indian city and highway speeds more intense. The second has been to fit it into the company’s most successful product of late.
With over a lakh-and-a-half of its units already out on Indian streets, the snazzy Baleno hatch comes with a truly international image that buyers seem to be taking to. Amongst all the cars in the current Maruti Suzuki bouquet, the Baleno does seem the most apt recipient for the all-new light and compact Boosterjet engine that Hamamatsu has developed. The small-displacement direct-injected turbopetrol formula seems right at home with the Japanese way of making small things release large outputs, and the barely 1-litre (998cc) three-pot engine makes a little over 100PS and 150Nm of torque. The power and torque curves reveal an engine that won’t putter around in top at 40 km/h, but instead loves having the revs to get up and go – peak power comes in at 5,500rpm.
That being said, the torque peaks at as low as 1,700rpm, which should make the mill just fine in the city. For the sake of perspective, the stock Baleno with its 1.2-litre four-pot K-Series engine needs to be revved even more – to 6,000rpm – to make its lower peak power of 83-odd PS, and those figures are in and around the competition’s. The new engine not only provides the go expected out of a car that intends to be sporty, but also manages to sound like one – crisp, a little raspy, and an engine note that’s quick to raise pitch.
The Baleno looks sporty enough, with its grinning tall and chunky fenders, muscled out wheel arches and a really smart roofline. The RS comes with its own set of visual distinguishers, which include black underbody skirts at the front, side and rear, and the matte all-black alloys which hide-and-show the disc brakes present on all four wheels in this model. The 14-inch discs at the front and the 13-inchers at the rear had more than enough bite to decelerate from a top speed of nearly 160 km/h off the back straight at the BIC down to around 60 km/h at the entry of Turn 4 without seeming to run out of strength or feel.
At a kerb weight of 950 kilograms, the Baleno RS is a good 85 kilos heavier than its tamer 1.2-litre stablemate, but poise and performance remain spot-on for a car in its class. The tauter suspension, mainly to support the extra weight, also does a good job at distributing weight balance evenly during dynamic changes right-to-left and fore-to-aft. A sturdier hydraulic steering, as opposed to the electric unit that the car sports, would have done it a world of good on the racetrack. One must remember that the car will see standstill steering movements during city parking much more than switchbacks in the mountains.
That’s the car, but that’s not the whole story. Quietly in the background, behind the track-focused and hence South-bound motorsport activities of many manufacturers, Maruti Suzuki’s Motorsport division has been doing some very interesting things. Apart from being patrons of the largest rallies in the country, which include the Raid de Himalaya, the Desert Storm and the Dakshin Dare, the company’s sport arm is also exploring more accessible autocross formats for urban competition. Now if Maruti Suzuki Motorsport could tie this car and, more importantly, this engine to its efforts, things could be quite brilliant. A high-strung small turbopetrol may neither be the ideal candidate for the autocross championship they have been running nor serve a greater advantage to competitors at the National TSD championship. But sponsored candidates in reserved-for-racing RS vehicles could support an entire competitive class amongst themselves, which would (1) open up great avenues for a casual, grass-root level, weekends-only attitude towards motoring as sport – much needed right now; and (2) give the carmaker a new following through which it can build a deeper and more meaningful relationship with its existing and potential buyers.
Think about it, testosterone driven 20-somethings outbraking themselves on dirt at an autocross track. Young families heading out for a fairly-safe TSD rally instead of just a weekend drive. Branding is most welcome, and is usually rewarded with sales when it promises to create genuine activity. That’s why things look poised brilliantly in Urban-Indian-a to embrace the larger things that the RS badge promises to initiate. One hopes that the new 148-million rupee engine effort reaps rich dividends for its maker in a mistrusting motoring nation looking for an easy kick in the pants that’s not heavy on the pocket. As for the Baleno RS, it promises to be a hoot for CR7 haircuts and new suits.
Sopan Sharma was representing MotorScribes at the Buddh International Circuit, on invite from Maruti Suzuki. Special thanks to Rohan Albal from PowerDrift for driving the car in the pictures. The Baleno RS has been launched at an ex-Delhi price of Rs 8.69 lakh.