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By What are a buyer's options at the entry-level in the four-wheeler market? Anamit Sen finds out
  • Published 24.06.06
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(From top):the Maruti Alto;the Santro Xing the Indica Xeta;

Time was when an Ambassador car cost less than Rs 10,000. A few years later, I remember being an eager young boy trying to persuade my father to buy a brand new Ambassador. He refused on the grounds that Rs 24,000 ? yes, the price had soared quite a bit ? was too much.

Today, an entry-level car costs much more. In fact, several years down the line, my father purchased a Fiat Uno for almost Rs 4.5 lakh. Not that the Uno is an entry-level car, but it is interesting to note that with prices going up, the cost of switching from two-wheels to four has gone up too.

Today, the entry-level mark is pegged at just over Rs 2 lakh and the car that one gets for that sum of money is a Maruti 800. The Maruti 800 made its debut in 1983 and then underwent a model change three years later. This is the car, which is still available today for people opting for more than two wheels. Over the years, it has acquired fuel injection, radial tyres and better suspension, but essentially the 20-year-old design is still soldiering on. Oh yes, the looks have been freshened up quite a bit too, rather in the manner of the Mark One to Four series of Ambassadors.

But we Indians have become a choosy lot with so many more cars to choose from. Of course, every car dealer worth his or her salt has a tie-up with a finance company and even has a representative from that company sharing space with the cars ? all to try and persuade a buyer to buy a model of slightly higher spec than what he or she was really intending to buy.

So, what is available within the Rs 2-lakh to Rs 3-lakh bracket? Naturally, you won’t get a gleaming Bentley or an Audi, but there are a few options. You will also have to forget about amenities like power steering, power windows and air-conditioning. But what you can count on is a car that is technologically sound, reliable and reasonably fuel-efficient.

Going alphabetically, those waiting to buy a Chevrolet will have to wait a little longer as Chevrolet’s Rs 3-lakh car ? the Spark ? will make its appearance at dealers’ showrooms only next year. Similarly, Fiat is out, as is HM. Hyundai has a variant of the Santro Xing ? the XK and this falls in the Rs 2-lakh to Rs 3-lakh bracket. But it is a very basic car that’s been, as companies like to say, “economically priced”.

So, be prepared for manual window winders on the front doors instead of power window buttons. What’s more, central locking, a rear window washer and wipers won’t be part of the goody bag. And yes, prepare to forget about power steering as well. In this case, the steering feels a little heavier than before and it takes a bit of effort to go through the full turning radius thanks to the tyres being radials ? 155/70 R 13. Now while these may be good at improving fuel economy and affording a cushier ride, they are dogs to turn at parking speeds in a car without power steering. In engine terms, the Xing is adequate and one needs to shift gears more often to keep the engine buzzing. All said and done, though, the Santro Xing XK does have a pretty effective air-conditioner.

All of the above could be said to be true of the Maruti Alto as well. The base version does not have power steering or air-conditioning as standard, and the unassisted steering seems heavy. However, there is an LX version of the Alto for a little under Rs 3 lakh that does have an air-conditioning system fitted.

There is a third contender in this price bracket, which is a Tata Motors product. The Indica Xeta GL is closer to the Rs 3-lakh mark, and has a 1.4-litre engine as opposed to 800cc and 1.1-litre engines in the Alto and the Santro respectively. Consequently, the torque figure is the highest of the three ? 12.64kgm as compared to 6.7kgm and 9.8kgm for the Alto and Santro respectively. Also, compared to the Santro Xing and the Maruti Alto, the Indica Xeta is quite stylish. However, this too is short on features like air-conditioning and power steering. Of course, on all these cars there are two options ? have the feature you want installed in the car at the dealer level or go for the model higher up. That of course, takes one out of the entry-level range we’ve been discussing.

So that’s what is available to anybody who doesn’t want a 20-year-old design. But if you’re in the market for a B segment four-wheeler, I would recommend that you wait till the Chevrolet Spark hits Indian shores. After all, the Daewoo Matiz was packed with quite a few features and it is quite likely that the Chevrolet Spark will be similarly equipped.

My first car

APARAJITA AUDDY,
actress

My first car was a cherry red Maruti Omni that I bought back in 1998. And I was absolutely in love with it. I remember as a kid, I used to play with little red buses with my father. He passed away in 1994 and a few years later, when I could afford to buy a car, I bought an Omni that resembled those toy buses I used to play with. I loved driving that car. After a bad accident on the second Hooghly bridge, I gave up driving, but I didn’t let the car go. Also, I get slightly claustrophobic in small cars. In keeping with my personality, I need a large amount of space to be comfortable in. The Omni was good with that. But I eventually had to let it go after a few years. Now I have a comfortable Maruti Versa that’s good for all my needs, but somehow I still feel I used to have a greater emotional attachment with my beloved Omni.