Despite diesel scoring over petrol as the preferred fuel these days owing to the price imbalance, there are still plenty of takers for petrol-powered cars. While some argue that it would take them too long to cover enough distance to justify the additional purchase premium of a diesel car, others prefer the superior refinement of a petrol car. So, we decided to pit some of the most popular petrol hatchbacks on offer today against each other to figure out which one would make for the best buy. There is the new Chevrolet Sail U-VA that marries mid-size saloon space and seriously impressive ride comfort.
Then there is the recently facelifted Ford Figo that, as before, has value as its USP. India’s largest carmaker, Maruti, is represented by the Swift, which happens to be amongst India’s best-selling cars; it even won our Car of the Year award last year. And finally, we have the Etios Liva from Toyota, with incredible space and good comfort as its trump cards. So, which one offers the best balance of refinement, performance, comfort, practicality and value?
Design and styling
Although styling may not be very important for the average hatchback-buying junta here, there’s no denying that a car’s design has a huge bearing on its appeal. So, it’s easy to see why the Swift gets the kind of attention it does. True, its styling is an evolution of its predecessor’s but that’s not a bad starting point. The stretched headlights, fighter-jet-canopy-like window line and broad shoulders make the Swift quite the design icon.
In comparison, the Sail, Figo and Liva look pretty sober. The Sail is pleasing to look at, but it won’t turn too many heads. Its tipped-forward stance does make it look somewhat sporty in profile, but the rest of the design is pretty ordinary. It’s a similar story with the Figo, which relies more on its funky colours (including a wildly bright canary yellow) than its design to grab your attention. The restyled front bumper, grille and headlights, and new alloy wheels help freshen up the look.
Toyota’s mainstream products have never really stood out for their design and the Liva is no different. It’s nicely proportioned but perhaps a bit too conservative, even by Toyota’s own standards. However, the front, side and rear skirts offered on the top-spec VX variant featured here do add a lot of attitude to the otherwise unadventurous lines of the Liva.
On the inside, Toyota has done quite a decent job with the Liva. The dashboard, with its centrally-mounted instruments and vertically stacked air-con vents, looks unique and we just love the sportscar-like steering wheel. This cabin also scores high for practicality, with bottle-holders on each door and a massive 13-litre cooled glovebox. Our test car came with the all-black interior, but the top-spec Liva is now sold with a nicer black and tan colour scheme. Closer inspection reveals that plastic quality is just average, making the cabin appear built to a cost.
The Figo’s cabin won’t blow you over for quality either. There’s a hard-wearing look to the plastics, but they don’t feel premium. As for the dashboard, it’s neatly styled and easy to get used to. Storage space for smaller items is only average though. As part of the recent update, the top-spec Figo Titanium gets steering column-mounted audio controls (like the Renault Fluence and Duster) and their unusual position takes some getting used to. Curiously, the Sail U-VA comes without steering-mounted audio controls of any sort. It’s got a smart enough dashboard, but one that doesn’t look particularly contemporary. The tan tones in the cabin do help enhance the ambience, but the hard plastics play spoilsport here. We also found the digital tachometer next to the speedo hard to read, the power window switches ahead of the gearlever inconvenient to access, and the space for odds and ends limited.
Stepping into the Swift after the Sail U-VA is like going from Doordarshan to DTH. Cabin quality is easily the best here and the whole look and feel of the cabin is very modern. Whether it’s the neat integration of the audio player and climate control on the centre console, or the classy dials, there’s lots to like about the Swift’s cabin. The controls also fall easily to hand, and there’s plenty of storage too with bottle-holders for each of the four doors. The Swift also scores big for its front seats, which offer great support and hold you well when you are in the mood for some fun behind the wheel. Sadly, the thick A-pillar and small rear windscreen do obstruct visibility at times and this might be a problem for new drivers. The combination of the small rear windows and all-black cabin also reduce the feeling of space in the back. The legroom is not bad, but the cabin’s width makes the back seat suited for two only. But it’s comfy and also comes with adjustable headrests.
We wish the Sail’s large rear headrests would adjust because, in their current position, they make it difficult to see out the back. As for the rear seat, it desperately needs softer cushioning, and some more headroom would be welcome too. However, rear legroom is excellent and the sloping footrests under the front seats aid comfort. The reasonably comfy driver’s seat doesn’t adjust for height, but to be fair, the seats are high enough that even shorter drivers won’t really miss this feature.
We’ve always liked the Figo’s big windows and excellent visibility, but front seat comfort remains far from perfect. Drivers will have an issue with the limited thigh support and the height adjuster that only varies the angle of the seat base. The rear seat is much nicer, with a comfy hip-point, decent headroom and adequate legroom, but Ford should have used the facelift as an opportunity to give it proper rear headrests. Small, fixed headrests are an issue on the Liva’s rear seat as well but, this apart, seat comfort is the best here. The Liva’s cabin has got the most width, height and legroom and it works well as a genuine five-seater. Up front, the Liva’s single-piece seats are comfortable, but there’s no height adjustment and the flat contours offer little lateral support.
Frequent flyers will like the Figo’s accommodating and well-shaped boot. The Sail and Liva are not too far behind on luggage room, but the Swift’s boot feels a full size down and is also inconvenient to load. The rear seats on all cars fold forward, but the Sail’s 60:40 split adds flexibility.
In terms of equipment, the Swift has the distinction of being the only car with automatic climate control on its top-spec ZXi variant. In contrast, the Figo (ZXI and Titanium) and Sail LT come with Bluetooth streaming and telephone functions on their audio systems. All cars here come with USB and Aux-ready audio systems, dual front airbags and ABS on their respective top variants. Sadly, the Figo still comes without power windows in the back.
