Diesel derby

Team OD  /
25 Jul 2013 15:06:43 IST

Bert argued mathematically in a recent article that owning a diesel isn't all the fun and games, wallet-wise, it is supposed to be. But it's always mind over matter and owning a diesel has one aspect that you cannot argue against. As long as diesel subsidies exist, taking a road trip, filling up and economy figures are all psychologically easier on the owner. This you remember, the lifecycle cost you don't. Hence proved: diesels are a better choice for all. Qout erat demonstrandum.

But the question here is simple. Can Maruti's new SX4 diesel demonstrandum that it is better than the Volkswagen Vento TDI or not. And that question is being posed to crystallise the SX4's place in the diesel C-segment sedan arena - the Vento is currently our pick of the lot. What Maruti has done is shoehorn its all-purpose, delightfully eager 1.3-litre diesel (the Fiat-designed Multijet wonder) into the SX4. Calling it the Super Turbo DDiS is perhaps a bit of an over-reach, moniker-wise but there is the matter of the variable geometry turbo.

But before we dive into the players' strengths, I have to point out right at the outset that this is a good looking playing field. I do like the Volkswagen's sleek, classically clean lines that project a no-nonsense, never-aging sort of look. I also like the pumped up, Japanese tuner car look that our skirted SX4 exuded. If the Maruti wasn't painted this inoffensive gold, a brighter, solid colour would have made the SX4 look still more pumped up. I drove a skirted SX4 all over Rajasthan a while ago and I know that ground clearance is a bit of an issue but not prohibitively so. Besides, you can always not opt for the skirt - think of it like this, do men wear skirts?. Skirtless, the SX4 is a more calm looking car in a well-muscled, well-fed sort of way. Two good looking cars, then, embodying the philosophical difference between Japanese and German automotive engineering. The Vento feels heavy, solid and indestructible, the SX4 is light, effortless and well-built.

But we've driven these cars before and talked about these aspects. So let's focus on the new thing, the engines. The SX4's variable geometry turbo brings 15PS more, 90PS at 4000rpm, the same peak power point, while 10Nm more torque, 200Nm arrives 250rpm earlier, at 1750rpm. This makes the SX4 easy to drive. The turbo spools up early, you hardly notice any turbo lag and the car behaves like an eager OD intern, always ready to go on the slightest whiff of the throttle. Which isn't to suggest that we throttle interns at OVERDRIVE, of course. Credit must go to Suzuki's powertrain guys, who seem to have a magic tuning solution to practically every engine they chance upon, creating sublimely useful, tractable and enjoyable powertrains. In the case of the Super Turbo DDis, they did work on engine calibration for two years but their track record with powertrains is much longer and stronger than just this instance. On the highway though, at elevated speed, you do note the wind and tyre noise that creeps in but mechanical noise isn't really an issue with good sound isolation taking care of the Super Turbo DDiS' natural diesel voice.

The Vento, once again, is a direct contrast. It suppresses wind and tyre noise better than mechanical noise, making quite a clatter when cold and at low revs. Warmed up and at street speeds you barely hear the engine but it's always audible, if slightly, at highway speeds. The VW 1.6-litre TDI does have a significant displacement advantage which it translates into a performance advantage effortlessly. With 105PS on tap and 250Nm (a whopping 25 per cent advantage) that lasts from 1500rpm to 2500rpm, there's no question that this is the quicker and faster car here . The heavy feel of the car overall can mask the nature of its performance - think of Sudden wearing chainmail to visualise this if you like - but despite the fact that the SX4 engine feels more like the dancer, lighter on its toes and with a definite spring in its step, the Vento blows the SX4 away. The Vento shoots to 100kmph in just 11.7 seconds, 2.54 seconds quicker than the SX4 and at 182kmph has a 12kmph top speed advantage as well. In the roll-ons - crucial in every day driving, overtaking is easier in the Vento as well.

