Maruti Baleno RS: First Drive Review
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Does the RS label justify its price premium over the standard Baleno?
When the country’s largest carmaker decided to jump into the performance hatch bandwagon with the Baleno RS, there arose a lot of curiosity. And hope too, and understandably so. After all, Maruti is a brand that everyone trusts with building affordable cars and the Baleno RS holds out a similar hope for people who’ve always aspired for a performance hatch without shelling out a bomb.
With a price tag of Rs 8.38 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), the jury is still out on the attractiveness of the Baleno RS’ pricing - which leads to some pressing questions that need to be answered: How different is it to drive compared to the standard Baleno? Is it worth the premium that it commands? And is this is a hot hatch in the true sense of it?
A short spin at the Buddh International Circuit (BIC) in Greater Noida provided us with the answers.
Let’s talk about the looks first. At first glance, it’s hard to spot the differences vis-a-vis the standard Baleno; the changes are mostly cosmetic and most of them are centred up front. For instance, the Baleno RS gets a mesh treatment to the grill; the redesigned front and rear bumpers have been squeezed and sharpened for a racier look.
The thin side skirts add some flair. The 16-inch alloys are the same as in the standard Baleno but painted in a gorgeous black that really makes the car stand out, especially when contrasted with the Fire Red shade. Topping it all off is the ‘RS’ badge that finds a coveted place at the back of the car.
Everything else remains unchanged and you get the same features as you’d find in the top-of-the-line Alpha variant of the Baleno. That includes turn indicators on projector headlamps with LED daytime-running lights, LED taillight cluster, turn indicators on outside mirrors and UV-cut glass.
Step inside and you’d expect some changes to the cabin as well. Surprisingly, there aren’t any! None, at all. Everything is exactly the same as you’d see in the regular Baleno: all-black interiors, the dashboard layout, the TFT colour multi-information display, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel down to the buttons for audio control.
The Baleno’s cabin has always been a premium place to be in but hey, everyone expects a bit more bang for their buck. The VW Polo GT TSI, for instance, gets sporty black and grey fabric seats with contrast stitching and aluminium pedals. It’s these little things that make the cabin feel more distinctive… and special.
Performance, Ride and Handling
Where you really see a change is under the hood, which hosts a new 1.0-litre, 3-cylinder Boosterjet petrol engine that develops 102PS of power and 150Nm of torque. That’s about 18PS and 35Nm more than what you get in the regular Baleno, and that does sound substantial.
However, it’s not the same as what you get in the Baleno RS for international markets. That one develops 111PS of power and 170Nm of torque. Maruti says that the Indian-spec engine offers 20 per cent more power and 30 per cent more torque than the 1.2-litre naturally aspirated engine of the standard Baleno. The question is, what do all of these figures translate to?
Depress the clutch pedal, press the starter button and the engine wakes up with a smooth, refined note. Step on the accelerator and you can immediately sense an eagerness with which the car pulls forward. There is lots of punch even when driving at an easy pace, and as the revs rise it feels properly strong. The engine feels eager even as you rev it up to its near-6000rpm redline and that helps make the RS experience ring truer still. At the BIC, we managed to clock a maximum of 160kmph but even at those speeds, the car didn’t feel out of breath.
For the more everyday kind of usage the engine will feel great to use as there is virtually no turbo lag to contend with. Also, you can easily cruise at speeds above 100kmph with the engine feeling relaxed. Losing speed quickly won’t be a problem thanks to the disc brakes on all four wheels. While the Baleno RS feels rock solid at high speeds, the 195/55 section tyres tend to squeal and squirm when taking hard corners and could do with more grip to suit the RS badge.
Maruti officials say that the 5-speed transmission on the Baleno RS is a different unit and is, in fact, heavier than the one in the regular Baleno. However, the gear ratios have been reworked to carry the additional torque, and while gearshifts are smooth, we wish the throws were shorter in the initial gears to allow for quicker shifts.
Of course, being a Maruti, they had to ensure that fuel efficiency wasn’t compromised for performance. The direct injection engine has been employed to aid just that. The result is that the Baleno RS delivers 21.1kmpl, as opposed to 21.4kmpl in the standard Baleno. The feat is commendable considering it weighs about 50-60kg more than the standard Baleno, with a kerb weight of 950kg. Handling continues to be great though there is a fair amount of body roll on corners. That’s when you desperately feel the need for better side bolstering in the seats, if not bucket seats.
The Baleno RS definitely feels a lot quicker and more fun to drive than the standard Baleno; you'd enjoy taking it on road trips or that late-night stress-busting joy ride with the family. However, the difference isn’t dramatically different. The experience would have been richer with a bit more grunt, drama, and a sporty exhaust note to go with the hot hatch tag. At Rs 8.38 lakh, the Baleno RS costs Rs 1.1 lakh over the top-end Baleno Alpha variant. And yet, it is one of the most affordable performance hatches you can buy right now.
The standard Baleno is more than enough if you want a car with decent performance for everyday driving. But if you want a premium hatchback that offers a bit more wind in your sails and exclusivity that the RS badge brings with it, and don’t mind paying a premium for it, then the Baleno RS will not disappoint.
On a side note, it's interesting to see Maruti make a foray into the performance hatchback segment; it’s possibly a sign of the times to come and raises hope of more go-fast hatchbacks from other carmakers. If the last few years saw the emergence and rise of cross hatches, then the future definitely seems to be making a shift towards performance hatches. And if that happens, expect exciting times ahead for all of us!
Words: Ajit Menon | Photography: Vikrant Date