The market for estate or weekend cars has never really taken off in India. Many manufacturers have tried their hand at convincing Indian car buyers that an estate makes more sense if you are keen on travelling with your entire family and its luggage.

Fiat was amongst the first with the Palio Weekend, Maruti tried too with the Baleno Altura and so did Tata Motors. In fact, Tata Motors' punch line - “Because we like to carry our world with us” – for the Indigo Marina, was not really off the mark in terms of its import, but the car just couldn't capture the imagination of buyers looking for versatility and space.

However, the fact is that there have always been a small section of buyers for multi-purpose vehicles for their road presence and the fact that they came with diesel engines. It is also true that we Indians still want to carry our world with us and that includes our extended families. With many nuclear families even in the current ‘neo-urban' context being larger than five members, the need for a six or seven seater passenger vehicle has been and continues to be there.

What has changed though, over the years, is that buyers have matured to a point where they want a people's carrier, but one which is still cool, plush, and very capable of being their primary city car. That means that the vehicle also had to be compact and easy to manoeuvre in urban conditions.

The Chevy Tavera initially, and then the Toyota Innova have been the options available. But size has been a big intimidating factor for many people who might have otherwise considered these two vehicles. The other issue is also one of buyer expectations for a plusher family mover – the reason why the Maruti Versa and the current EECO could not find that many takers amongst urban upper middle class buyers. Maruti showcased its solution to these problems in the Ertiga at the Auto Expo earlier this year. I got to test drive the new seven-seater in Goa last week. With its narrow winding streets and fairly crowded touristy population, Goa provided the right environs for testing the Life Utility Vehicle (LUV – that is what Maruti is calling it). Here are my first impressions.

Design

Building the Ertiga on the Swift platform has enabled Maruti Suzuki engineers to compress the gestation to market and also enabled them to dip into a versatile and fairly sophisticated platform for creating a compact utility vehicle. Cost savings and a common design language that talks to customers looking for a car and not a van is another consequence of the choice.

The Ertiga, as a result, looks like an elongated version of the Swift. Of course, onlookers seemed to find design cues that resembled the Ritz and DZire too, but that just reinforces the Swift family design DNA in the new Ertiga. Short overhangs, a ‘snubby' bonnet and an overall length that is just 26.5 cms longer than the 4,000 mm limit set by the Government for small car benefits makes this new LUV look like a big hatchback.

The width of the Ertiga remains the same as the Swift and the height has marginally gone up to 1,685mm, compared to the Swift's 1,530mm. Much of the increase in length has gone into extending the wheelbase of the Ertiga (310mm more than the Swift's), enabling Maruti Suzuki engineers to optimise the interior space.

In keeping with the utility vehicle attitude the Ertiga has a raised stance, which mostly comes from the 15mm higher ground clearance compared to the Swift. Visually, the new UV looks a bit more raised due to the oversized wheel arches. The higher ground clearance will also be needed for the new vehicle higher passenger and payload capability.

The side profile of the Ertiga is the most convincing and clean. It is just about as tall as the average height of Indians and the ground clearance being just 15mm more than the Swift's, stepping into the Ertiga only feels like you are entering a regular car. You don't have to step up and heave yourself in like you are getting into a truck.

The extra length of the Ertiga is obvious when you look at it up close and from the side. But that is only comforting and makes you curious about the space that the three rows of seats might be able to offer. From the front, the Ertiga's filial lines are easy to trace in the bonnet slab, grille and, though larger overall, in the headlamp design. At the rear, the new Maruti UV seems to be more petite to look at. That is probably because the width of the Ertiga remains the same as the Swift and also because the tail-lamp design has more of it flowing to the sides than at the rear.

To make it seem more car-like, in addition to borrowing much of the design, Maruti engineers have loaded the Ertiga with similar features like the integrated turn lamps in the door mirrors, the alloy wheels (in top variant), regular hinged doors – instead of sliding, the low loading height at the rear and its fairly compact dimensions. But, in terms of weight, the Ertiga is almost 300 kgs heavier than the Swift DZire and that must have made it a challenge to match the Swift family's performance and handling characteristics.

Interior

When I get into the Ertiga before daybreak, I am still sceptical about its interior space and its ability to provide adequate space for all three rows. But I am pleasantly surprised with the kind of space optimisation that the engineers have managed. Work on the Ertiga was apparently started by mid-2008. With a platform and family connection to work with, it is said that much of the focus was on optimising space within the preset length for the new car.

The core focus was to ensure that the third row seat would be a fully usable bench and not just an emergency seat. To clear up space, the 45-litre fuel tank was designed to be flat and stay under the rear two rows of seats without intruding into the cabin and forcing a raised, cramped third row configuration.

