Clever carmakers have been working hard to milk what the government defines as a ‘small car’ to get the benefit of much lower costs (by way of a reduced rate of excise duty). While the ‘small car’ or sub-4-meter rule was intended to promote hatchback, that hasn’t stopped carmakers from making sub-4-metre derivatives out of every possible body style. A common approach for manufacturers is to pick a hatchback from their stable and cement a relatively small boot on the rear, keeping the length just shy of the magic four-metre mark. It’s a formula that has worked brilliantly for the Indigo (which pioneered the segment), the Dzire and, more recently, Honda’s Amaze. Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) hopes it will work for the Verito Vibe too. M&M has followed the reverse route by creating a hatchback-like two-box derivative of its large Verito saloon and it’s quite different from anything else out there. It does look quirky and the opposite ends of the car are completely out of sync with each other. The looks could grow on you but you can’t get away from the incongruent design. By creating a unique two-box saloon’, the rear design philosophy seems to overlap that of a compact saloon and a hatchback.
Visually, the rear looks like a traditional hatchback, until you open the boot lid. Instead of the whole tailgate swinging open, only the metallic section underneath the glass area flips up to reveal a loading aperture, akin to a saloon. This put us in a quandary as to which body style the Vibe belongs to – is it a hatch or a saloon, or both? So we thought it best to see how it fares against one from either category. And what better cars to benchmark it against than the hottest-selling cars in their respective segments, the Maruti Swift and its booted brother, the Dzire?
What’s unique to this compare is that each car has a different kind of boot, making it an interesting place to start. Approach the Vibe from the rear and your eyes will automatically fix themselves on the sharply raked rear windscreen and large pillar-mounted tail-lights, which look inspired by the Ford Focus. The LED lights in the rear (a segment first) give it a sporty appeal. But go past the audacious rear design and pop open the stubby boot-lid, and the limitations become quite obvious. On one hand, at 330 litres, the Vibe offers a cavernous boot by hatchback standards (it’s even larger than the Dzire’s 316-litre boot), but the narrow loading aperture makes getting larger bags in a hassle. The high loading lip doesn’t make the already cumbersome job any easier, and unlike a traditional hatchback, the rear seats don’t flip forward. This limits flexibility and further dents practicality. The reason for the Vibe’s rather odd boot design finally boils down to costs. To engineer a traditional tailgate hinged at the top with the rear screen opening on a pair of gas-filled struts is difficult and costly. With a fixed glass, which doesn’t compromise torsional rigidity, Mahindra has taken an easier approach, but this has definitely led to limitations in a very key area of the car.
Coming to the Suzuki Swift, if you regularly carry luggage, its petite 204-litre boot won’t work for you and it’s best you look elsewhere. However, you do get the flexibility of folding rear seats that liberate vast amounts of luggage space-handy for occasional airport trips. Bring the Dzire into this battle of the boots and the Vibe’s boot trumps it by theoretically swallowing more volume. Also, like the Vibe, the Dzire’s rear bench doesn’t fold forward. However, the Dzire’s significantly larger loading aperture make it easier to squeeze more bags, which gives it the most useable boot of the lot.
ON THE INSIDE
Mahindra’s quasi-hatchback, however, has other strengths which are passed down from the full-sized Verito saloon. Most obvious is the Vibe’s spacious cabin that is identical to the Verito’s and this means sufficient room for five, full-size adults. The rear bench is particularly wide and generous enough to make sitting three abreast pretty comfortable – a full-sized centre head restraint for the middle passenger proudly endorses this. But apart from class-leading space, the Vibe’s cabin isn’t exactly spectacular. In terms of ergonomics, the Vibe is nowhere as accomplished as the Swift sibling. For example, the centre console sits a bit low so, to operate the 2-DIN audio system and the air-con controls, you have to take your eyes off the road. Taller drivers will rue the non-adjustable steering wheel, which also sits a little too low, while shorter drivers will miss the seat height adjust. On the other hand, both the Swifts come with adjustable steerings that have enough of travel to make most drivers easily find a comfortable driving position. Other flaws in the Vibe include patchy cabin quality like hard plastics and sloppy stitching on the seats, which feel very low rent against the comparatively plush cabins of the duo from Maruti. The fact is that the Vibe’s interiors just lack the important feel-good factor that the swift and the Dzire exude in abundance. Right from the crisply designed dials, the soft and comfortable front seats to the posh-looking centre console, the latters’ cabins feel a lot better screwed together and a more special place to be in. True, neither of the Suzukis are anywhere near as spacious as the Vibe, but it’s not that they are cramped either.
Between the Swift and the Dzire, the prime difference on the inside is that the former has an all-black cabin while the latter boasts a dual tone colour scheme of black and beige. This mixture of tones not only breaks the monotony on the facia but also lends an airy feel to the Dzire’s cabin. Another slight but important advantage the Dzire has over the Swift is in the rear seat; the Suzuki saloon gets an arm rest and a seat back that is slightly more reclined for better comfort.
