There’s a new Santro in town, and you don’t have to be an auto-industry guru to know how significant that is. For Hyundai to revive the name that launched the brand in India shows serious intent to shake things up, and on first impressions, that’s what the new Santro does. It’s dramatically styled and is packing features that push the boundaries for this segment. But then this is not an easy segment for any car to be in.
These hatchbacks, priced in the Rs 4-5 lakh zone, have to sway first-time buyers away from the trusty Altos and Kwids, to something that feels bigger and better, and they have to do this without stepping on the toes of the Swifts, Grand i10s, and Figos. They certainly have to keep their price tags in check so as to not cross into ‘premium hatchback’ territory. And unlike premium hatchbacks, these are unlikely to be the second or third car in a household – they will probably have to serve as the sole family car, and that’s a pretty tall order.
One car that’s managed to walk that line superbly in the last few years is the Tata Tiago – finding a sweet balance between killer pricing and a good all-round package. It’s the car that, arguably, kicked off Tata Motors’ current brand renaissance, and it’s found a great many fans in the process.
A car that didn’t click with Indian buyers was the Datsun Go. In an attempt to offer a value proposition, Datsun launched a car that felt cheap, but that was the old Go. The 2018 facelift goes a long way to right those wrongs, serving up an altogether more desirable proposition. But is it enough to wash away that first impression?
Of course, we’d be remiss to not have a Maruti in the mix, and it turns out there are two in this segment. While the Celerio is, technically, the newer car, we went with the Santro’s original nemesis – the WagonR. Hyundai may have coined the term ‘tall boy’ but it’s the WagonR that still wears that label with pride. It may be at the end of its life cycle, with a replacement due next year, but it’s still got some tricks up its sleeve.
Style of the times
What’s also a tricky thing to get right in this sensitive segment is the styling – and designers can’t be quite as liberal as they are with more expensive cars. Too extravagant and it could put buyers off, but too simple and some might find it boring.
The Santro, though generally well-proportioned, takes a big risk with that huge grille and the unusual dip in the window line. Hyundai says these features are both functional and aesthetic, and these styling elements have certainly become a talking point. However, I’m not a fan of the sharply cut rear door frame or the ‘boomerang line’ over the front wheel arch, and, interestingly, Hyundai doesn’t offer alloy wheels.
The WagonR, as we said before, is unashamedly ‘tall boy’. It’s the narrowest and tallest car here by a long shot and this top-spec car now gets the ‘Stingray’ look as standard – which means the slimmer, projector headlamps and the glass ‘grille’. I suppose some might like the Kei Car aesthetic of the Maruti – boxy with its weedy wheels pushed out to the corners – but then I doubt looks are the reason anyone chooses a WagonR.
The Go looks big for a car in this segment, and that’s half the battle won. It has some interesting lines too, but Datsun has added some new details with the facelift to make it look more upmarket. There are now alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, a bit more sculpture in the bumpers, and they’ve even added LED daytime running lamps, which none of the others get.
But it’s the Tiago that, to me at least, is the best-looking car here, and it does that without any in-your-face gimmicks. It’s just a solidly proportioned hatchback with a good stance, attractive lines, and interesting design choices, like the use of glossy black plastic for the grille. And, unlike with the others, there are no obvious signs, on the outside at least, of it being built to a cost. It is, for instance, the only one here with more premium ‘pull’-type door handles.
|Hyundai Santro Asta||Datsun Go T (O)||Tata Tiago XZ (O)||Maruti WagonR VXi+ (O)|
The inside job
But costs are a factor in this price-sensitive class, and the interior is usually where carmakers cut them. Step into the new Santro, however, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything low rent. Lots of bits, like the steering wheel with its well-finished control buttons, are lifted from the Grand i10 (with which it shares a platform), and most of the fit and finish are up to that car’s standard. Only a few plastics feel a little rough but they’re not easy to spot. The design is great too, especially the ‘elephant’s head’ centre console and the arrow-shaped AC vents; it works well both in this green-on-black colour scheme (complete with green seat belts), or the standard black-on-beige.
The Tiago, too, uses really high-quality materials. Of particular note is the soft, knitted roof lining, but you’ll also like the textured plastic on the dash top. I even like the design, with a nice, wide centre console that gives it a big-car feel, and AC vents that match the exterior colour. What lets it down, however, is the fit and finish, and this is something Tata still has to perfect. There are some sharp plastic edges, ill-fit panels, and buttons that feel spongy and inconsistent.
