The compact sedan market in India is booming. The Maruti Dzire sold 1,97,685 units in the last 12 months – that’s more than most carmakers did with their whole model range combined – and for a brief moment, it was even the best-selling car in the country. The Amaze, meanwhile, is single-handedly responsible for kick-starting Honda’s big comeback, accounting for 63 percent of the company’s sales last year. It’s clear Indians love this type of car, and no amount of awkward styling or compromised boot space will deter them.
So it’s no wonder that Hyundai decided to jump on the bandwagon this year with the new Xcent. We were pretty impressed when we drove it, but how does it fare against the two established segment champs – the Dzire and the Amaze?
Any designer tasked with cramming a practical cabin and a sedan’s boot into a four-metre footprint while still making it look good is going to have a hard time. Maruti’s designers had it worst, because the Dzire is based on the Swift, which has a distinct two-box shape. Whilst the long bonnet and relatively short cabin give the Swift its sporty stance, it doesn’t save millimetres on the inside. That’s where the Brio and Grand i10 with their relatively short bonnets and more ‘cab forward’ stance have an advantage.
The results are plain to see. The Dzire’s boot looks like a mere concession and is unsurprisingly, the smallest at 316 litres. It makes the car look ‘squished’ and completely unlike a conventional sedan in profile. Yes, the wraparound tail-lamps and the band of chrome add some character, but the overall look is still pretty awkward.
The Amaze and the Xcent are much better proportioned. Both have slightly stubby noses, yes, but just the sheer length of the rear overhang compared to the Dzire’s means they look like actual sedans. Their trunk volumes are pretty generous too – 400 litres for the Honda and 407 for the Hyundai. Overall, we prefer the Amaze’s styling – it’s got the more cohesive shape, and the window line which rises sharply towards the rear gives the Honda a nice and sporty look. The boot has been cleverly made to look wider than it is, and the pronounced lines down the sides give it character.
The Xcent’s smart nose and subtle chrome detailing make it look quite upmarket, but the overall proportions of the car are rather underwhelming. In fact, the Xcent looks a class smaller than the others, and this is most obvious from the rear, which is characterised by a flat boot and meek-looking tail-lamps.
On the inside
Even in cars as compact as these, a lot of folks are still chauffeur-driven. With this in mind, Honda stretched the Brio’s wheelbase for the Amaze by 60mm to free up more rear legroom and it’s worked wonders – it’s easily the best of this trio. They’ve also scooped out the doors to maximise the useable width back here, and it also has the most comfortable seat. The cushioning is superb, you sit nice and high and there’s decent legroom all round.
Hyundai has carried over the seat from the Grand i10 hatch, but it’s been tweaked a bit. There’s generous leg- and headroom to suit tall passengers, but the cabin is the narrowest of the lot, which makes it best suited for two. The seats are nicely contoured with firm but generous cushioning, but the backrest angle is a touch too reclined.
The lack of legroom in the back seat of the Dzire is most obvious in this company. With tall passengers up front, those in the rear will have their knees pressed against the front seat backs. The seats are, however, sufficiently wide and really plush so, for short people, the space is quite acceptable.
However, the Dzire pampers the driver well with a generous bucket seat, making long drives quite comfortable. You sit high up too, and what lies in front of you is a high-quality dashboard with a smart-looking centre console. The two-tone design is a bit unimaginative though. It looks like Maruti engineers have merely swathed the lower half with a coat of beige. The lower buttons are beige too, which apart from looking at odds with the regular black knobs higher up, tend to get dirty with constant handling.
The two-tone effect is more classily executed in the Xcent and cabin quality is superb. You get good materials, great fit and finish, and a very modern-looking dashboard. The seats, like the ones in the back, are supportive but a bit firm, but the big-rimmed steering is wrapped in soft leather and feels great to hold. Overall, the ambience here is the best in this group, and you really feel like you’re in a proper mid-size sedan from the driver’s seat.
The Amaze’s cockpit is one of its biggest stumbling blocks. The dashboard plastics don’t have the richness of the others and the overall design feels really budget. The audio system and old-school AC controls feel like they were added on after the dash was designed, and the impression you get is of a last-generation car. However, the driving position is absolutely spot-on – you sit low, the gear lever falls perfectly to hand and the dashboard is nice and low for a good view out.
The features you get in this top-end Xcent SX (with the option pack) could easily embarrass some executive sedans, and if equipment is important to you, look no further. There’s auto climate control, a rear AC vent, keyless entry and go, rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera with its display housed in the auto-dimming mirror. There are electric folding mirrors, a cooled glovebox, a 1GB hard drive for your music, Bluetooth, USB, aux-in and a CD player. And considering it’s cheaper than the Amaze VX and only slightly more expensive than the Dzire ZDi, that’s saying a lot.
Comparatively, the top-end Amaze does get electric folding mirrors and a USB and aux-enabled audio system, but there’s no CD player or Bluetooth. It also misses out on climate control, which the top Dzire also gets, and though the Maruti gets a CD player, aux-in and USB, it too misses out on Bluetooth.
While all the top variants here come with ABS and two airbags, you must remember to tick the ‘Option Pack’ on the Hyundai to get these safety features, as well as the 15-inch alloys.
