The Suzuki S-Cross is a capable off-roader that aims to take on the compact SUV segment

The Suzuki S-Cross was first seen at this year's Auto Expo in Delhi at the Maruti stand. With this car, the manufacturer revealed intentions of entering India's compact SUV segment. With the Kizashi and Grand Vitara disappearing without a trace, Maruti is banking on the S-Cross to be its ‘image builder’. Is the S-Cross the right car for the job?

The image of any car revolves around its styling, and, unfortunately, the S-Cross is neither great looking nor very distinctive. Its mix of hatchback and compact SUV looks makes it more of a crossover than anything else. The bluff nose with a very Suzuki-ish grille doesn’t do much for its road presence. The profile only serves to highlight the S-Cross’s drooping nose, whilst at the rear, the two-part tail-lights (split by the tailgate) remind you of a previous-generation Hyundai.

There are some interesting bits though. Suzuki has bowed to the LED craze, and the top-spec version’s headlamps gets a strip of daytime running diodes. The rear fog light, tucked away into the bumper, also looks good. Large, 17-inch wheels (the Indian version may get 16-inchers), a generous use of scuff plates, and black cladding all around establish the S-Cross’s SUV credentials to some extent, but it’s the 4x4 system that works on demand that makes the S-Cross a true off-roader.

Suzuki calls its four-wheel-drive system Allgrip, and it offers Auto, Sport, Snow and Lock modes. However, over 95 percent of SUVs in India are two-wheel-drive, and the S-Cross’s main rivals such as the Duster and Terrano do well without 4x4, so Maruti may not think it necessary to offer it. If included though, Allgrip could be a selling-point of the S-Cross.

Under the skin, the S-Cross has typically conventional mechanicals, with MacPherson struts in the front and a torsion bar at the rear. What’s impressive though is the very generous 2,600 mm wheelbase, which translates to a comfortable back seat. The seat has generous thigh support, decent legroom and a high hip or ‘H’ point to make getting in and out easy. It’s headroom is a bit tight, and that too only for six-footers. There are no rear air-con vents, a must-have in this class these days, and hopefully Maruti will engineer them into the car before it is launched in India.

The 430-litre luggage area isn’t particularly large by class standards, but the flat floor and flat side panels allow you to accommodate more luggage than seems possible. The 60:40 seat split is useful too.

Sitting in the driver’s seat, you know you are surely in a Suzuki. The steering wheel and the window switches are both like the Swift. The plastic quality is decent and a step up from the Swift, but the interior is far plusher than the Duster’s. The blue-ringed instruments are a nice touch and the chrome accents around the vents and centre console are tastefully finished. The cabin is practical too, with large bins, a decent-sized glovebox and a useful cubbyhole below the air-con controls. There are also two cup-holders beside the handbrake.

The S-Cross comes with a choice of two engines: both are 1.6-litre units, but one is a petrol and the other is a diesel. The 1.6-litre petrol is the same M16A engine that powers the SX4, albeit in a more advanced state of tune. However, it lacks today’s tech such as turbocharging and direct fuel injection. It’s not certain whether or not the petrol motor will come to India, but the diesel certainly will, and that’s the engine I drove.

The 1.6 diesel motor is Fiat-sourced, just like the smaller 1.3 DDiS that powers most of Maruti’s range. Developing a decent 118 bhp and 32.63 kgm of torque, this four-cylinder turbo-diesel, mated to a six-speed manual, seems about right for propelling a car that weighs around 1,300 kg.

Though the 1.6 diesel and the 1.3 DDiS belong to different families, they are similar in character. Fire up the S-Cross and there’s that typical diesel gruffness which finds its way into the cabin. Suzuki has used a fair bit of sound-deadening material under the bonnet, but still this is not a particularly quiet engine, less so when you rev it hard. Like other Fiat engines, this feels asleep below 1,500 rpm, but then suddenly awakes when the turbo spools up.

The short-throw gearshift is precise, but needs a bit of effort. The uneven power delivery doesn't make light work of slow-moving traffic, but find an open stretch to keep the engine in the meat of the power-band and the S-Cross feels punchy and quick. In fact, overtaking on the motorways was absolutely effortless, and the strong middle range provides sufficient power. When it comes to India, the diesel S-Cross’ performance will be a strong point.

Also weighing in the S-Cross’s favour are its driving dynamics. It drives in a predictable, straightforward way, with decent body control and a fairly compliant ride. It is surprisingly agile too, with good front-end grip that allows it to dart into corners quickly and crisply. The steering is quite responsive too, except for a dead spot around the straight-ahead position, which is typical of lots of Suzukis. The ride is quite pliant and soaks up bumps well, but sharp edges crash through. For the Indian market, the S-Cross’s suspension will be further tuned and it’s likely to get higher-profile tyres too.

In fact, Maruti is likely to Indianise the S-Cross a fair bit before it goes on sale in early 2015. The black interiors may be replaced with a two-tone design, the seating comfort will be improved and, after watching Hyundai play the feature game, Maruti will load the S-Cross with equipment too.

The price at launch is likely to be in the region of Rs. 13-14 lakh, which puts it head-on against the Duster and Terrano. True, it doesn’t have the same road presence, and this is the Suzuki crossover’s biggest weakness. But don’t let those tame looks fool you into thinking that this is some wimpy soft-roader. The S-Cross is a hugely capable off-road in four-wheel-drive form.

And let’s not forget the biggest advantage of all – the Maruti brand that has the trust of the Indian motorist. But despite all the goodwill, customers are not willing to pay big bucks for a Maruti. Can the S-Cross make them change their minds?