Compact Class

Updated: Nov 10 2012, 07:06am hrs
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In India, Maruti is the undisputed king of affordable small cars. In fact, the company is so good at the small car formula, its got no less than six hatchbacks that span everything from bare-bones basic to premium. So, whatever your budget, theres at least one Maruti hatchback that is right for you.

The new Alto 800 is the companys most important and affordable car. A step up from the earlier Alto, this car has been built to address many of the issues that regularly cropped up with the previous version. It gets an all-new body, a thoroughly updated engine and new interiors; which means this is practically an all-new car. Its also Marutis way of taking the fight to the other car you see here, the Hyundai Eon.

Now, Hyundai knows a thing or two about making small cars as well. It also knows its difficult to take Maruti head on in this segment, and so has taken an interesting approach with its hatchback. The Eon aims to bring style, panache and a bigger car feel to a segment that has traditionally been populated only by very basic runabouts. The Eon looks like nothing this segment has seen before, and its modern styling and upmarket interiors are what Hyundai is pinning its hopes on.


Both come with puny, three-cylinder petrol engines mated to five-speed, manual gearboxes. The Eons slightly larger 814cc engine makes 55bhp, while the Altos considerably updated 796cc engine makes 47bhp. Now, while these power figures are nothing to get excited about, you have to remember that these two weigh close to nothingthe Alto 800 tips the scales at 725kg and the Eon, 772kgso even these modest power figures result in acceptable performance.

The figures will tell you the Alto is marginally quicker at getting to 100kph. Itll do the run in 17.05sec, which is 0.6sec earlier than the Eons time, but its in the real world that the Eons biggest disappointment comes to light. In traffic and at low engine speeds, the Eon simply doesnt have enough grunt to carry on without shifting down a gear. You need to rev this engine to get the best out of it, and herein lies another part of the problem. When its revving, this three-cylinder motor sounds loud, it isnt particularly smooth and the gearlever vibrates. Acceleration is often jerky and you will need to be rather measured with the throttle to drive it smoothly. Compounding this problem is a hiccup in the power delivery when pulling away at low revsthere is a hesitation from the engine before it starts pulling ahead againthis is irritating and, since it happens quite randomly, can take you by surprise.

The Altos engine, on the other hand, is far nicer. Its a lot more responsive than the Hyundais at city speeds, requires fewer down-shifts and manages to feel quite peppy as well. Sure, its not the quietest engine around, but it is a lot smoother than the Eons motor when its revving. It has the nicer gearboxgearshifts are snappy and positive and the clutch action is slightly more progressive than the Eons as well. As a result, its almost difficult to stall the Alto 800, and new drivers will appreciate this. The Eons gearshift isnt too bad, but it requires slightly more effort to slot in the gears.

Neither car is equipped with ABS and their thin, 145-section tyres mean the wheels lock up under panic braking. And both cars have braking systems that are only barely acceptable.

Hyundai Eon ***

Maruti Alto 800 ****

Ride and handling

The Alto 800 rides incredibly well for a small car. Its tall springs and high-profile tyres cope unexpectedly well with almost anything you drive over and the suspension is incredibly silent too. Still, the cars light weight and tiny wheelbase mean it does get thrown off by bigger bumps, and the dinky 12-inch wheels dont help either. Still, it is a whole world ahead of the 800s of old and theres absolutely none of the lumpiness that characterised those cars.

The Eon is not as nice. The suspension is not as well set up and that means theres more vertical movement over bad roads, the suspension isnt as refined or silent as the Altos and the ride is never as settled. That said, the Eons ride is not stiff to the point of being uncomfortable, but you are always aware of exactly what condition the road is in. Like the Alto, the Hyundais small 12-inch wheels also highlight this.

Neither car is particularly exciting to drivethey both have vague steerings, theres not much grip and neither likes being pushed to its limits. But this is absolutely fine, given their brief as city cars. What matters is that both cars, with their light, electrically-assisted power steering, tight turning circles and compact dimensions, are very easy to thread through narrow spaces. Again, the Alto 800 is marginally the nicer of the two to drive in the city. Its steering is less nervous, it feels more calm, comfortable and relaxed and that means its less of a hassle.

