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Maruti Alto 800: Power to the people

The new Alto is all grown up now. We drive it down the narrow roads of Cochin to see if it has lost its innocence

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You could call the Maruti Alto the workhorse of the nation. You’ll find it zipping past every nook and corner of the country. In fact, there are so many around that you’d be forgiven for thinking it has become India’s national choice of transport. But the Alto is the Alto for good reason.

It may not appeal to the enthusiast, but it has everything that the average joe looks for in a car – fuel efficient engine, attractive price tag, you name it. You’d think one would be a bit of a dimwit to go and fix what’s not broken. But Maruti has done just that. It has applied the scalpel (and lots of other tools) to give you an almost completely new Alto.

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Gone is the old jellybean shape, the new Alto has grown up. The face is all-new and looks far more modern. And if you squint a little, you might see a bit of the Ford Figo in there. It has also grown in height – look at it in profile and you can see it edging a bit towards the tall boys, with the rear doors reminding you of the A-Star. Rear three-quarters is perhaps the Alto 800’s best angle. It looks fresh, but we aren’t sure if it is decidedly better looking. It doesn’t gel together as fluidly as the old jellybean shape did. But we reckon it isn’t something that will put off potential buyers.

We’re happy to see the Alto’s core values have remained. So you still get that 796cc 3-pot 47bhp motor coupled to a five-speed gearbox – a combination that can give some big bikes a complex with its efficiency. There are some minor updates too, like the revised intake. And it’s pretty refined for a 3-cylinder, especially at idle. Prod the throttle and the thrum does come through as you pile on the revs. Going up the lush green hills of God’s own country, the Alto did better than expected. The F8D motor responds well to the throttle and has an eagerness to it.

The mid-range is decently peppy, which is nice in traffic, but having only 47 horses does show on the highway. It feels short of breath at higher speeds, but will do 110-120kph without much stress. Crude stopwatch timing pegged the Alto 800’s 0-100kph at around 18 seconds, so don’t expect to be smiling at traffic light drags.

For that, you still have the lovely Alto K10. Still, the Alto 800 impresses with its peppiness on the urban crawl. To drive the Alto 800 fast, you have to keep the motor on the boil and work the gearbox hard. Thankfully, the throws are nice, precise and short. We had limited time with the car, so we couldn’t test efficiency, but we don’t expect much change from the outgoing Alto.

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The platform stays the same, so changing major dimensions inside was out of the question. Wheelbase is the same, but Maruti claims better legroom at the back thanks to scoops in the back of the front seats. More legroom or not, there’s no denying that space is still at a premium in the back of an Alto. However, there’s noticeably more headroom thanks to the cabin’s increased height. Bootspace isn’t too bad either and is enough for one large bag.

The bigger change is the new fascia. The old conventional dashboard is replaced by a curvier, more modern-looking dash. In our top-end LXi variant, it was finished in grey-and-black. The centre vents rising out the dashboard look nice. Surprisingly, the plastics don’t feel too cheap for the potential price you’ll pay. And if you look close, you’ll see some old Alto bits like the aircon controls.

Only the front windows are powered and the buttons have moved down to behind the gear lever from their usual place on the door pads.

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As far as equipment goes, the LXi gets power steering, front power windows, air-conditioning and an optional driver airbag. Lots of cubbyholes as well, but the one driver-side door pocket that you get could have been more generous.

On the road, the Alto’s diminutive dimensions are a boon when slicing through traffic. The engine plays ball and it’s easy to make the gaps in traffic. The light steering also helps, even though it doesn’t feel very consistent. But that’s okay in traffic and you won’t even notice. It’s only on the highway when these things start showing. The ride, pliant at low speeds, starts to feel choppy as the speeds rise.

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Grip levels aren’t great thanks to those puny efficiency-oriented tyres and you’ll often find the car understeering early. A tyre upgrade will do it good and will also improve braking efficiency. Brake feel also could have been better. But we’re talking from an enthusiast’s point of view. The Alto may not be the best in the dynamics department, and it may not bring a smile to your face, but it does the job without apprehensions and that’s what matters to the general public.

And Maruti has always had a keen finger on the pulse of the market. Sure, the looks may not appeal to everyone, but if you look at certain other cars in the market, looks don’t seem to matter that much. The new Alto 800 isn’t an enthusiast’s delight, but see, it doesn’t need to be. It needs to be cheap, reliable and fuel-efficient. And the Alto 800 is just that.

Fuel subsidy or not, the Alto 800 will not hurt your wallet like the others. And if you’re really keen on cutting costs, there will also be a factory-fit CNG option. Prices range from Rs 2.99 lakh (LXi) to Rs 3.56 lakh (top of the range), both ex-showroom, Delhi.

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There are three variants – Std, LX and LXi. The base variant doesn’t get any frills. The LX adds air-conditioning, LXi gets front power windows and wheel caps. We have to commend Maruti for the optional airbag. ABS would have been nice too. So, is the Alto 800 a good buy? Yes, it’s much improved over the older car especially the interior. It drives well enough and is as efficient and reliable as Japanese rail service.

It may not be the quickest runabout, but then again, you can always go buy the K10, which also looks a darn sight better. If economical transportation is your only criterion, the Alto 800 makes a great case for itself. But if you want a more complete experience, go pick up a K10 and you’ll be pretty happy.

(Words: Manish Sarser, Photos: Himanshu Pandya)

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