The front two bucket seats and the second row 60:40 split bench are tilt and slide adjustable. The second row seat also folds and slides forward in one stroke with the push of a lever to allow easy access to the third row. With a fair amount of space at the second row, there is just enough legroom for an average sized adult at the third row – quite an achievement for the Ertiga.

The entire dashboard is a straight lift from the DZire, except for some minor changes like the colour theme adopted and a yellow LED backlighting instead of the orange in the DZire. There are a lot of storage spaces built into the Ertiga and there is tilt steering too. Quality of materials used and the ergonomics of the interior are as good as in the new Swift and the new DZire. My only gripe was the extra soft seat cushioning for all rows. They were comfortable over the four hours of driving I did, wonder if they will be comfortable at the end of a longer drive. Boot space is also not great when all the seats are in use.

Performance and handling

The choice of engines for the Ertiga is the new 1.4-litre K14BVVT petrol engine and the D13A DDiS super turbo diesel carried forward from the SX4. Given the additional weight of the new vehicle the two engines manage to offer a fair balance of power and torque.

The new, larger K series petrol engine reflects the same characteristics of its existing siblings. Quiet and almost vibe-free in idling mode, the engine comes across as refined and quick under hard acceleration. With variable valve timing to optimise performance and with low friction components, the new 1,373cc, 4-cylinder, 16-valve engine delivers a peak power of 95PS at 6,000 rpm and a peak torque of 130Nm at 4,000 rpm.

The diesel engine is combined with an intercooled variable geometry turbocharger and this is same basic mill from the SX4. This 1,248cc engine with common rail diesel injection is almost free of any turbolag and delivers a peak power of 90PS at 4,000 rpm and a peak torque of 200Nm from as low as 1,750 rpm. The diesel engine makes its presence felt audibly despite the use of an extended dash silencer and other sound deadening components.

But, that is only when you accelerate hard, during idling and cruising conditions the familiar diesel engine is just the same as in the SX4. On the road, the Ertiga feels very much like the Swift and DZire. Though the Ertiga is no where near as big as the other utility vehicles like the Innova and the Tavera, you still get to feel its extra length compared to the Swift.

The engines have been mated to the five-speed gearbox already in the family cars, only the gear ratios have been optimised for the Ertiga's expected driving cycle. Gear shifts are crisp and quick. The rated fuel efficiency for the petrol engine is 16.02 kmpl and the diesel is 20.77 kmpl.

The Ertiga handles quiet well too – almost, but not entirely, like a sedan. The suspension is also a carry forward in terms of its configuration – MacPherson strut at the front and torsion beam at the rear. The ratings for the springs have been increased and the dampers have been stiffened to handle the higher loads.

Bottomline

This is a diesel dominated segment and Maruti officials say that they expect to sell 8 diesel variants of the Ertiga for every two petrol variants. This preference for diesel is going to persist as long as the differential exists, but this segment is just that much more sensitive to the costs and the savings.

Maruti has just barely managed to launch a compact premium UV before the flood that is due to hit the roads in the next one or two years from competitors like Nissan, Hyundai, Toyota and Renault, and possibly even Mahindra & Mahindra – which is expected to launch a compact Xylo.

Though a bit late coming from the car market leader, the Ertiga could still benefit from Maruti's image of being a manufacturer of reliable, efficient and low-cost cars. So, though the target is the urban buyer looking for a family mover, sales could eventually come in quickly from institutional buyers too.

The price of the Ertiga will still be a crucial factor and Maruti will be well aware of that fact. I expect pricing to be in the region of Rs 6.5 lakh to Rs 9 lakh for the three trim variants each (LXi/ LDi, VXi/ VDi and ZXi/ ZDi) of the petrol and diesel versions. The good part of the trim package being offered is that Maruti has decided to push up the safety index by offering ABS with EBD as part of standard fitment even in the base LDi variant.

About two weeks to go before the Ertiga reaches a showroom near you. Want to reconsider your plan to buy the DZire?

Maruti Ertiga Technical Specifications

Dimensions

Overall Length: 4,265 mm

Overall Width: 1,695mm

Overall Height: 1,685mm

Wheel Base: 2,740mm

Ground Clearance: 185mm

Turning Radius: 5.2 metres

Engines: 1.4-lt K-Series Petrol with VVT / 1.3-lt DDiS diesel

Displacement(in cc) 1,373 / 1,248

Maximum Power(PS@rpm): 95@6,000 / 90@4,000

Maximum Torque(Nm@rpm): 130@4,000 / 200@1,750

Gearbox: Type 5-Speed Manual / 5-Speed Manual

Gross vehicle weight: 1,760 kgs / 1,845 kgs

Suspension

Front: MacPherson Strut

Rear: Torsion Beam

Tyre Size

L & V Grade: 185/65R15

Z Grade: 185/65R15

Fuel tank capacity: 45 litres

muraliswami@thehindu.co.in

For more automobile review log on to www.blsmartbuy.com