Neither is well suited to the highway, however. The Alto moves about a fair bit and doesnt feel comfortable cornering at higher speeds, and the Eons nervous steering and unstable temperament needs even more concentration on a highway. Our adviceif you must drive on the highway with these cars, dont try and keep up with the big boys.

Hyundai Eon ***

Maruti Alto 800 ***

What are they like inside

The Eon is physically bigger than the Altoit is longer, wider, taller and has a longer wheelbase. Despite this, its the Alto that has a bit more room inside. Maruti has worked hard on the interior packaging of its newest car and it showssitting three abreast at the rear is slightly more comfortable than in the Eon and this is down to the space liberated by the Alto 800s thin doorpads. That said, these cars are best used as four-seaters. Both are pretty similar on legroom and headroom at the rear, but both also have relatively small windows and can get a bit claustrophobic. Both cars also have really short seat-backs and no head restraints, so you wont get too much protection from whiplash injuries in the event of a rear collision.

In the Alto, we had problems with the front seats as well. In its quest to stretch the available space in the Alto, Maruti has made a compromisethe front seats are too slim and flat and, as a result, are unsupportive, and their seat-bases are extremely short. This means you start feeling uncomfortable pretty soon into the journey.

The Eons front seats are the opposite of the Altos. They have excellent side support and the seat cushions are nicely padded as well, and this makes the Alto 800 feel very basic in comparison. The Eon also scores on the look and feel of its interiors. The quality of materials used, the fit and finish, and the dashboard design are a few steps above the Altos. Its here that the Eon feels thoroughly modern and much better than the Altos typical 1990s feel. Still, the Alto LXi gets a few splashes of silver trim around the centre console and on the steering wheel, and Maruti has spruced the cabin up considerably with an all new dash.

As for storage space, both have quite a few useful cubbyholesthe Eon gets a nicely scooped out section above the glovebox and a large storage box just ahead of the gearlever. The Alto gets a clever one-litre bottle holder ahead of the gearlever, and a storage slot above the glovebox, which itself is rather big. Shockingly, the Alto only gets a slim, cheap-looking door pocket for the drivers door, while the Eon gets bigger door pockets moulded into both the front doors. Both cars have surprisingly generous boots, but its the Altos that more usable thanks to the low loading lip.

Hyundai Eon ****

Maruti Alto 800 ***

Will they break the bank

The top-spec Alto LXi costs R2.99 lakh, and for that you get front power windows, power steering, air-con and body-coloured bumpers. However, you can forget conveniences like a left-hand-side outside mirror or central locking. Theres no option of ABS either, but Maruti does offer a drivers airbag for R16,000 more.

The Eon costs R3.18 lakh for the similarly equipped Era+ variant. Now this may sound expensive, but Hyundai is currently offering a R9,000 discount and a further R20,000 bonus over the value of your old car if you wish to exchange it for the Eon.

Fuel economy-wise, its the Eon, with its 13.7kpl city figure, thats slightly better than the Alto and its 13.3kpl.

Maruti has the wider service network, although Hyundai isnt far behind. Not that you will have trouble with either of these carsthey both use tried and tested mechanicalsbut in case you do, Hyundais two-year, unlimited-mileage warranty betters Marutis two-year, 40,000km offer.

Hyundai Eon ****

Maruti Alto 800 ****

Our verdict

Its Eons ahead

The Eon makes you feel like you have got a lot more for your money.

If you are looking for nothing more than a basic car, the new Alto 800 does almost everything you ask of it. Its key strengths include strong performance, clever use of space and a comfortable ride. Other Maruti plusses like the hassle-free ownership experience and tried and tested mechanicals helped it score well in our test. Its a tough, dependable, honest little car that is surprisingly well engineered.

The Eon, however, manages to take the game ahead. Sure, it may not ride as well, and it may not be as smooth to drive either, but tolerate these shortcomings and the Eon manages to convince you it is a car thats half a generation ahead. It looks much more attractive, the interiors feel like they are from a higher segment and the seats are much more comfortable too. Here is a car that makes you feel like youve got a lot more than what you paid for and thats exactly why the Eon wins.