Sorted, Smart and Scintillating: The Baleno Drive Review

Baleno was launched about six months back and it has literally swarmed the streets ever since. With more than 1,00,000 bookings in the first four months, it has already been declared a blockbuster of sorts. Together with its recently launched cousin Vitara Brezza, it has given Maruti Suzuki enough reason to smile, after the mildly disastrous S-Cross. 2016 sure seems to be looking up for the company, as it inches back towards a 50% market share, thanks to new launches, aggressive marketing and retail initiatives. Their caller tune this season ought to be Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days”.

Baleno and Vitara Brezza are in different segments, but they do compete in the same price bracket. The company has somewhat cleverly kept them apart, retailing the Baleno through Nexa showrooms and Vitara Brezza through the regular channel. But anyone looking for a vehicle in the highly competitive INR 6.0-9.0 lac bracket today is already spoilt for choice, and Maruti has just complicated matters a bit further.

The premium hatchback segment is an important bridge between the hatch and the sedan in urban India, specially among the younger demographic group. With creature comforts of a sedan in a small package, better dynamics & maneuverability at a reasonably low cost of ownership, it makes for a winning product. Hyundai’s i20 Elite, Honda Jazz and Volkswagen Polo have been successful in the category and Maruti desperately needed a presence here. Enter the Baleno.

Since its launch, Baleno has managed to sizzle things up and unleash some genuine excitement on Indian roads. We spent a week with the 1.3L diesel version in the top Alpha trim, clocking 513 kms around Delhi NCR, and must say we quite loved it. The vehicle stands out from all angles with its liquid flow design and ballooned up proportions, and is hard to miss on the streets. Gone is the boxiness associated with Maruti cars. The styling here is European chic with flowing lines, and it looks rather busy, purposeful and energetic in motion. It has a low slung silhouette with a wide body, and an excess of chrome garnish. The long wheelbase and short overhangs give it a pretty impressive profile, making this one a remarkable departure from the more conventional designs that we have been so used to from the Maruti stable.

Baleno undoubtedly has the best road presence amongst its competitors in the segment. With a chrome lined V-grille that integrates with the projector headlamps, the bull horn daytime running LED lights, a subtle roof spoiler, horizontal chrome cladding below the rear window and 16″ alloy wheels, it’s quite a smashing package in the looks department. A truly world car that would look good just about anywhere.

On the inside, Baleno is all black and sporty. The dashboard looks distinct, with a flowing design, aluminium inserts and chrome accents. The quality of material used is just about adequate to please the masses; not the discerning. The centre console houses the 7″ touchscreen LED and has vertical air vents and a circular digital climate control display which looks good. In the absence of rear AC vents, the vertical vents and deep tinted side windows work quite well to chill the cabin quickly.

Baleno boasts of a very spacious cabin. In fact, it is the best in its class. The front seats are wide, cushy, and done up in black fabric with a contrasting ribbed pattern. There is a central arm rest in the front, and all doors have padded arm rests as well which makes it all very comfortable. The rear easily seats three adults and has leg room that could put a few sedans to shame. In spite of being a low slung vehicle, it offers excellent headroom both at the front and back. There are flexible cup holders and several cubby holes, with a deep rear tray that allows you to keep your little things in place. The rear has a charging point below the armrest and space to stow away your mobile phone and other knick-knacks. It however doesn’t get an arm rest or cup holders. Strangely, there is only one seat back pocket behind the passenger seat. The one behind the driver’s seat is missing. Pray why?

The boot at 339L is just a shade smaller than the Honda Jazz, but you wouldn’t feel the difference. It is wide and deep, and offers pretty decent luggage space. Makes it just ideal for those short out-of-town sojourns when you wish to beat the city heat.  Overall, the in-cabin space and comfort doesn’t disappoint at all.

Consumers in the premium hatchback segment can be quite demanding when it comes to bells and whistles, and the Baleno aces it here too. It has a 7″ touchscreen infotainment system which can connect to your smart device, and lets you make calls, use voice commands, send and receive messages or browse through your music playlist. The sound quality is very impressive and this is also the first vehicle to integrate Apple CarPlay, which allows you to mirror your Apple device and even use Siri. Navigation is through a SD Card, and the touchscreen doubles up as a rear parking camera. The telescopic/tilt steering comes with mounted controls for volume, mode selection, voice command and phone on/off.

The 4.2″ graphic information panel in the instrument cluster can be customized to show all relevant driving information – trip settings, average mileage, real-time mileage, distance-to-empty, temperature, clock, and even a torque & power output display. It has it all.

The top trim comes with keyless entry, an engine start/stop button, automatic headlamps and auto ORVMs; while safety features like ABS, EBD and dual airbag are available across all variants. A round of applause for the latter.

The Alpha trim is powered by Maruti Suzuki’s trusted 1.3L DDiS engine, which produces a peak power of 75 PS and 190 Nm of torque. While the numbers are anything but ballistic, it does manage to provide linear power delivery with minimal lag. The drive is on the heavier side, and the take off a bit rough. It comes across as a bit unrefined till you hit the mid range, but sits comfortably at high speeds, making for a stable and planted driving experience. It handles brilliantly, negotiates corners well, and has a good turning radius. City driving or cruising at speeds over 100 km/h, it feels quite effortless. The engine is peppy and lively, but at the same time extremely loud and noisy. A lot of noise finds its way into the cabin, which can be a cause for irritation. Insulation could have definitely been better. Other than that, the Baleno is quite a pleasure to drive, with a softer suspension setup that makes for a comfortable ride. It has the best ride quality in its segment, and given India’s road conditions this is something that won’t go unnoticed.

The engine is paired with a 5-speed manual transmission which is quite deft at its job. The driver display console has a gear shift indicator that can be quite helpful in improving driving efficiency. The only problem is that it is placed way too low to be in your clear line of sight. Adjust the seat height and the steering wheel to your best driving position, and you will find it hidden behind the steering. Only when you lean forward, can you view it. Else you would have to raise the seat too high or push the steering too low to see it without any obstruction, but that would mean a mighty uncomfortable drive.

The trump card for Baleno is its phenomenal fuel economy. The frugal petrol and diesel engines are the most efficient in their segment, with a claimed mileage of 21.4 km/l for the pertol variant and a class leading 27.39 km/l for the diesel variant. Over our test period, we managed to get an average of 21.0 km/l, which was very impressive indeed.

So what makes the Baleno the blockbuster that it is? Well, let’s just say it is the most well packaged product in recent times. It looks good, drives brilliantly, handles well, is comfortable and spacious, comes packed with features, is extremely frugal on fuel consumption and has safety features from the base variant upwards. What more could you ask for? All this at a price starting at INR 5.15 lacs and going up to INR 8.33 lacs for the range topping diesel. Aggressive indeed. Add to it a trusted badge and the country’s most extensive service network at your disposal, and you would have ticked all boxes.

Baleno pretty much excels in all aspects, keeping up with your urban lifestyle needs and offering all the basic luxury that you could ask for in a premium hatchback. It is good value for money and provides a lot of bang for your buck. Let’s just say that this is perhaps the best package on four wheels in the sub INR 10.0 lac category. Sorted, smart and quite scintillating.

Note: As we put this review together, news just came in that Maruti Suzuki has recalled 75,419 Baleno models to upgrade the airbag controller software and inspect/ replace a faulty fuel filter. Of course, we hadn’t checked how well the airbags worked, and lived to tell the tale.

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