Here’s where things really start to differ. Had we compared the petrol versions of these cars, the three would probably be quite closely matched, but not the diesels. The Xcent uses the Grand i10’s new 1.1-litre three-cylinder motor with a touch more power and torque. It’s extremely responsive at low revs and there’s virtually no turbo lag, which makes the Xcent perfectly suited for city driving. There’s no spike in the mid-range; instead, there’s a gradual build-up of power which rapidly tails off when you cross 3,800rpm. With no top-end grunt, overtaking is an effort and the Xcent doesn’t feel quite at home on the highway.
In contrast, the Amaze has the performance and that’s not surprising. It has the biggest, most powerful engine – 1.5 litres, 98.6bhp and 20.39kgm of torque. That extra displacement gets it off the line easier and the incredibly flat torque curve delivers an even and steady surge to a rather modest 4,200rpm redline. There’s not much of a top end here either, but that’s okay, because there’s so much torque everywhere else, which makes overtaking in the Amaze rather easy. It’s the refinement of the engine that disappoints. Insufficient sound insulation of the aluminium-blocked engine means a lot of noise, so the performance is always accompanied by a loud drone, right from the get go. It’s one of the Amaze’s biggest shortcomings.
The Dzire’s 74bhp, 1.3-litre diesel feels the most old-school of the lot. There’s a fair bit of turbo lag until 2,000rpm, after which you’re firmly punched in the gut by a massive chunk of torque that comes in all at once. It’s certainly entertaining, but first-time diesel drivers will have to learn to modulate the power delivery a bit. However, there’s a lot of real-world performance, and overtaking is a breeze if you can get your shifts right – it’s actually the quickest in the sprints from 20-80kph in third and 40-100kph in fourth. The Dzire has the best refinement – again thanks to its more premium roots – and both noise and vibrations are very well suppressed in the cabin at idle and at speed.
All three cars have controls that are easy to use. The Xcent’s gearlever has a slightly longer throw, but in practice, it’s hardly an issue, especially since the clutch is delightfully light. There’s a bit more heft to the Dzire’s clutch and gearshift, but it’s easy enough nonetheless. The Amaze uses a stubby, short-throw lever which slots in precisely, but the clutch is on the heavier side.
The Amaze, despite having the largest engine – 1.5 litres – managed an impressive 15.2kpl and 20.8kpl in the city and highway runs respectively, while the Dzire was able to give us a decent 14.6kpl and 19.8kpl. The Xcent, with its small, three-cylinder motor, returned 16.2kpl in the city, the best number here, and 20.3kpl on the highway – marginally less than the Honda, because you have to work the 1.1-litre engine harder on the open road.
Ride and handling
The ride and handling of all three cars is a bit of a mixed bag, but then again, they’re quite closely matched. The Honda has the flattest ride, which gives it great body control through corners. The steering is light, but not unsettlingly so, and it’s got a good amount of feel and accuracy, which makes the Amaze the most entertaining on a twisty road, with the least amount of body roll. It’s very stable out on the highway too, which gives the driver a lot of confidence.
On the flipside, the suspension setup, combined with the weedy 175/65 R14 wheels and tyres, means you feel more of the sharp bumps; although for most road conditions, it’s pliant enough. Road noise is also a bit of an issue, thanks to the Amaze’s poor insulation.
The Dzire has the most mature dynamics of this trio with predictable handling and a relatively comfy ride. In fact, on its 15-inch rims, it has a soft edge to its ride, which soaks up bumps best, especially at low speeds. Thanks to better insulation, there’s hardly as much road and tyre noise as the Honda.
The new Xcent has excellent dynamics by Hyundai standards. The ride has been stiffened considerably and Hyundai’s baby sedan displays none of the waywardness of the bigger Verna, which is very welcome. Still, over a continuous rough patch of road, the car will jiggle about a fair bit, and at high speeds it doesn’t feel as tied down as the Amaze or Dzire. The steering too doesn’t inspire too much confidence and has a curiously inconsistent feel, which is a Hyundai trademark. In town, however, the compact dimensions and tight turning circle give the Xcent a certain nimbleness which owners will appreciate, especially while parking.
Making a sedan under four metres long is a huge challenge. Carmakers have to make the most of a limited footprint, which includes offering practicality, space and lots of features. A big boot and an upmarket feel, crucial for sedan buyers, are important too.
The Dzire scores favourably in many areas. It has a premium feel, it’s fun to drive, it rides and handles well, and the seats are super comfortable. Move to the back, however, and you’ll find the rear seat doesn’t offer the kind of space that sedan buyers want, and it gets worse as you move further back – the truncated boot is too small and makes the Dzire look more like a modified hatchback than a grounds-up sedan.
The Amaze, meanwhile, has certainly got the look of a proper sedan, and packaging masters Honda have squeezed out the most cabin space too. But again, when moving up to a sedan, buyers expect a premium feel, and that’s something the Amaze lacks. The cost-cutting is glaringly obvious in the lack of insulation and equipment, and in the spartan cabin. And though the engine is the best performer, the amount of noise it makes has already created quite a negative stir amongst its customers.
The Xcent may seem a size down on the other two and the engine doesn’t have the same long-legged performance, but the car delivers in areas that matter most to sedan buyers. The cabin ambience and equipment level make you feel like you’ve got your money’s worth and then some, it’s got a large boot, and the back seat is comfortable enough. So, while it has its issues, the Hyundai Xcent focuses on all the right factors to deliver the maximum bang for your buck.