What is it?
You know it’s probably a good time to consider buying a sporty hatchback when the country’s leading carmaker decides to make one. Maruti has a pedigree when it comes to making fuel-efficient, reliable and cheap-to-run cars, but for its first performance hatch, the company has for once let the fuel economy figure (21.4kpl) take a back seat in the brochure. But power is right at the forefront. It's called the Baleno RS and it uses a new 1.0-litre, three cylinder, direct injection, turbocharged petrol motor that makes 102hp and 150Nm of torque. At first, the numbers seem a bit underwhelming but factor in the car's light 950kg kerb weight, and it starts to make sense. Lighter than the competition it is, but you’d be surprised to know that the RS weighs 60kg more than its normal petrol equivalent. Of course, the new engine is heavier but Maruti tells us that much of this extra mass is a result of chassis strengthening. Still, that makes for a power to weight ratio of 107hp per tonne. And Maruti claims the suspension’s now 10 percent stiffer too.
But you won't be able to appreciate any of this until you drive the Baleno RS. What you will, however, are the subtle styling changes. To go with the sporty image, there’s a revised grille, and different bumpers at the front and rear; the latter looks particularly aggressive. And then the blacked-out headlamps, side skirts and the RS badge distinguish it from the regular car.
Inside the cabin, though, nothing’s changed. You get the automatic climate control, 7.0-inch touchscreen with navigation, Apple CarPlay and all the other standard infotainment features. Unfortunately, some low-rent buttons and plastics too have made their way into the RS, which is a let-down. The front seats, like the stock car, are large and comfortable with soft cushioning and generous under-thigh support (although we'd have liked a little more lateral support in a sporty car like this) and it is the same story in the back, where the ample legroom and wide bench give enough room for three adults. All in all then, Maruti has found a good middle-ground between performance and practicality, but it could have focused a bit to make the interior different from the stock car and thrown in a few more ‘RS’ bits, maybe?
What’s it like to drive?
Maruti has done a good job with the Baleno RS’s 1.0-litre petrol engine. It may be slightly detuned from the European version to cope with poor fuel quality around India, but it still feels sufficient, if not ample. There’s some turbo-lag but power builds up from a lowly 1600rpm, and once you cross 2000rpm, the engine spins quickly all the way to its 6200rpm limiter. The sweet spot of this engine is between 3000rpm and 5000rpm. As it gets past 5,000rpm, this motor tends to get boomy. There is an ever present noise as you climb the rev range, as this is a three-cylinder motor after all, but rather than a gruff clatter, it's a pleasant thrum that adds quite a lot for character. The 5-speed manual gearbox feels a little firmer to shift than in the standard car, but it's not to the point of discomfort and instead gives shifts a slightly more reassuring feel.
The suspension’s been stiffened on this one, and that’s given the car a bit more stability at speed, although the Buddh International Circuit, where we've driven it, is hardly the best place to evaluate this, or indeed other everyday driving characteristics. The car also turns a bit more willingly into corners and handling on the whole has improved a bit. What adds to this feel is the steering which now feels a touch heavier and gives you more confidence. It's still not bristling with feedback though.
The brakes on this car are great, no doubt helped by the addition of discs at the rear. Despite repeated hard braking sessions on the racetrack there was only minimal fade felt.
On the perimeter road that we drove, the ride was good. However, it remains to be seen how it takes sharper and bigger bumps experienced in the city.
Should I buy one?
If you are looking for a quicker family hatchback, the Baleno RS won’t disappoint. With better acceleration, steering and brakes, the performance is an improvement over the standard petrol version. But this comes at a price. The Baleno RS commands a Rs 1.4 lakh premium over the standard petrol car and does not have any additional kit. Yes, along with the more powerful engine and rear disc brakes, you also get a stiffer chassis, improved steering and suspension. However, our sources tell us that all Balenos will get the stiffer chassis soon, anyway. That being the case, the Rs 1.4 lakh premium does seem like a lot. But performance has never come cheap. So, does the car do justice to its RS badge? Yes it’s quick, but out here on the F1 track it didn’t seem a quick hot hatch. Then again, this circuit has made many a sportscar look slow. Guess it’s time to put the Baleno back to back with the Abarth Punto and the Polo GT to find out.
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