Maruti Suzuki: The OG manufacturer for enthusiasts
Look back twenty years and the enthusiast wasn’t really spoilt for choice when it came to cars that delivered the Thrill of Driving. Same applied to motorsport, with the level of accessibility meaning it could only be enjoyed by the well-heeled few. But before the advent of one-make racing championships and democratisation of turbocharging, there was one manufacturer that really fanned the flames for us petrolheads – Maruti Suzuki.
Maruti Suzuki might normally be known for being the nation’s largest carmaker. But for us enthusiasts, the company is credited for enthusing the enthusiast with its motorsport effort. First came the FISSME racecars (Formula India Single Seater Maruti Engine). Commonly known as Formula Maruti, this idea was the brainchild of the legendary S. Karivardhan, an Indian motorsport icon in his own right, who wanted to offer Indian drivers a stepping stone into motorsport with a racecar that was reliable, quick and most importantly – affordable. When approached by Kari, Maruti gave 35 mechanical kits for the effort, which consisted of a Maruti 800 engine and gearbox. You have to remember this was still in the late '80s, and with many components being imported, giving away these kits effectively meant the loss of 35 production cars. But these Formula Maruti single-seaters that debuted at the Sholavaram races, helped now-established drivers like Narain Kartikeyan, Karun Chandok and Armaan Ebrahim cut their teeth in racing. This wasn’t just a one-trick pony however, with Maruti Suzuki going on to establish its motorsport presence with TSD (Time-Speed-Distance) rallies across the country. Be it the Raid De Himalaya, Desert Storm, the Dakshin Dare or even the relatively straightforward Autoprix series, Maruti was the manufacturer who fuelled the adrenaline amongst motorsport enthusiasts with its full might from the late 90’s and early 2000s.
Though the introduction of a relatively simpler Reliability class was what enticed more participants to take part in these rallies, it was the hardcore Xtreme class that enthralled us enthusiasts, complete with high speeds across all manner of unforgiving terrain and b***s-out driving at its best. It would be years later that other manufacturers looked at their motorsport programs with keener eyes. But even that may seem understated, compared to the unparalleled support that Maruti Suzuki gave the Raid De Himalaya, which continued to traverse across the J&K and Himachal for nearly twenty years.
While TSD rallies made the platform of motorsport more accessible, it also allowed us to see the quality of engineering put into Maruti cars. Perceived quality is a subject up for debate, but the beauty of these cars with their simple mechanicals was that they just kept on going through thick and thin, cementing the tag of reliability. It didn’t matter that you made less power, as the Marutis performed in harsh conditions without skipping a beat (the Ed even won the Raid De Himalaya on his first outing — in an 800cc Alto no less!) No wonder that rally drivers still hold cars like the Esteem, the first-gen Baleno and the Gypsy in high regard even today. Using the crucible of motorsport, Maruti even put its technological prowess to good use, with the factory R&D teams often competing with 4x4 prototypes of their roadgoing cars. No better way of putting the mechanicals and dynamics of a car through their paces, other than in the cut and thrust of a motorsport event.
It's rivals may have gotten more appealing with trendier appearances or a longer features list, but I continue to maintain that Maruti makes the best small capacity nat-asp engines, with their eager to rev nature and the grunt on offer.
And if you do feel bothered by the performance deficit, there are plenty of bolt-on performance parts available for a Maruti Suzuki. For the most part, Marutis are accessible. A used Baleno or a Swift is a bargain to pick up, and the dough you save can be put to better use, making it go much faster. The tuning potential for Marutis is great, with turbocharged Swifts being a common sight at drag meets across the nation.
The company’s road cars have always offered a shot in the arm to the enthusiast. For instance, the Maruti 800 came with a modest 796cc engine making 39bhp. Which might not sound much by today’s standards; but the 800 weighed just shy of 600kgs, around half the weight of its contemporary, the Hindustan Ambassador. That lightness translated to better performance, with the 800 feeling agile and quick, compared to the much heavier Ambassador that lumbered along. And while a Maruti never came with stratospheric power figures, the characteristic trait of lightness made its future cars like the Zen, the Baleno and even the Swift a joy to drive. Okay, times have changed and you do wish the cars had a bit more heft, which would’ve translated to making them more surefooted at highway speeds. But then again, Marutis are perfect for urban environments where owners are likely to use them for the most part.
When you think about the number of proper driver’s cars in India, the number is still relatively small compared to the might of the plain-Jane A to B machines, reeking of mass consumerism. But even with my enthusiast hat on, I cannot say that the same is completely true about Maruti Suzuki. For most of us, Marutis have signified freedom. Sitting in your dad’s car while barely being able to peer over the steering wheel, your first driving lesson, the first set of wheels – for us Indian enthusiasts, more often than not - these were Marutis. And until Volkswagen arrived with its motorsport setup to our shores, Maruti Suzuki was arguably the most proactive company in Indian motorsport.
There was even the short-lived Baleno RS that had so much potential left unrealised, much like the saga of the Tata JTP twins. It’s a crying shame that it's not around today, given the number of enthusiasts that queue up just to buy the Polo GT despite its premium over the competition. And I admit it is too far a stretch to rubbish the dynamic capability of the Polo over the Baleno RS, but given the lightness and the turbocharged engine that came in the Baleno, the RS would likely have found its fair share of takers when foisted upon buyers looking for go-faster hatchbacks.
Surely the online keyboard warriors would feel differently. But then again it's not Twitter fingers who are buying cars – enthusiasts do. And when it comes to putting your own pen to paper, we often expect the cars we buy to fit in our lives without causing much disarray. That is where you have to hand it to Maruti Suzuki. The cars they sell are not positioned as driver’s cars, and it is obvious that the Polo is much more accomplished than a Swift (albeit with price tag to match). But when you consider the smiles per mile quotient of a Maruti Suzuki, backed by the history of its motorsport effort, I’m glad that my Thrill of Driving keychain adores a set of Maruti Suzuki keys.