The traits usually associated with diesel hatchbacks are fuel efficiency, practicality and common sense. The three hatchbacks here, however, look to add a bit of spice, all the while retaining their core attributes. These cars are for people who want a bit more power without sacrificing the cheaper running costs of a diesel.
Meet the Fiat Punto 90HP, Hyundai i20 1.4 CRDi and the new Tata Vista D90. All three make around 90bhp, and all cost in the vicinity of Rs 7 lakh. Fiat’s Punto, the pioneer of this segment, costs Rs 7.38 lakh. The i20 is the most expensive at Rs 7.62 lakh and the Vista, being a Tata, makes the others look overpriced. It costs Rs 6.83 lakh in this top-of-the-line ZX+ trim. At this price, it is more expensive than the regular Vista, but still seems like good value when you think of how much more the others cost.
The Vista doesn’t enjoy the same premium hatchback image that the Fiat and particularly the Hyundai do. Tata is trying hard to change this – the Vista D90 comes with engine, exterior, cabin and suspension upgrades. But is this enough to take the fight to the others?
DESIGN & ENGINEERING
If you’ve splurged on the extra diesel horsepower, you naturally want something that looks fast. Nothing in this group looks faster than the Fiat Punto. Everything about this car looks gorgeous – the snub nose, the tiny rear overhang, and wheels that fill out the arches nicely – it’s got Italian passion written all over it.
In fact, the Punto looks so good that the other two look a bit ordinary in comparison. That’s not because they are not trying – the Vista comes with bright colours, smoked tail-lamps and a black roof, and Tata is even offering a dealer-fit sports body kit that alters the bumpers and adds side skirts and a spoiler (not fitted on our test car).
The i20’s recent facelift has really done wonders for the way it looks. The stretched-back headlights, slim grille and sporty chin make it look far more attractive. However, move back and its practical hatch nature is rather evident. The curves and lines don’t look as crisp as the Punto’s minimalist lines.
Of the three, the i20 is the widest, the Vista is the tallest and the Punto is the lowest. Surprisingly, for the amount of space on offer, the Vista has the shortest wheelbase, which serves to show how good its interior packaging is.
All three cars use the standard small-car suspension formula of independent MacPherson struts up front and non-independent, torsion beam, coil-sprung axle at the rear. All three use disc brakes up front and drums at the rear.
Sports hatch fans will like the fact that the Punto gets 15-inch rims, while the other two stick to smaller, 14-inch ones. And, though it doesn’t feel heavy, it’s the i20 that weighs the most at 1212kg, as against the Vista's1180kg and the Punto’s 1144kg.
The Vista’s upgraded interiors are a step up from the old car. The cabin plastics look plusher and feel more tactile. The best bits are the new multi-function touchscreen audio system that’s great to operate and the dials for the climate control system, which look and feel upmarket. The instrument cluster, borrowed from the Manza, moves to the conventional position ahead of the steering wheel and looks quite good, but the small dials are a bit hard to read. Also, the cheap power window switches, the control stalks and sharp edges around the small door pockets are of iffy quality. Also, the pedals are a touch too high and there is no dead pedal either.
The interiors of the Punto have a bit of Italian flair, but the choice of materials is what lets it down. Though Fiat has improved the quality of the interiors, there are still plenty of hard plastics around. Even worse are the flawed ergonomics. The steering wheel is too close to the driver, the pedals a touch too high and the front seats, which are the least comfortable in this group, lack under-thigh support.
The i20’s interiors are quite sober, but the interestingly detailed steering wheel, the information pod on the dash and the two-tone split give it a bit of character. It feels wider on the inside and the front seats are large and well-bolstered as well. The large dials can be read at a blink, the chunky controls and switches can be used almost blindfolded and the insides have a well-screwed-together feel.
Move rearward and you’ll find that space in the Punto’s back seat is noticeably tighter than the other two. Legroom is tight and the sloping roofline means headroom isn’t generous either. There’s a lot more space in the i20’s rear, but there is a slight lack of thigh support and the flat, hard cushion doesn’t cosset you too well.
Not surprisingly, it’s the Vista that has the most spacious rear seats. The broad cabin makes it easy to sit three abreast and the high-set seat is very comfortable. But in maximising passenger space, Tata has eaten into boot space. At 232 litres, it is the smallest in this group.
The Vista and i20 run nose to nose as far as equipment is concerned. The Vista gets unique features like a touchscreen display with voice-guided sat-nav and a DVD player. The i20 gets kit like an auto-dimming mirror, a reversing camera, auto-folding outside mirrors and an optional six airbags! The Punto’s only standout feature is Bluetooth connectivity, and this is something both the other cars offer as well.
