The Olympics may be just around the corner and ideals like faster, higher and stronger may hold sway at the games, but here in the automotive world, smaller lighter and more efficient are the current buzz words. And it’s all got to do will the absurdly high fuel prices and increased focus on curbing pollution. So when Maruti set out to design and plan its mould-breaking new Ertiga, it’s these words that sat at the top of the whiteboard in the engineering department. And that led directly to this car, the new, and quite radical for India, Swift-based seven-seat people-mover; India’s centaur – it’s half car, half beast-of-burden – crack open a new segment all on its own? Can it appeal to a new breed of car buyers looking for a balance of practicality and appeal? It’s unknown territory the Ertiga has driven into.
IN THE DNA
MPVs differ from other types of cars at a fundamental level. Unlike saloons, SUVs or even hatchbacks, where the visual appeal of the car is paramount, its’ space, practicality and seat comfort that are important here. Still, this is a decent looking car. It’s easily identifiable as a Maruti, for a start, and the slot-like grille and bulging bonnet are very Ritz-like. The stylish bits that make it stand out are the huge peeled-back headlights, the gaping air dam and the simply massive wheel arches that give it quite a planted look. However, they are so large that they make the reasonably wide 185/65 R15 tyres, sat in their massive enclosures, look anaemic. Sadly, tail-end styling is not half as interesting, and the rear looks all too generic, the tail-lamps not making much of a statement either. On a practical note though, the tailgate does extend quite low for easy loading.
Under the skin, the Ertiga is based on an extended swift platform, which means it uses a modern car-like monocoque chassis as opposed to the more rudimentary body-on-ladder-frame construction. Overall length is 415mm more than a swift, the wheelbase has been stretched to 2740mm, only a shade shorter than the Innova’s, and the front and rear axles sit a further 310mm apart. Engineers are Maruti admitted that the long wheelbase of the Ertiga made it really difficult to achieve the levels of stiffness sought in the body, and so they gave this car extra gusseting, a corrugated roof and sturdier box-steel section around the rear wheel arches. Interestingly, however, the Ertiga weighs just 155kg more than the Swift and in-fact is in fact 10kg less than the SX4 with the same diesel engine.
SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER
On the inside, Maruti and Suzuki engineers have strived hard to make the best use of the Ertiga’s relatively small footprint. So the cabin has been pushed as far forward as possible. The wheel are positioned at the extremities and the fuel tank has been moved forward under the middle-row seat. All these measures have resulted in a cabin that is very roomy and far more useable than the exterior dimensions suggest. In fact the brilliance of the Ertiga lies in its packaging.
Let’s start at the front. There is good space here, and the beige and light grey plastics enhance the feeling of airiness. The neat dashboard is a straight lift from the new Swift Dzire, so the quality of materials is good, fit and finish are consistent and even the supportive front seats come from the Dzire. You are, however, likely to miss the convenience of climate control, which is curiously not offered even on the top Z variants. Another grouse is that the thick A-pillar does hamper visibility at crossroads. There is, however, a fair amount of storage for smaller items, including six bottle holders and a neat pop-out cupholder for the front passenger. What’s slightly disappointing is the slim door pockets and the small glovebox.
While the Ertiga stands taller than a typical hatchback or saloon, its low floor means you don’t need to trek your way up into the cabin; something which is sure to find favour with elderly and sari-clad occupants. Aiding ingress and egress to the middle-and sari-clad occupants. Aiding ingress and egress to the middle – and last-row seats are the large rear doors that go well past the seats on the second row and open really wide.
The middle row is undeniably one of the Ertiga’s highlights. It splits 60:40, and like the front seats, sildes an amazing 240mm fore and aft on its rails. With the middle-row seats pushed all the way back, there is Skoda Super-rivalling legroom here. The backrest can be reclined, if you want to relax a bit, and the view out of the massive windows is really special. The seats are nice and soft with good back and thigh support and the flat seat and low centre tunnel also makes it conducive to travel three abreast. V and Z spec cars also get twin ACs.
Even better is the fact that the third row is really useable, even by full sized adults – remember this car is shorter than an SX4! Pulling on a single lever is all that’s needed to fold the middle seat backrest and it even slides forward to help you access the third row. However, getting in and out isn’t as straightforward, and requires some amount of contortion. Once inside you’ll find the seating position is not as knees-up as on many third rows, and comfort levels are quite acceptable. That said, the short seat squab does compromise thigh support. You do, however, get good back and shoulder support, headroom, is fairly good and the seats get adjustable headrests too.
With all seats up, there is just about enough space to stow two small bags. You can fold the last row seats flat but to do so, the middle row needs to be moved forward, which subsequently eats into legroom. Still the seats split (but do not flip) and you can fold both rows, allowing you to go from minivan to cargo van if the need arises.