Maruti and VW also prefer dramatically different set-ups for the ride quality and handling balance despite the similarity in underpinnings. Both employ MacPherson struts and torsion beam set-ups, but the SX4 is stiff - compared to, say, the Honda City. At normal speeds, you'll be comfortable but aware of the little bumps the SX4 is trying to keep from you. In fact, while our test car wore the big wheels, the taxi-spec cars with their smaller 15-inch wheels actually offer a marginally, but noticeably, better ride quality overall. On faster roads, the SX4 is good to drive but you do feel like that there's ability left unexplored somehow. That said, thanks to its origins in the Swift platform, the SX4 has great feel and feedback to the steering and despite a skittish feel on bumpy roads this is an enjoyable car to corner.

But when you hop into the Vento right afterwards, the SX4's set-up appears to have been one-upped. The Volkswagen is typically stiffly sprung, absorbing our roads with contempt but at slower speeds it feels almost like the stiffness is a wee bit overdone. But while the backseat of the SX4 might feel a touch more plush in ride quality terms intially, the Vento absolutely shines on the highway. We've seen this quality in the Polo and the Vento is other side of the same shiny coin. This is a planted car that handles corners with the enthusiasm Elvis showed for megacalorie sandwitches. It's hardly a sportscar but its composure, responsiveness, driver involvement and overall ability sets the bar very high. Steering effort is low, and accuracy and response is so effortlessly natural that most of us tend to hop into the Vento from various other cars and drive off without the usual adjustment phase being needed. Very few cars feel that natural to drive and that's a huge credit to Volkswagen. In fact, if you think about it where the Vento feels completely natural in the dynamics department, the SX4 exhibits a certain weightiness to its responses - its reactions are fractions slower, slightly more considered. Weird - the Vento feels heavy when you close the doors, the SX4 feels effortless. And then the SX4 feels a little weighty in corners and the Vento is effortless.

The German interiors also hang out at this high-altitude bar. The centre console is gently angled at the driver, material quality is very good and finish is excellent. I do think the layout could be made to look more sophisticated and that the cup holders could be easier to use, but that's me being obsessive. And since I am, I might as well point out that the driver's side wall of the console obstructs your left leg a bit and makes the pedal box feel a little cramped too. But you can't miss the sense of being in a well-built, high-quality space. And space is pretty good. It might feel narrow laterally but knee room at the back is generous and the third passenger is taken care of well enough. Where most cars won't show him the menu, the Vento will offer him starters at least and a cold blast up his nether regions thanks to the rear-seat seat aircon vents. The Vento seats you low which gives your mohawk more room but the downside is your knees are higher than the hip-point and that means less thigh support, also the rear seatback being a little upright robs it of ultimate comfort.

The SX4 isn't far behind. Plastics could be tweaked to easily gain the impression of still more luxury, but the (fake) leather-clad seats and the smooth, flush-fitted centre console, vastly more featured music system, controls on the steering wheel et al, add up. The SX4 may not be numerically superior to the Vento in space terms, but the wider stance and lighter interior colours trick you into thinking that the car really does have more space inside than the Vento. As Marutis go, the SX4 would be a good place for Maruti to learn how to make a relatively straight-forward interior ascend a few notches on the perception front. To the point where the Vento's demonstrated interior excellence is nearly matched by the SX4's combination of a spacious feeling, larger greenhouse-d, better featured (aircon vents for rear aside) interior. Then again, the men sit tall which means now your mohawk must make a 90-degree turn to fit. But the rear seat is more laid back which makes it more loungy and comfortable.

I was expecting the SX4 to comfortably best the Vento in features across trim levels but it only shows that I'm not good at expecting. They're very similarly speced with the largest differences being that the Vento has tilt-telescoping steering, SX4 only tilts. Vento has rear aircon vents, SX4 has steering wheel mounted audio controls instead. The upper-model Maruti has 16-inch wheels, the Vento has 15s across. And the Maruti has fatter tyres across the range than the Volkswagen. Pretty even, and this is true even on the fuel economy front.

In which case this should be a close comparison. And it is. We do have a winner but this wasn't a 6-2, 6-2, 6-0 tennis match, it was more like 23-21 in the fifth set tie-breaker. The Vento is the decisive winner albeit by an anorexic margin. It is the more accomplished car here dynamics wise. It does offer you a significant performance advantage and it does everything else as well, or nearly as well as the SX4. The SX4, on the other hand, is such a good package that I am compelled to say that if you want a diesel C-segment sedan and the Vento - for whatever reason - isn't fitting in your mental garage, then this Maruti is the only car you need to be considering.


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