ON THE MOVE
You can’t quibble about the way the Vibe drives in the city. Although the spec sheet doesn’t look exciting the 64bhp 1.5-litre DCi Renault diesel engine is largely tractable, resulting in great driveability. Mumbai’s notorious slow-moving traffic saw engine is largely tractable, resulting in great drivability. Mumbai’s notorious slow-moving traffic saw the Swifts being shifted down to even first gear at times, whiel the Vibe’s strong low-end grunt could cajole the car to pull itself from as low as 20kph in third. The 8-valve Renault engine starts delivering useable power from 1200rpm and continues in a linear fashion till about 3000rpm, after which it loses breath as it approaches the redline. This engine works best with early upshifts to keep the tacho needle in the 1400-2500rpm comfort zone. While fewer downshifts in the city aid in a comfortable drive, on faster roads the lack of outright horsepower requires you to work the gearbox and plan ahead for your overtaking manoeuvres.
Swift to the Swifts and you realise it’s quite the opposite scenario with these twins. The 1.3-litre Multijet loves to be revved and has a 5000rpm redline, which is quite high for a budge diesel car. However, lower down the rev range, this engine acts particularly sluggish and power starts trickling in only at 1800rpm, after which the engine suddenly wakes up. This significant turbo lag makes the Swifts more difficult to pilot in stop-and-go city traffic than the Vibe. But on roads where traffic flows relatively freely, the strong mid-range of this engine lets you draw on a wave of torque, making these cars a lot more fun to drive than the modestly powered Mahindra.
Also, the gears click nicely in their slots and are a joy to use. And although the Varito Vibe’s gearbox is quite smooth too, it just lacks the precision of the Suzuki gearbox.
As the Vibe’s underpinnings are identical to the Verito’s, it inherits the same fantastic ride quality that has been widely appreciated in the saloon. With lashing rains already eating through the tarmac on Mumbai’s roads, the ubiquitous potholes gave us an opportunity to test how well this trio soaks up rough roads. The Verito Vibe sailed through the bad patches of road with aplomb, its suspension silently absorbing almost anything the city roads had in store for it. Just like in the Verito, passengers are treated to a pillow-soft ride that helps make this one of the most relaxing cars to be in this side of the Rs 10-lakh mark. It is only when you drive rather quickly over sharp edges that the suspension allows the bumps to filter into the cabin, which is a lot more than what can be said of the swift’s ability to deal with the same undulations. Although the Marutis are more than adequate in terms of their ride quality, when compared to the Vibe’s impressively pliant nature, they clearly fall short. Out of the two swift, it’s the three-box Dzire that has the slight edge over its hatch, owing to its mildly softer suspension setup at the rear. On the move, all the three cars have a light steering wheel but the Vibe’s power steering feels a bit laborious at parking speeds. Round the bends, the Mahindra grips well and the steering, although not razor sharp, inspires confidence. The Swifts, on the other hand, tackle the twisty sections with more precision and the Swift hatchback’s slightly firmer rear suspension makes it feel a bit more sorted out in the corners than its saloon sibling.
The Vibe is about as fuel-efficient as the bigger Verito, which comes as no surprise since both siblings use the same mechanicals. The Vibe’s 15kg weight increase over the Verito doesn’t seem to have had any impact on fuel economy; in fact, it’s marginally better in the city. The torquey and responsive Renault 1.5-litre doesn’t call for too much gear-changing and the engine, which works best at low revs, is great for efficiency. The Vibe returned 13.7kpl in our city cycle and 19.3kpl on the highway, which is pretty good for such a large car. More impressive, however, is the range. With a large 50-litre tank, the Vibe can devour a continent between fill-ups.
Again, the Suzukis have practically the same fuel consumption figures. With their smaller 1.3-litre Multijet engines and lower kerb weights, they have a fuel efficiency advantage over the Vibe, but not by a great marign. The Fiat-sourced diesel motor’s lack of low-end torque makes you work the engine harder, which offsets some of the gains. However, with an identical 14.6kpl in the city, and 19.5kpl and 19.8kpl on the Highway for the Swift and Dzire respectively, their efficiency is pretty admirable by any standard.
There’s no doubt that Mahindra has created a more vibrant-looking version of the boxy Verito saloon, but the Vibe’s styling is still somewhat unconventional and is sure to split opinion. It clearly has its strengths and puts up a decent fight against the Suzukis. Superb ride comfort, especially on bad roads, effortless cruising (the long range helps) and sheer interior space are its strong points, with both the Dzire and Swift being clearly beaten in these parameters. But apart from that, there isn’t really much that would make the quasi-hatch pose a greater threat to this duo than its three-box sibling did. With a starting price of Rs 6.55 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) for the scantily equipped base trim, the Swift and Dzire in equivalent levels of trim are significantly more expensive than the Vibe. But what you pay for here is the peace of mind of Maruti ownership and the more premium feel these two cars offer.
Although both Marutis appear very alike, they in fact are quite different and will appeal to totally different consumers. While the Swift has an air of youthfulness to it with its superior looks, the miniscule luggage space (smaller even than its predecessor’s boot) and slighter smaller rear cabin dent its practicality. On the other hand, the Dzire isn’t as good a looker as its bootless counterpart, but with a considerable amount of boot space, seemingly airier interiors and a more comfortable rear bench, one can learn to overlook the oddly truncated rear design. Of the three, it’s the one we would pick, and when you consider that the Dzire created history by becoming India’s best-seling car last month, this victory comes as no surprise.