The Maruti Alto is one of the best-selling small cars in India. Can the new Alto 800 live up to its name? Shapur Kotwal has the answer

The Alto is not only Maruti’s best-selling car; it’s the best-selling car in India. And Maruti is dead serious about retaining its supremacy. The fact that Maruti invested Rs. 470 crore and four years towards the development of the new Alto model and put around 200 engineers on the project goes to show exactly how important the latest version of its best-selling car is to the company.

The two-part grille looks quite modern with the large hexagonal air intake in the bumper and the slim upper grille with its chrome strip. The headlights are high-mounted and petal-shaped. The prominent crease that runs along the flanks and rises towards the rear gives the new Alto 800 a mildly sporty and tipped-forward stance, but this has resulted in a smaller glass area at the back. At the rear, fresh new details like the large crystal-like tail-lights and sharply sculpted bumper add some spice. What makes the car look a bit awkward from some angles, however, is the massive ground clearance; it just doesn’t sit well with the car’s compact dimensions.

Whilst the Alto 800 may be completely new on the outside, under the skin, there are plenty of bits carried over from the outgoing car. The floorpan is similar, the wheelbase is the same and the suspension and brakes are near identical. Also similar are the load points on the chassis and ‘H’ points of the seats. The engine bay is now more compact, and the firewall and dash have been ‘optimised’ to make the cabin more space efficient. The new Alto also has a roof that is 15 per cent higher to improve headroom. The body structure has also been modified to make it stiffer, both in the interest of improved ride and handling, and to qualify it for impending crash test norms. But this hasn’t added too much weight. The roof, for example, is made of thinner steel and has corrugations for added rigidity, and the Alto 800 still remains a flyweight; even the top-end airbag-equipped version weighs just 725kg.

On the inside, there’s a new and more contemporary-looking dash with a strong ‘V’ theme to the centre console. It looks a lot more attractive than the one on the old car, due to the interplay between the beige dash, black vents and faux aluminium inserts. The doorpads, gearlever and steering wheel look more grown up too. The quality of plastics has been improved, and the moulded roof lining and fully clad pillars improve the ambience of the cabin tremendously. The cabin is more practical as well. There’s an innovative horizontal bottle holder placed ahead of the gearlever, a shallow ledge above the glovebox and even a more traditional cup holder has been provided.

More room

The inclusion of new, slimmer seats means there is slightly more room for passengers, but this is still a car that’s hard to get comfortable in. The small front seats with their integrated headrests, for example, lack decent back support and they are not comfortable over long distances. Space is also only marginally better than before, which means it’s still very cramped, especially in the back. Rear-seat passengers also have to suffer a short and uncomfortable seatback and poor visibility; the rear windows taper and the large front headrests block your view out. The 177-litre boot is good enough for a couple of small bags and the seats do flip forward if you need extra load space. In terms of equipment, the Alto 800 has more kit than before, and you get basics like power steering, front power windows and air-conditioning. The top-end model can be ordered with an airbag too.

The Alto 800 continues to be powered by the venerable 796cc, three-cylinder F8D motor, but in this latest avatar, it comes with significant improvements. A new, plastic inlet manifold not only lowers the engine weight, but also improves gas flow, and hence, volumetric efficiency. The connecting rods and crankshaft have been significantly lightened as well and new, low-friction piston rings have been used. The compression ratio has been bumped up, which also improves performance. There is only a marginal increase in power over the earlier engine, but the torque is a significant 11 per cent better; and you can feel it.

Push down on the accelerator and the Alto 800 sets off in a much more determined manner than before. The response at low engine speeds has always been a strength of this motor, and now, it’s even better. You can upshift quite early, so overtaking is not as much of a challenge as before. Out on the highway, the improved motor feels more eager, thanks to improved performance at the top end of the rev range. In fact, there’s a sporty note at higher revs and the engine doesn’t feel as thrashy as before. The Alto 800 cruises quite well at speeds of around 110kph and the gearbox has been improved over the earlier car too, so downshifting is much easier. However, despite the move to a cable-type shifter, the new ’box still doesn’t have the precision or crisp action of more contemporary competition.

In the city, the motor’s strong responses and additional torque make it more sprightly, more agile and the brakes have a reasonable amount of bite. It’s just that the Alto 800 gets a bit jerky in traffic as you get on and off the throttle, and that can be a bit annoying.

Ride quality is simply outstanding for such a small car, and the Alto 800 copes admirably with everything that’s thrown at it. The car’s tall springs and 80-profile tyres absorb potholes and ruts with ease, and the suspension is impressively silent too.

User friendly

When it comes to driving pleasure, the Alto 800 really won’t excite you. There’s no extra power to play with. The steering feels vague, especially around the straight-ahead position and there’s an overall absence of precision in the dynamic behaviour of this car. What counts is that it is still extremely user friendly. The light controls, responsive engine and compact dimensions make this an effortless car to drive.

The new Alto 800 clearly feels a generation ahead. It looks more contemporary, the insides are all new, the ride quality is far superior and performance is better too. It’s also a claimed 15 per cent more efficient than the earlier car (at 22.74kpl).

Maruti is bent on ensuring that this new car takes over from its predecessor as the country’s best-selling car, so much so that, despite all the improvements, this car actually costs less than the outgoing Alto. At a launch price of Rs. 2.44-2.99 lakh (Rs 3.19-3.56 lakh if you want CNG), it is an ultra-affordable, user-friendly, efficient and hassle-free car.