The hatchback on steroids: Maruti Suzuki Baleno RS Drive Review

Behind the wheel of the Baleno RS, the first thought that crosses the mind is how far Maruti Suzuki has come from building VFM cars for the masses to sculpting an impressive performance hatch that is a worthy challenger in its category. Instinctively, comparison with the Polo GT Sport and Abarth Punto crop up. But that’s a tad unfair, as the true spirit of the Baleno RS lies in its enhanced road sportiness rather than its racing DNA.

An 800 km road trip over 4 days through some significantly challenging highways and hills of Uttarakhand gave us a rather well rounded perspective of Maruti Suzuki’s most powerful hatchback yet. We drove out from Delhi to North Corbett via Lansdowne and back, and it was pretty evident that the Baleno RS is built for the thrill of the road; not the race track. The ‘RS’ moniker stands for ‘road sport’ and that’s what it was – a nifty hatch for your daily commute that can make distance chasing on highways quite a fun activity.

The RS is a Baleno on steroids. Our earlier review of the Baleno gives a complete low down on the vehicle specs and barring the engine, driving dynamics and some cosmetic changes, not much has changed. Dimensions of the RS are similar to the regular Baleno, with some visual enhancements that make it look bolder and sportier. A new set of bumpers, front & rear diffuser, a wire mesh front grill, rear spoiler, RS badging at the back, and a bit of gun metal garnish to contrast the chrome trims give it a subtle visual makeover. We have always been a fan of the Baleno’s low slung silhouette, flowing lines and ballooned up proportions, and the RS adds a set of racy black 16″ alloys to an already admirable profile. The other exterior features like projector headlamps, bull horn daytime running LED lights and a LED tail light cluster are carried forward from the Alpha trim.

Surprisingly, there are no changes inside the cabin. A refreshed interior would have been in order and just a few add-ons could have taken the sportiness several notches higher. The dashboard retains the flowing design with aluminium inserts and chrome accents, and the centre console houses the 7″ touchscreen infotainment system that connects to your smart device for calls, messages and music. It also integrates voice commands and Apple CarPlay, which mirrors your Apple device and allows you to use Siri. Navigation is through a SD Card, and the touchscreen doubles up as a rear parking camera. What could have made things racier were elements like dual tone sports seats, sporty dashboard trims, RS badging on head rests and gear knob, scuff plates, aluminium pedals and perhaps a smaller steering wheel. But all that is missing. The telescopic/tilt steering is the same as the regular Baleno and comes with mounted controls for volume, mode selection, voice command and phone on/off. And the 4.2″ graphic information panel in the instrument cluster shows relevant driving information like dual trip settings, average mileage, real-time mileage, distance-to-empty, temperature, clock, and even a torque & power output display.

Having said that, the Baleno RS has a remarkably spacious and comfortable cabin which feels more sedan-like than hatch, making for supremely comfortable long drives. The 339L boot is wide and deep, taking in a lot more luggage that what one would imagine. It comes with keyless entry, an engine start/stop button, automatic headlamps, auto ORVMs and safety features like dual airbags and disc brakes on all four. And a very effective climate control that works remarkably well even without rear AC vents in Delhi’s sweltering summer.

That the Baleno RS is miles ahead of the regular Baleno is evident the moment you push the pedal. It drives likes a breeze. The 1.0L 3-cylinder turbocharged Boosterjet petrol engine is super silent and quite a show off, quickly getting off the mark with no lag whatsoever. There are no theatrics or orgasmic exhaust notes to drool over, as it churns out a peak output of 101PS @5500 rpm and 150Nm of torque in the @1700-4500 rpm range. Ample low end torque means less frequent gear changes in stop & go city traffic, and that’s a good thing. The engine is mated to a 5-speed transmission which has been tweaked to space out the gear ratios, but we would imagine shorter throws would have made the drive experience more engaging.

High speed stability is impressive and you won’t find the Baleno RS gasping for breath at triple digit speeds. Push it harder with confidence and the RS is game for the challenge. There is no evident noise, vibration or harshness. The ground clearance of 170mm came in particularly handy around Corbett and some patches of really bad mountain roads around Kalagarh Tiger Reserve. On highways the car feels solidly planted, but you wish it was a bit more low slung when you encounter body roll in fast corners or while overtaking in open stretches. Cornering would definitely be more fun with a thicker set of tires and if you are willing to overlook efficiency, it is recommended.

The Baleno RS is a relatively heavy vehicle and the suspension though firmed up, is tuned more for comfort than performance. It did smoothen out some really bad roads for us and even after 7-8 hours on the road, none of the four adults had any reason to complain about ride fatigue.

What works for the Baleno RS is that it gives hatch owners a peak into the performance arena without compromising on the basics. It is not for the hot hatch enthusiasts who hit the track solo every weekend, but for those who do look for some fun behind the wheel even while driving friends and family around. Considering that we drove a fair bit through some treacherous mountain roads and bad highway patches, the RS impressed with a mileage of 16.6 km/l.

The Baleno RS is retailed through the Nexa channel across India and priced at INR 8.69 lacs (ex-showroom Delhi). That’s about INR 1.40 lacs higher than the 1.2L petrol Baleno in the Alpha trim. For many who are unable to make out any perceptible difference at first glance, it may seem high. But the real difference kicks in when you get behind the wheel and take it for a spin. Test drive the regular Baleno and the Baleno RS back to back, and you would blindly opt for the latter. We certainly had a lot of fun driving this one. The fact that it returned a great mileage, was extremely comfortable on the highways, felt safe in the mountains and yet thrilled in its road sportiness makes for a strong case in its favour. This is one car we would love to get back in our garage.

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