The Volkswagen Ameo has a taken a long while to go into production after VW's global arm spilled the beans about this project at the 2014 Paris Motor Show. Almost two years into development, more time probably went into making this sedan as pretty as possible than reinventing the car from the Polo's underpinnings. At the same time, the car also had to bring enough novelty to make up for its delayed entry. But the Ameo is finally here and meets all its peers on a sunny weekday.
The Polo is already about 3.95metre in length, which left hardly 5cm for Volkswagen to play around with to create the India-friendly sub-four metre sedan. So to gain some extra design space at the rear, Volkswagen shaved off 3.5cm at the front. The result is pretty impressive. I can't imagine I used the words 'pretty' and 'impressive' to describe a car in this form factor, for they all look like a compromise. The hatchback-derived front end gives these cars a stubbly or overtly curvy nose and that largely contributes to making them look imbalanced.
But the Ameo does manage to look quite proportionate for what it is, thanks largely to the long and sharp nose, the balanced overhangs and the gradual slope for the roofline, and the rear windshield which neatly flows into the stubby boot. The new tailgate draws inspiration from koda's design book, with slash lines on the boot-lid and a kink in the outline of the tail lights. These elements also help in reducing the visual bulk of the new boot. The Ameo looks quite lean with its chiseled lines, and it aims at taking attention away from the fact that this is one of the smallest cars in its segment. It just about pips the Xcent on width but otherwise is on par or smaller in exterior dimensions than its competitors.
Comparing overall designs though, the Ameo looks the most elegant, thanks to its simple, European styling and paint quality that appears superior than its rivals. The Amaze, despite its polarising design, looks the most sedan-like with its relatively low-slug stance and stylish character lines. The Aspire comes close too, but its short and flat nose doesn't seem to have appealed to many. To me, it still looks the most stylish of this lot. On the other hand, the Zest only looks smart from certain angles. Though it is quite spacious, I believe it will have trouble holding its ground against its upcoming, more handsome, fastback-themed sibling - the Kite 5. The Dzire isn't a pretty car either. In fact, it looks the most disproportionate in this segment but gets away with the badge on the grille. The weakest design of the lot though is the Xcent. While the understated design seems to work well for the Grand i10, it looks too plain Jane for its sedan aspirations, especially when sharing showroom space with the Verna.
The Ameo's cabin is virtually unchanged from the Polo and that has its pros and cons. The downsides are the lack of enough room at the rear and a very simple styling for the dashboard fascia. But if a boxy treatment is your thing, then you will like the clean layout of the cabin. The positives include the sporty flat-bottom steering wheel, easy-to-read clocks, the new touchscreen infotainment and seats with adjustable headrests. The Zest is the only other car in this comparison to get touchscreen infotainment, and the Ameo's unit easily outclasses it with an easy-to-use interface. All the icons are large enough to be operated without having to take your eyes off the road. The USB port, however, is placed on the panel fascia; therefore, any long cables attached to it are prone to getting entangled in the shifter.
Despite the short width, the front seats and foot wells of the Ameo are quite accommodating
Plenty of cubby holes up front, but few storage spaces at the back. The Ameo is ideally suited for a nuclear family
The 330l boot is wisely designed to maximise cargo space, and rear seats are collapsible
The front seats are generously sized, get a centre arm rest with storage space and nicely bolstered even for long-distance journeys. Finding an ergonomic driving position is easy, and the tilt and telescopically adjustable steering contributes to that effect. The rear seat has decent angle of seating, but knee room, leg room and under-thigh support are just about adequate.
The Aspire's cabin looks the best and feels quite well appointed too. It has the most number of storage spaces and bottle holders in this test
The seats are relatively firm and very comfortable for long-distance journeys
The 359l boot comes with its own escape mechanism!
The almost similarly sized Xcent does a better job of maximizing space within the cabin and also manages to pack quite a bit of equipment. But the most spacious cabin here is that of the Amaze. Compared to its peers, it offers excellent rear seating space. The Aspire comes close to it, but its lower seating doesn't give it as good an ingress and egress as the Honda. The Amaze's cabin has been given some nips and tucks earlier this year, but like the Zest, it still looks quite plasticky. The Dzire's cabin has a clean layout and is quite ergonomic too, but isn't put together as well as its rivals since the plastics start rattling early in its life. It's the Aspire's cabin that feels the most pleasant with its well-appointed elements and a more premium finish for all its components. I wish, however, that they replace the cluttered switchgear with their new touch-interface SNYC infotainment.
Dzire's cabin looks smart despite its age. Latest update gives it keyless go and Bluetooth telephony
Rear seat space is decent, but headroom can be compromised for tall people
320l boot is smallest in class
Zest's cabin lacks enough cubby holes. Comparing all top trims, Zest is cheapest and yet manages to pack quite a bit of goodies, but longevity is still a concern
390l boot is good for a couple of small suitcases
Xcent looks the smallest but packs the biggest boot at 407l. Cabin fit and finish is excellent and the layout is neat and logical
Rear seat comfortable for long-distance journeys. Rear AC vents and centre armrest with cupholders are handy inclusions in the package
Xcent looks the smallest but packs the biggest boot at 407l
All the six cars are quite closely matched on their features list - give or take a few creature comforts. The most notable features, however, are the automatic lamps and wipers on the Ameo, the My Key feature on the Aspire and the sweet sound system on the Zest.
The Ameo's weakest link is its engine, the 1.2-litre petrol. We have had complaints about this mill in the past too, not in terms of reliability but with respect to its performance. The 3-cylinder mill emits its unpleasant thrum throughout the rev range and is the least powerful of this class. The weakness was highlighted on the mountain roads we drove on, as the engine demanded too many shifts, and even then the performance wasn't too impressive. The Ameo took 16.9s to 100kmph, making it the most lethargic to the ton. Around the city though, there is enough low-end push to amble around without losing your cool. On the highway, the engine can cruise at triple-digit speeds without feeling too strained, but pulling overtakes or scaling inclines may need a downshift or two.