Performance and handling
Each of these cars come with a 1.2-litre petrol engine to comply with government norms that allow a lower rate of excise duty on sub-four metre cars with engines less than 1200cc. While their engines may be near identical in displacement, these cars do feel quite different to drive.
The Sail U-VA feels fairly responsive as you start off and you’ll like the way it builds speed. Its relatively quick 14.91sec 20-80kph (in third gear) time should give you an idea of this 85bhp engine’s flexibility at low to medium speeds. Trouble is, the engine is quite noisy, there’s a whine from the transmission and the ruckus increases as you rev harder, so you’re probably best off shifting up early. And that’s a shame, because the gearbox, with its narrow gate and short throws, feels quite sporty.
The Liva is the lightest car here, which results in a good power-to-weight ratio – 85.8bhp per tonne. What that translates to is nice real-world performance. The engine picks up pace without much hesitation and, like the Sail, part-throttle responses are nice. A light clutch and smooth gearbox also help its city-friendly demeanour. But when you want to close gaps in traffic, you’ll wish the engine had more top-end grunt. Toyota’s stinting on sound-deadening material also means the engine is noisier than it should be. In sharp contrast to the Liva’s motor, the Figo’s 70bhp engine is at its best when revved hard. While that’s fun on occasional weekend blasts, you can’t escape the lack of power in the low-mid-range in day-to-day driving. Responses are decent, but you often need to shift down a gear or even two to get a serious move on. Thankfully, Ford’s smooth-shifting IB5 five-speed gearbox is always nice to row through. Where the Figo sits at the bottom of the power scale, the Swift is at the top. It’s also the quickest from 0-100kph. But perhaps what’s more relevant for the average user is that the Swift feels the peppiest in town. It’s got the best responses up to 2500rpm, which is where you’ll spend a lot of your time in city traffic. The mid-range isn’t all that strong but if you hold gear, you’ll be rewarded by a heady top-end. The slick-shifting gearbox, light clutch and excellent engine refinement make the Swift all the more special.
It does well on fuel economy too, helped in no small part by variable valve timing, which helps the engine breathe better. Within city limits, the Swift delivered 12.6kpl compared to the Liva’s 12.1kpl and Figo’s 10.9kpl. Out on the highway too, the Swift’s 17kpl betters the Liva’s 16.7kpl and Figo’s 15.4kpl. While we couldn’t test the Sail U-VA for fuel economy, its ARAI-certified figure of 18.2kpl is similar to the Liva’s 18.3kpl. For the record, the Swift’s ARAI figure is 18.6kpl and the Figo’s is 15.6kpl.
All the cars here feature front MacPherson struts and a torsion beam at the rear. Power steering is standard on these cars, but the Swift and Liva use more energy-efficient electric assistance, while the Sail and Figo feature hydraulic units. The good thing is all cars drive quite well over our mediocre roads and are easy to place in traffic. So, it’s only the finer points that distinguish them.
The Sail really impresses with the manner in which it smoothens out the worst of bumps. Its long-travel suspension and 175/70 tyres are brilliantly suited to our roads and help the Sail set the new benchmark for ride quality in this segment, specially at medium to high speeds.
Its light steering is also a boon in the city, though it doesn’t weigh up as much as we’d have liked when driving faster. That, and the fact that there is a fair amount of body roll, marks it down as an enthusiast’s car.
There’s more of the same on the Liva as well; its feather-light steering is great in the city but doesn’t instil much confidence at high speeds. Straight-line stability is good, but the suspension is quite audible over bumps and the firm springs make it feel a tad skittish over smaller undulations.
Sharper edges also tend to catch the Figo’s suspension out, though it is very absorbent on most other surfaces. Just as before, the Figo offers the best balance between ride and handling. A delightfully feelsome steering and good body control make this a car you’d love to race up a hill. If only the Figo had a stronger engine. The Swift is just half a notch down on the Ford for involvement. The quick steering doesn’t feel quite as direct, but overall the dynamics are really good. The ride quality is impressive for the most part too. The suspension works quietly enough, but sharp edges do reveal its firmness.
The Figo diesel has long been our choice for best diesel hatchback, but the petrol version doesn’t quite hit the spot. And that’s mainly to do with its engine, which is a bit underwhelming in terms of performance and refinement. Had the engine been punchier, the outcome of this test could have been quite different, because the Figo is a practical, no-nonsense car that also happens to be great fun to drive. Still, if you’re on a tight budget, the Figo makes great sense. It is the most affordable car at Rs 5.01 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) for the top-spec Titanium version, yet comes with plenty of kit.
In comparison, the Sail LT at Rs 5.57 lakh feels a bit pricey. Not only does it come without some features you’d expect on a car of this price, but it also doesn’t look very special, inside or out. And while the petrol engine is well suited to city use, it’s a tad too noisy. That said, the Sail’s strengths lie in its spacious cabin and brilliant ride quality. The trouble is, the other cars are not too far behind on either count.
In fact, if it’s space you require, buy the Liva. There’s genuine space for five in the cabin and overall levels of comfort are good too. A city-friendly motor and light controls also make the Liva really easy to live with. But when you factor in the Liva’s rather steep price (Rs 6.21 lakh for the top VX model) you can’t help but expect more. The cabin, for one, isn’t particularly premium and it’s difficult to ignore Toyota’s blatant cost cutting.
And that brings us to the Swift, which is brimming with feel-good elements. It’s great to look at, well finished on the inside, fun to drive and fuel efficient too. It may not have the largest cabin or boot, but for an owner-driven vehicle, it’s spacious enough. At Rs 5.72 lakh for the top ZXi variant, it’s not particularly cheap, but what you get is an utterly desirable and well-specced car. And can you put a price on the reassurance of knowing you are never too far from a Maruti workshop? A car for enthusiasts as well as the level-headed, the Swift is our winner here.