The Baleno RS has arrived as a landmark offering for Maruti Suzuki since it is also a debut of the brand’s first turbocharged petrol motor – a 1-litre, three cylinder unit which shows a lot of promise. For a brand so deeply rooted in diesel power and efficiency, this is a big deal. However, some would say Maruti is simply playing catch-up to the Germans and the Italians (Read: VW Polo GT TSI and Fiat Punto Abarth) in the still-nascent field of affordable hot hatchbacks.
It isn’t common for a mainstream hatch to deliver on speed, practicality and efficiency in equal measure, but the Baleno RS has that specific brief nailed. More on that later though. Coming back to the heart of the matter, in a few years this new turbocharged engine will certainly replace the existing 1.2-litre K Series NA motor. We got acquainted with it earlier this year when we drove the Baleno RS at the BIC, coming away impressed overall. However, now it’s time to gauge the car’s real-world credentials and limitations through a full road test treatment.
Design and Style
Interestingly, the Baleno RS’ styling is conservative and covert as opposed to Maruti’s previous pseudo-RS vehicles with loud paint schemes and over-the-top bodywork. This discretion may not be in line the brand’s tradition, but it does ensure that car will deliver during the ever so frequent traffic light grand prix and also melt into the crowd afterwards in case the cops arrive at the scene. In terms of cosmetic add-ons over the regular Baleno 1.2, there’s a slightly different grille upfront and at the back, a racier-looking rear bumper and the RS emblem.
Moving onto the sides, you will notice that the alloy wheels come from the standard car but are finished in glossy black. Maruti, in fact, has used plenty of trim pieces in black to reflect a meaner, more purposeful stance than the standard car. Bits like the front bumper insert, A and B pillar and bottom half of the rear bumper are all finished in black. Finally, there’s the tastefully executed body kit – including the front lip, side and rear skirts – which goes great with some of the body colour options on offer.
All in all, the subtle body kit, blacked out trim pieces and revised bumpers are the only signs this Baleno has something special lurking beneath; although we are hardly complaining. In fact, this discreet treatment goes well with the Baleno’s well-balanced proportions and especially with that quirky rear-end design.
The interior of the Baleno RS is somewhat disappointing since it’s essentially the same as a regular car. Oddly enough, there is not a single distinguishing element (besides RS branded floor mats) in here that hints towards the go-faster nature of this hatch. In terms of packaging, everything from the dash design, the layout and seat upholstery is a familiar affair. Fortunately, the dashboard is smartly designed and is unlike any other Maruti on sale. Plastic quality remains good for the segment, with fit and finish similarly ranked although we would like to add that some plastics on the door panel and the centre stack do appear shiny and a little hard. Overall, the fit and finish is decent but it cannot match the likes of Hyundai i20 and even the VW Polo when it comes to solidity.
The Baleno’s multicolour instrument cluster has impressed us earlier and in the RS, the white and blue coloured unit stands out against the vast spread of greys and blacks. The 4.2-inch colour display offers a ton of driver-related info including outside temperature, two trip meters, average fuel economy, DTE, gearshift indicator and even power/torque readout which is arguably gimmicky.
Being a large hatchback, the cabin can be deemed cosy for four full sized adults and squeezing in a fifth one isn’t a hassle either. As expected, visibility up front is good thanks to the low-set dash while the A pillar isn’t too thick either. What’s not so impressive though is the view from the rear – firstly, the C pillar is rather chunky and the combination of a small rear glass and large headrests mean that reversing the RS isn’t always going to be effortless. As for space and comfort, both remain unchanged for the Baleno RS – finding the ideal driving position is easy thanks to various degrees of adjustability for the steering (reach and rake), seatbelt (height) and the seat. The seat’s back has sufficient padding, however, the side bolsters are a bit too soft to hold you firmly in place.
Comfort at the rear is even more impressive and a big plus over the RS’ arch rival – the Polo GT TSI. The bench itself is hugely accommodating and is perfectly angled, too. Similarly, there’s a great deal of legroom and good under-thigh support since the seat is set fairly high. What’s not so great is the fact that the bench is flat with hardly any contours, and therefore lacks adequate lateral support.
The large body allows for impressive boot capacity. At 339-litres, the Baleno RS can pack in more luggage than all its peers – both the GT TSI and the Punto Abarth come with a 280-litre boot.
Safety and Equipment
The Baleno RS can only be had in the top-spec Alpha trim which means you get all the bells and whistles that buyers have come to expect in a car this large. There’s daytime running lights with LEDs, projector headlights, a touchscreen infotainment system with smartphone mirroring, climate control and some more.