The petrol Ameo only gets a 5-speed manual transmission for now, whereas all its rivals (save for the Zest) also come with the option of an automatic. The Ameo's gearshifts are a tad rubbery, the clutch is slightly on the heavier side and its springy nature can get cumbersome during crowded commutes. The brakes are predictable and progressive. The steering is precise and perfect around the twisties but slightly heavier for city use. The suspension is set to a relatively softer tune that works well on our roads and immediately gives you the taut feel of a typical German car. Around bends though there is a bit of body roll at turn-in but no unnerving rebound. It is easily the best handler of this lot, but the engine doesn't support the cause. Can't wait for the torquey 1.5-litre diesel, which arrives this Diwali.
The Figo Aspire too has a nice balance between handling and ride comfort. The ride is quite supple, but the petrol-powered Aspire has a tad bit more body roll, compared to its diesel variant. The car holds its line very well when pushed around bends, but here too, the engine plays spoilsport as the revs take ages to climb up. The engine is tuned for better top end, and the Aspire can happily reach speeds of over 170kmph, but it suffers from a weak mid-range grunt and demands frequent gearshifts in the urban environment. Since the engine needs to be worked hard to get things done, this car is the least fuel efficient of this test, though not by much. The steering isn't as communicative as the Fiesta's but provides decent feedback for an electrically assisted unit. The brakes felt a little grabby on our tester, but the clutch was comfortably light.
The Honda Amaze plonks the lovely 1.2 i-VTEC motor in its engine bay. It has been unchanged for all these years and is now showing its age in terms of refinement. Its 4-cylinder note is quite delightful though and begs you to rev the engine to its redline. But that isn't the purpose of these compact sedans, and the Amaze impresses as a daily runabout in the real world. It has excellent fuel economy along with easy drivability in the city and highway. It tops out at a mere 142kmph but gives you good low- and mid-range pull for urban commutes. It has a light clutch and the steering is well weighted too. Like most Hondas, there is a bit of body roll too, but it is quite predictable. The upside is a decent ride quality, even though the suspension is a tad noisy. The steering seems perfect for India, and I also like the way the brakes have been tuned. The Amaze also provides excellent visibility and is the perfect choice for a newbie.
The Swift Dzire, with its rev-happy 1.2-litre K-series mill, comes close to offering a driving experience as nice as the Amaze. But this mill is a tad too noisy at higher revs. The mid-range is decent but low end is laggy. That said, it has the lightest clutch of this lot, making it an easy driver within the city. The steering feedback is quite nice too, and the steering weight is ideal for both city and highway use. It seems to have more body roll through corners than its hatchback sibling, but like the Amaze it isn't too unnerving. Ride quality is slightly on the harsher side for the range topping trim which get wider and lower profile rubber. The lower trims with steel rims and higher profile tyres do a better job at bump absorption.
The Tata Zest is the only compact sedan here to use a turbocharged engine and the most powerful too. The result is the best drivability in city conditions. The low-end is a tad laggy but get used to using the turbo to your benefit, and you will like the nature of this engine. The mid-range is excellent and as a result, the Zest is the most fuel-efficient car of this test. The Eco and Sport modes actually do work, and the difference is evident during city commutes. On the highway, the engine shows its potential further, but past the 140kmph mark the car feels a tad wallowy, despite having the fattest tyres in this test. The brakes are also a tad spongy and need getting used to.
The ride is squishy and therefore takes on the fabled Indian road conditions without any worry.
The Xcent is the surprise package here, thanks to its peppy performance. It is not only the quickest of this lot but also fun to drive in the urban environment, thanks to its rev-happy nature. It is also the most refined engine in this test, edging past the smooth engine in the Aspire. It has quite a meaty mid-range despite its small capacity, so even highway runs aren't a problem for this car. It is no wonder that it is fast gaining popularity in the cab segment as well. The clutch is lighter than its diesel counterpart but has a similar springy action. The steering is quite light too. The Xcent handles surprisingly well for a Hyundai, but its real forte is its ride quality.
All these cars have a decent ground clearance of over 160mm, which is quite adequate for what they set out to do. If you need to tackle some really bad roads, then the Aspire's class-leading ground clearance of 174mm could suit you best.
Answering the question we started with - the Ameo fits into this class really well and ends up outclassing some of its peers. Volkswagen has kept its promise of delivering the most premium compact sedan in this segment by filling the Ameo to the brim with features, offering a good level of standard safety equipment and providing excellent build quality despite the cost-saving measures. The engine does let it down, but if your compact sedan is only expected to ferry you from point A to B, the Ameo actually proves to be tremendous value with its starting price of Rs 5.13 lakh (ex-Mumbai). The elephant in the room, however, is Volkswagen's cost of ownership and the dreaded aftersales service. All its rivals trump the Ameo in this regard, but if you have a trusty VW service centre around you, then you could take the bold step of putting money down for this value offering.
If I had to pick out a clear winner from this test, it has to be the Ford Figo Aspire. The Amaze comes very close as an all-rounder, but the Aspire offers a higher level of safety and more drivetrain options, has a more well-appointed cabin, and achieves a nice balance between ride and handling. At the same time, it is priced very competitively too - undercutting the Ameo in the base trim. It is even priced less than the Amaze in the range topping trims. It also benefits from Ford's ever-improving service network and aftersales initiatives. The only thing that goes against it is the resale value. And if that concerns you, then like most buyers in this segment, you may not want to look beyond the Swift Dzire anyway, no matter how much better the rest of the competition is.