Datsun has done wonders to up the Go’s interior game, but then it did need a lot of work to begin with. The glovebox has a lid this time, there are two individual seats and not a bench at the front, and the handbrake has been moved from the dashboard to where it’s meant to be – between the seats. The ambience has improved too, thanks to the addition of some brushed silver trim and even plastic that mimics carbon fibre. However, though the plastics seem to be of a decent quality, it doesn’t take long to find signs of cost-cutting, like the bare-metal seat-adjust lever, or the hole under the steering column where the steering adjust lever should’ve been.
As with the outside, the inside of the WagonR follows a completely different philosophy to the rest. The dashboard is flat and upright, and quite simple in its design, which also reminds you just how old this car is. Quality is decent, but nothing to write home about, and certainly a far cry from the Santro.
Bells and whistles
The balancing act of costs continues with these cars’ equipment lists and, in true Hyundai fashion, here’s where the Santro delivers the big punches. There are segment-firsts like rear AC vents, speed-sensing auto door locks, and a rear-view camera. Other goodies include a crisp, 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, steering-mounted controls, and rear parking sensors – although there are only two sensor units (the Tiago and Go have four each) and they’re placed toward the middle of the bumper, so watch out for the corners.
The Datsun Go, impressively, also gets a touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and it’s a crisp, clear unit with a polished interface. It also comes with rear parking sensors, but there’s no camera here, although it one-ups the others by offering LED daytime running lamps. This all seems mighty impressive compared to the old Go, which only got an aux input and radio in its dashboard, but today, it’s just about par for the class.
The WagonR doesn’t have a touchscreen infotainment system; in fact, it doesn’t even have Bluetooth connectivity. It does at least get powered outside mirror adjustment, but then so do all the others. Its only real equipment advantage is projector headlamps. It is, perhaps, fitting then, that the Maruti is the cheapest car in this test – tied with the Datsun, however – when considering top-spec variants.
The Tiago’s equipment list doesn’t have the wow factor of the others – there’s no touchscreen (although it will be getting one in 2019, if you’re willing to wait), no cameras, no rear AC vents. What it does, instead, is prioritise functionality. For instance, it’s the only one with driver’s seat and steering height adjustment; even the Santro doesn’t get that. And mention has to be made of its eight-speaker, Harman-developed audio system, which easily sounds the best here.
In top-spec guise, all cars do well on the safety front, offering dual airbags and ABS with EBD.
|Hyundai Santro Asta||Datsun Go T (O)||Tata Tiago XZ (O)||Maruti WagonR (VXi+ (O)|
|Rear parking sensors||Yes||Yes||Yes||NA|
|Speed-sensing door locks||Yes||NA||Yes||NA|
|Touchscreen infotainment system||Yes||Yes||NA||NA|
|Apple CarPlay/Android Auto||Yes||Yes||NA||NA|
|60:40 split rear seats||NA||NA||NA||Yes|
|Rear AC vents||Yes||NA||NA||NA|
|Driver seat height adjust||NA||NA||Yes||NA|
|Adjustable rear headrests||NA||NA||NA||Yes|
|Price (ex-showroom, Delhi)||Rs 5.45 lakh||Rs 4.89 lakh||Rs 5.21 lakh||Rs 4.92 lakh|
Let’s talk space and practicality, because as family cars, it’s important that you and yours have enough room for yourselves and your things. The Santro scores highly here, with bottle holders in all four doors, a large cupholder in the centre console and even a small shelf on the passenger side of the dashboard that’s great for mobile phones. The back seat is the most spacious, too, with a good amount of width, and excellent knee- and headroom. Also, that dip in the window line really does make the rear feel airier, and there’s the added bonus of rear AC vents; the only car here with them.
While the Datsun can take litre-bottles at the front, it has no rear door pockets at all, but the other two have very slim front and rear door pockets that aren’t too useful. The WagonR at least wins some points back for its high-set rear seat that uses height to create space. There’s enough room here, but it’s not a comfortable seat, and though none of these cars is ideal for three in the back seat, the narrow Maruti is a proper squeeze.