The touchscreen infotainment system, also seen in the Ciaz and the Vitara Brezza, has a vibrant UI and good connectivity options including Apple’s CarPlay. Its functionality is good but it can be a little cumbersome especially when it comes to streaming music through media devices.
As for safety, the RS gets disc brakes all-around as standard, besides ABS, EBD and dual airbags. It also gets automatic headlamps, auto dimming IRVM, reverse parking sensors and a camera.
Engine, Performance and Braking
Let’s get past the headlines first. The 998cc, three-cylinder BoosterJet engine makes 101bhp at 5,500rpm and 150Nm of torque between 1,700 and 4,500rpm. Maruti says it makes 20 per cent more power and 30 per cent more torque than the 1.2 litre naturally aspirated unit. Besides making more power, the turbocharger also helps in maintaining good fuel efficiency by controlling the waste-gate valve that remains shut under heavy throttle to provide more boost pressure, and opens during normal driving to reduce pumping loss. The valve operation helps in maintaining a good balance between performance and efficiency.
The compact engine surely makes good use of forced induction, helping the RS in darting around town with ease. Progress from standstill is solid and judder-free, followed by a strong wall of torque, beginning from 2,500rpm. This decent shove then continues all the way to around 5,000rpm thereby making the mid-range a particularly strong suite of this engine. Sure, the Baleno RS isn’t ultra-fast but it is responsive enough to feel like fun. Doing a solid job supporting the motor is the smooth-shifting 5-speed manual that fortunately comes with a light clutch. The clutch pedal, in fact, is really progressive and the gearshifts itself are fairly slick and a lot better than the Punto Abarth’s box which operates with a rubbery feel.
The Baleno RS proved to be surprisingly quick in our acceleration tests. The 0-100kmph sprint time of just 9.69 seconds is quick in anyone’s books but the turbo engine’s rather relaxed nature makes it feel unhurried; it’s mainly because of the lack of perceptible lag and a muted exhaust note. The RS is plenty quick even above triple digit speeds, hitting 150kmph from standstill in 23.56 seconds. How about roll-on acceleration, you might ask? In that case the RS does 20-80kmph in third in 9.36 seconds and 40-100kmph in fourth in 12.90 seconds, making it really responsive in-gear, thanks to the midrange grunt and lack of turbo lag. Interestingly, in-gear the Baleno RS is one of the quickest manual vehicles we have ever tested.
The added pair of disc brakes at the rear has certainly upped the braking performance – stopping power is strong and the RS sticks true to its line despite some front-end dive. However, it could do with a little more of pedal feel; there’s a tiny bit of softness to the pedal initially before the all-round discs set up bites down hard.
Ride and Handling
Those familiar with the regular Baleno (or even the Brezza, for that matter) will recognise similarities in the way the RS rides over different surfaces. The low speed ride borders slightly on the firmer side though we would like to add that it is generally composed over moderately broken roads. Although you don’t feel it, you can hear the suspension working over pot holes and larger road joints. Similarly, at higher speeds the car will let you know about bumps and imperfections, but never skip or jump around unnervingly. That said, the Baleno’s inherent lightness plays spoilsport when you are doing serious speeds and there are crosswinds; it tends to deviate from its lane and requires steering corrections.
Price and Fuel Economy
At Rs 9.19 lakh (ex-showroom, Mumbai), the Baleno RS is not exactly a performance bargain but it does come with Maruti’s mammoth after sales and service support. In comparison, the less spacious but equally quick VW Polo GT TSI costs around Rs 20,000 more and comes with the convenience of an automatic gearbox, not to mention a super quick dual-clutch unit.
The Baleno RS’ lightweight and superb drivability help the car big time when it comes to the all-important fuel economy. In our tests, the RS managed 12.31kmpl in the city and 15.64kmpl on the highway, which is commendable for a turbocharged petrol hatchback.
There is a lot to like about the Baleno RS. It’s powerful, hugely spacious and by all means, a genuinely affordable performance hatch. The fact that it’s fairly efficient and backed by the most trusted brand in the business also helps its cause. However, it’s somewhat disappointing that Maruti hasn’t worked on the interior one bit and done little to spruce up the exterior look.
So if you are after the boy racer looks and want your performance hatch to stand out, perhaps the Fiat Abarth Punto is a better choice but be prepared to fork out at least Rs 80,000 extra for it. As it stands, the Baleno RS is an understated performance hatch but in the larger scheme of things, an accomplished all-rounder, indeed.