Market dynamics may suggest otherwise, but Maruti firmly believes petrol are here to stay and has used the Ertiga to debut its latest 373cc version of the K-series engine, the K14B. The most powerful iteration of this engine family develops 93.7bhp at 6000rpm, with torque increased to 13.26kgm at 4000rpm. You also get variable valve timing on the intake bank.
Fire up the motor and the engine immediately impresses with a smooth idle (though you can feel a slight thrum at the pedals). The engine’s initial responses are good and the Ertiga pulls forward smartly even on small throttle openings. As you go faster, the build-up of power slows down slightly, especially in the mid-range, a trait shared with the smaller 1.2-litre K12 engine. So, while performance is quite strong, this is not a vehicle for the boy racers. 60kph comes up in 5.24 seconds and 100kph takes 12.39sec and that means the Ertiga is nearly as quick as the petrol Volkswagen Vento. Hold on to a gear and the engine will also happily rev to 6200rpm, at which point it remains smooth but gets quite vocal. In-town driveability is good thanks to the engine’s broad spread of torque; the light clutch and the slick-shifting five-speed gearbox make it even nicer to drive in traffic. An ARAI-tested 16.02kpl fuel economy figure also points to good efficiency. But those who want to stretch their fuel money further should wait for the seven-seat CNG variant which is in the works.
The other engine on offer is the familiar 1.3-litre Fiat-sourced 88.8bhp DDiS turbo-diesel that also does duty on the SX4. The engine settles into a quiet enough idle and it revs sweetly too, though this is certainly not the most refined of diesels. It’s when you step on the pedal however that a more serious and familiar problem, a lack of bottom-end responsiveness, asserts itself. The variable-geometry turbos’s punch seems to be concentrated above 200rpm and this makes the Ertiga sluggish in typical city traffic, worse so if you are travelling with a full complement of passengers. Maruti has shortened gearing compared to the SX4 to work around the turbo lag, but it still feels lazy at low revs. Once the turbo kicks in however, there is a strong surge of power accompanied by some torque steer and wheelspin. The trick is to keep the engine in the mid-range to ride the turbo wave. The engine is quite free-revving though and this makes keeping it on the boil in traffic easier. And what makes city driving quite acceptable is the light clutch and sweet-shifting gearbox. However, cruising at highway speeds is where this engine feels most comfortable.
The Ertiga cabin also isn’t as quiet as a midsize saloon’s and that has to do with the MPV’s cab-forward design and large, hollow drum-like cabin that amplifies any noise. To minimize this, the engine bay has been extensively layered with sound-deadening material, but with the passenger compartment closer to the engine bay, noise does get past the firewall.
THE RIDE CHOICE
The Ertiga is actually a car in the shape of a utility vehicle, so it’s understandably very car-like to drive, an advantage over its more utilitarian and beastly rivals. The electrically-powered steering is light at city speeds, manoeuvrability is good and low-speed ride is very absorbent. You can feel the chassis stiffness on bad patches of road, there is no judder or shake as experience on other MPVs and the suspension also works quite silently.
It’s when you up the pace that there is some pitching on undulations as well as a tendency to float over small dips and crests. Some of this is down to the high ground clearance of 185mm. And while the Ertiga is not built to dive into corners, the Swift platform does lend it tidy handling. The levels of grip are quite predictable, body roll is well contained and the general feeling of control is very reassuring. The steering may not be very rich in feel but it weighs up well as you get faster. Of more interest to the average buyer is the good straight-line stability, which stems from the Ertiga’s long wheelbase. Save for the base petrol model, all variants get ABS and the front disc and rear drum combo work well to rein in speeds.
THE FINAL SAY
The Ertiga is large inside and, at the same time, not so large on the outside, which is sure to appeal to buyers who find the current crop of MPVs a bit too unwieldy, Furthering its appeal is the way it blends MPV versatility with regular saloon-car ease of use. And the smart car-like cabin is also a genuinely nice place to be. In many ways, the Ertiga is the ideal Indian family car. While it may lack the status of a three-box saloon, the killer pricing makes it hard to not recommend it over many mid-sizers. Maruti’s own Swift Dzire and SX4 included. And that speaks volumes about how good Maruti’s first MPV is.
The trouble for buyers is deciding which variant to choose – petrol or diesel? The diesel is more expensive (and has its flaws, most notably its weak bottom end), but apart from this and the steeper prices that start at Rs 7.30 lakh and go upto Rs. 8.45 lakh for the fully-loaded version, this is certainly likely to be the favourite, especially since running costs weigh in so heavily these days. However, if your travel is restricted to short runs, the petrol makes a very strong case for itself. And that’s not only because of the responsive petrol motor which makes it easier to drive in town than the diesel. Spec-for-spec the petrol models also costs between Rs 1.15-1.41 lakh less than the diesel model and at Rs 7.3 lakh for a fully–loaded petrol Ertiga sounds like a deal that’s just too good to resist. And there’s even a CNG version on the way. Maruti’s Ertiga, it appears, has the potential to set a new benchmark. It really is that good.