Though not quite as good as the Santro, the Tiago does okay on practicality, with a pair of cupholders at the front and a few stowage areas strewn around the cabin. The back seats, like the ones up front, are heavily contoured and thoughtfully cushioned, giving you great support. Space-wise, the back seat is decent, if perhaps not as good as the Santro’s, but you do get a great view forward.
The Datsun looks like the biggest car here, and this only makes its back seat experience more disappointing. It’s wide enough – you can give it that – but the door aperture is narrow, the seat is low and flat, and headroom and knee-room are not great. It also has fixed head restraints which are set too low, but then this is a problem in the Tata and Hyundai as well. The WagonR is the only one with adjustable rear headrests, and also the only one with a split rear seatback.
And you’ll probably need to use that feature often, as the WagonR has the smallest boot. The Santro comes in next, and we think Hyundai could have taken a few inches out of the passenger compartment for a bit more boot space. The Tiago balances this well, with a good amount of luggage space, while the Go has the most usable luggage space, but the rear seat has clearly paid the price for it. Also, the Go doesn’t get a rear parcel shelf, and neither does the WagonR.
There’s a lot of variety in the petrol engines these cars use, and, of course, we’re comparing petrol engines, because the Tata Tiago is the only one also available with a diesel. All except the Go can be had with an AMT automatic gearbox too; so for this test, we’re keeping it manual. The Santro continues with its predecessor’s 1.1-litre, four-cylinder motor, now making 69hp and 99Nm. Now, these numbers sound pretty good next to the Go’s 68hp and 104Nm (from a 1.2, three-cylinder) and the WagonR’s 68hp and 90Nm (from a 1.0, three-cylinder), but not compared to the Tiago. Tata’s Revotron 1.2, three-cylinder makes a solid 85hp and 114Nm, and these are numbers we’re used to seeing in a class above. But that doesn’t necessarily make it the quickest, because the Tiago is also the heaviest car here at 1,012kg. The Santro and WagonR follow at 901 and 890kg, respectively, and remarkably it’s the Go that’s the lightest at just 846kg.
The Santro has the quietest powertrain, an incredibly light clutch, and gearshift action, and slipping off from a standstill is easy. That said, we’d have liked a little more pep setting off from idle; you’ll find the engine waking up one precious moment later. It’s okay on its own, but the others in this test are a bit sprightlier. Once it gets going, though, the Santro feels just fine in the mid-range, and then power tapers off before you get to the redline.
The WagonR, too, does its best work at low speeds and feels quite sprightly off the line. It’s not long, however, before you feel the power and torque deficit, and you’ll want to keep this one at the lower end of its powerband. And should you take it out on the highway, the WagonR will struggle quite a bit, more so if it’s loaded up with people and their luggage.
The Go, helped in part by its light weight, feels really peppy off the line. It takes off with gusto, but you soon realise the three-cylinder motor needs a bit of revving to keep that momentum going, but what is an irritant is the buzzy noise you hear from the motor, which makes you want to hold back from piling on the revs. Still, at no point do you ever feel wanting for more power in the Datsun.
However, just as noisy, if not more, is Tata’s three-cylinder engine – it makes a big thrummy noise, especially when you rev it. And that’s a shame, because otherwise, this motor is superb. It’s got a relatively narrow powerband and isn’t as rev-happy as the rest, but the torque seems to be laid on thick throughout. It really makes you want to charge from gear to gear and drive the Tiago hard.
So how did all this translate when our performance testing gear was plugged in? Amazingly, the Santro was the quickest to 100kph at 14.85sec, despite it not being the lightest or the most powerful. We put it down to its strong mid-range and still relatively light weight. It’s telling that the lighter Datsun gets to 60kph first (5.86sec) as it gets off the line quicker, but then the Santro pulls a lead. The Tiago, which feels very strong, comes in second place, both to 60kph (6.06sec) and 100kph (15.27sec). The WagonR is the slowest in general, but it is actually not too bad in the 20-80kph in-gear sprint, doing just about half a second slower than the Santro at 15.35sec (see chart for full numbers).