ENGINE, GEARBOX & PERFORMANCE
Both the Vista and the Punto share the proven Fiat-sourced 1.3-litre Multijet diesel engine, pumping out an identical 89bhp and 20.4kgm of torque. What’s more, even the gear ratios on their five-speed boxes are the same. Despite the variable-geometry turbos they use (which is how they make 15bhp more than the lower-powered Multijet), both have considerable turbo lag, and it’s only when you get past 2500rpm that they really wake up.
The Vista takes 13.9sec to do the dash from 0 to 100kph, while the Punto takes a whole two seconds more – times which are, quite frankly, unimpressive (the less powerful Maruti Swift diesel does the run in 13.6sec). Even the in-gear acceleration is much stronger in the Vista. It takes 11.78 seconds for 20-80kph in third and 13.33sec for 40-100kph in fourth gear. While the Punto takes 12.40sec and 14.23sec for the same. This difference in performance is down to the tuning of the ECU and it’s quite disappointing that Fiat hasn’t perfected this on its own engine, which doesn’t feel like it has an 89bhp motor under the hood.
The 1.4-litre motor in the Hyundai i20 is in a different league. The 1386cc engine is remarkably more free-revving, the power doesn’t tail off suddenly, and the engine spins happily to 5100rpm. Sure, there is some turbo lag, but the boost comes in at a much lower 2000rpm, and this makes all the difference. Performance is pretty impressive, with the dash to 100kph taking 12.88 seconds. The i20 also has the most refined engine here. It’s quiet at idle, smooth when revving and gets a tad noisy only near the redline. Of the other two, it’s the Vista that is more refined, thanks to a new sound insulation package that Tata has installed.
RIDE & HANDLING
The Vista’s revised spring and damper setting and optimised bushes are small tweaks that have a made a huge difference, and as a result, the Vista now rides really well. The pliant suspension soaks up potholes with ease and even sharp ridges are smoothened out without the passengers getting jarred. It’s fair to say the Vista has the best low-speed ride in this test. Straight-line stability is impressive, but show it an undulating road and it doesn’t feel as flat or planted as the Punto. In fact, the Punto’s overall ride is even better than the Vista’s. At any speed and on all surfaces, the ride is flat with very little vertical movement, which is more than what can be said about the i20. The Hyundai has a soft setup, so the low-speed ride is decent, but it’s not half as competent as the Punto or the Vista when it comes to keeping its occupants isolated from the road. It’s not as stable at speed as the other two either, and in comparison to them, it’s quite clear that Hyundai is quite some way off from perfecting the right ride and handling balance. Adding to the i20’s woes are a steering that is incredibly light and body control that’s rather sloppy.
The Vista surprised us again with its steering feel, which has never been a strong point of Tata cars. Thanks to a slightly stiffer setup than the 75bhp version and a new bigger-capacity hydraulic steering pump, it turns into corners better than before. Sure, you do get some body roll and squeal from the tyres when you push it hard, but the steering feels well weighted and the car feels secure and predictable.
It must be said that the i20 works best as a city car, it is easy to drive thanks to its light clutch, easy gearshift, super-light steering and relatively more responsive engine.
The i20’s responsiveness also helps its fuel efficiency. Because you’re not feeding in as much throttle as the others in any given situation, it sips less fuel. It gave us 13.8kpl in the city and 19.5kpl on the highway, and that’s impressive.
The Vista isn’t all that far behind, with an equally impressive 13.0kpl and 17.8kpl, and it’s the Punto that consumed the most. It returned 12.8kpl and 17.6kpl for the city and highway cycles respectively.
The Punto has the looks of a winner. The eye-catching proportions and the beautiful ride and handling truly stand out. But even these don’t make up for its biggest shortfall – the disappointing performance. There really is no point in spending more money and buying a ‘powerful-on-paper’ hatchback when it doesn’t translate to performance on the road. The Fiat is also the one that gives you the least equipment for the money.
The Vista, on the other hand, came as a big surprise to us. We are really impressed by how far it has come in terms of the way it feels and drives. It’s reasonably quick, very well equipped, costs a lot less and has a well-judged ride and handling package. There’s a big step up in perceived quality and the subtle improvements Tata has made all over the car have seriously improved it. It’s also the best value for money here. However, the Vista does have an image issue, it’s a bit long in the tooth now, the looks are no longer fresh and quality niggles are still known to surface. The truth is that the Vista still doesn’t have enough of that all-important feel-good factor.
And feel-good factor is what the i20 has aplenty. Its refreshed looks, matched by a strong and smooth engine, nudge it ahead of the Tata. It’s well equipped, well built and the easiest to drive in traffic too. Sure, it’s expensive and the sloppy handling may not be the best here, but it’s still the car with the maximum appeal and the one you want to have.