The Maruti Suzuki Alto has ruled over the lower end of the A2 passenger car segment with an iron hand. It has often topped the monthly sales charts, has been the best selling model for years and since introduction in the year 2000, has sold nearly 14 lakh units.

But, the Alto's design in India has remained unchanged for years, except for some minor facelifts. While in the rest of the world the A-Star replaced the existing Alto, here the two have continued to co-exist, in part due to the continued demand for the previous generation Alto.

With the Indian car buyer maturing and expecting more performance and style even in the lower end of the A2 segment, it created a void, which manufacturers such as GM tried to fill with cars like the Chevrolet Spark.

Recognising the need for offering an option to buyers looking for an upgraded experience in the economy hatch segment, Maruti designers and engineers went back to their research and development bench with the Alto, to give it a new face and to endow it with more power and poise.

New face

The result is the new Alto K10, a visibly younger looking, more plush and easier to drive Alto that is bound to attract the eye-balls of the buyer in the 20-30 years age category. Three measures of the new Alto's dimensions haven't changed – width, height and wheelbase, yet, the new model looks squatter and visually more appealing than the previous one.

The one dimension that has changed, of course, is the length. Maruti engineers had to work on lengthening the existing chassis of the Alto to accommodate the new engine. The idea was to pick out the all-aluminium K10 engine that is already buzzing in the A-Star's bonnet and shoe-horn it into the Alto K10. Since the new engine is bigger than the existing 796cc, 3-cylinder engine in the Alto, the bonnet area had to be lengthened.

A total of 125mm in additional length has been added to the bonnet member and all the extra space obtained has been utilised to accommodate the K10 engine. The minor changes to the body panels of the new Alto K10 and the extra heft of the engine together have contributed to an increase in overall weight of about 50 kgs. Yet, thanks to the refined and frugal K10 engine, the rated fuel efficiency of this new model is higher than the previous Alto.

Exteriors

From the outside, the new Alto K10's parentage is evident, though the changes are all substantial. The most prominent change is the headlamp design which now features a kink on the edges, giving it ‘eagle-eye' looks like Maruti designers call it. The bonnet ridge is now slightly more prominent and the redesigned bumpers are now body-coloured. The bonnet grille cuts deeper into the bumper and features three slats (instead of the previous two) with the Suzuki ‘S' logo in chrome at the middle.

The other feature of the new Alto K10 that looks familiar is the door mounted rear view mirrors, which looks very much like the original Zen's mirrors. They are internally adjustable and these mirrors in the VXi variant of the Alto K10 also get body colour paint. Chunky door panel rub strips are standard. From the side, the additional length is immediately visible and much of it has translated into an increase in overhang at the front.

At the rear, the tail-lamps and hatch door have been changed. The new design of the tail-lamp features circular elements unlike the pyramid-shaped version of the previous Alto. The hatch door has been redesigned to accommodate the new tail-lamp design and the rear garnish has been repositioned to a slightly higher position. The other doors have been left unchanged.

Interiors

A wave of familiarity also swept over me when I stepped into the Alto K10. Though there are changes that are very evident the moment I got behind the wheel, retention of the original dashboard design has meant that it still looks much like the current version.

The significant additions inside the Alto K10 are the new three-spoke steering wheel, the new chunky gear knob, the new design of the front seats with integrated headrests, three-ring instrument cluster with chrome-lipping, power-windows for the front doors, rear parcel tray, customisable illumination for the new orange-backlit instrument cluster and the matching two-tone theme to the seat fabric.

Two other additions that will be appreciated are the increase in knee-room for the rear benchers thanks to the scooped out rear of the driver's and front passenger's seats and the fabric inserts that help break the monotony on the plastic door panels.

Performance

The change that really makes the new Alto K10 worthwhile is, of course, the 998cc K10B engine and the new cable-shifter five-speed gearbox. This one-litre engine also available in the A-Star, is part of Suzuki's new series of fuel-efficient and low emission engines. Despite being a three-cylinder engine, features and technologies such as its chain-driven dual-overhead camshafts, low friction pistons and Iridium-tipped spark plugs enable this unit to deliver on its promise of better efficiency and refinement. In terms of performance numbers, the Alto K10 generates a peak power of 68PS at 6,200 rpm and maximum torque of 90Nm at 3,500 rpm.

I test drove the new Alto K10 primarily in the city, getting a feel of the engine in stop-and-go traffic, something that most owners in this category would be doing for most of their ownership tenure. This is a free-revving engine and though it doesn't quite match it in the same way, it reminded me of the old Zen.

Unlike the existing Alto's 800cc mill, the K10 has a lot more room in each gear. Going with ease all the way up to 85 kmph on second gear, before the engine rpm hits the redline, this is a peppier engine that the average young buyer will like. Compared to the rubbery shift feel of the existing Alto's five speed gearbox stick, the new cable-shifter in the Alto K10 feels progressive and firm and is a big step forward in quality. There is a clear improvement in driveability, though the shift gates for the gear stick seem to have been set too close to each other.

Maruti engineers have also The ride quality in the new Alto K10 has also got a boost thanks to a set of new features. It now sports 13-inch wheels instead of the 12-inchers that the existing Alto has. While the additional weight has not affected the weight-to-power ratio of the Alto K10 compared to competition, it has possibly also contributed to a slightly more planted feel. However, the overall driving dynamics of the new Alto K10 seems to be very similar to the current Alto. In the K10, braking power has also been increased with the help of 8-inch brake boosters.

Verdict

The new Alto K10 is a classic Maruti move to fill a void and close-in on competition, even more so because the company will continue to offer three trim levels of the existing Alto (Std, LX and LXi). The VXi variant of the existing Alto was dropped a few years ago and has nicely made room for the new Alto K10.

Both for first time buyers and existing Maruti 800 and Alto buyers, this will be an attractive option to consider. Loaded with features such as central locking, power windows and parcel as part of standard fitment, the Alto K10 also gets a level of aspirational quality since these are features considered premium even by buyers in the B segment. Pricing for the two Alto K10 variants – Lxi and VXi – have been set close to each other at Rs 3 lakh and Rs 3.13 lakh respectively (ex-showroom). The current Alto just might be repositioned since it is the only entry-level option from Maruti buyers in the metros.