|Powertrain & performance|
|Hyundai Santro Asta||Datsun Go T (O)||Tata Tiago XZ (O)||Maruti WagonR VXi+ (O)|
|Engine||4 cyl, 1086cc, petrol||3 cyl, 1198cc, petrol||3 cyl, 1199cc, petrol||3 cyl, 998cc, petrol|
|Power||69hp at 5500rpm||68hp at 5000rpm||85hp at 6000rpm||68hp at 6200rpm|
|Torque||99Nm at 4500rpm||104Nm at 4000rpm||114Nm at 3500rpm||90Nm at 3500rpm|
|Gearbox||5-speed manual||5-speed manual||5-speed manual||5-speed manual|
|Fuel economy (ARAI)||20.3kpl||19.83kpl||23.84kpl||20.51kpl|
The rough with the smooth
The Santro rides and handles like you’d expect a Hyundai hatchback to, which is to say it’s very easy to steer, but not exciting, and it’s sprung softly, so it’s comfy when you’re going slow but less so once you start going quicker. It doesn’t feel like it has a lot of suspension travel and so tends to bounce around over bumps, but in the city, you and your passengers will be very comfy. The steering is super light and that’s good for manoeuvrability, but it doesn’t give you the same confidence out on the highway.
All this is present, and exaggerated, on the Maruti WagonR. Its tall shape, sitting on weedy tyres pushed out to the corners, does make for a somewhat fidgety ride, but once again, it’s perfectly alright at city speeds. The steering does have a bit more weight to it than the Santro’s but it too lacks feedback. Plus, that shape leads to a higher centre of gravity, which doesn’t encourage you to really push this car around corners in the first place.
The Datsun Go sits on tall suspension and that means a fair amount of body roll, but that aside, it’s a pretty tidy handler. There’s good enough feel through the wheel and it steers consistently, but it’s still far from an all-out driver’s car. The ride is rather good in most conditions, save for a bit of movement in the cabin from those tall, soft springs, but the real issue is the noise. Despite improving the sound insulation from the old car, you still hear far too much of the road as you drive over it.
The best dynamic package is the Tiago. Tata has worked its magic on the suspension to give its ride a maturity that you’d expect from a more expensive car. And at the same time, body control is very well contained, so you really enjoy pushing the Tiago around corners. The steering feels nice and accurate too, but still light enough to be easy at parking speeds. ◊ ∆ If you enjoy driving, this has to be at the top of your shortlist, and your passengers won’t have cause for complaint either.
One for all
It’s not unfair to the WagonR to say that it comes a definitive last place in this test. It’s at the end of its life cycle, there’s lots about it – especially inside – that’s decidedly last-gen, and being the popular choice for radio taxis everywhere has cost it some desirability points. It works well as a city runabout, but take it out on the highway and it feels completely out of its depth. Yet, there are those that will swear by it for its reliability and simple-but-effective approach to maximising cabin space, albeit just for four.
That the 2018 Datsun Go is such a drastic leap forward, unfortunately, speaks more about how ill-judged its predecessor was. Still, it’s definitely a proper contender now and also a great value proposition. Its biggest draw is its big-car look and feel (apart from in the back seat), and the way it drives, rides and handles aren’t too bad either. It’s just that it simply doesn’t feel desirable, and the various signs of cost-cutting that still remain don’t help its cause.
The battle is really between the last two cars, and each one has a very different approach to winning your heart – and your hard-earned money. The Tiago prioritises subtle substance over flair and style (though it does look good), and you can tell that’s how Tata has spent its money. They’ve worked hard on the suspension and the steering to make sure it has a sophisticated, big-car ride and is still fun to drive, and they’ve prioritised more practical features that improve usability. It’s got a good mix of space and comfort, as well as luggage room. The cabin might have some rough edges and the engine should have been quieter, but it gets all the basics just right.
Then there’s the car of the moment – the Santro, and it wins you over with its shock and awe. Class-leading features and in-your-face design, both inside and out, are great ways to draw new buyers, but then it continues to impress as you go along, with good cabin quality, a refined engine, light controls, and a large passenger area. But then you start to see where Hyundai has saved on costs. The engine is old and doesn’t feel as peppy as you’d like (it’s not the most efficient either, as per ARAI), and overall it doesn’t feel as substantial as the Tata.
The appeal of the gizmos will wear off after the short term, and that’s when more thoughtful engineering and better mechanicals will stand you in better stead, and it’s these things the Tiago does that little bit better than the Santro. What’ll further nudge you toward a Tata dealership is the fact that the Santro’s introductory price is the highest, and it’s only set to get dearer soon. There’s no doubt the Hyundai is the better city car, but the Tiago is the better all-rounder, and that’s why, despite it being very close, it is our winner.