Altroz vs Baleno vs Elite i20 vs Polo | Premium hatchback comparo
It has been ages since my first and only time behind the ’wheel of the Tata Altroz, and it’s not like I was caught up with big V8s and didn’t bother asking for one. First, of course, Tata Motors wanted us to wait till they announced prices. Then their supplier’s warehouse got gutted and cars got stuck on the line without headlamps. Then we got busy with the Auto Expo. And then the pandemic struck and everything ground to a halt.
On the design front
Seven months since I first sampled the Altroz on arrow-straight roads around Jaisalmer and we’ve finally got our hands on another one, and I must say it still looks fantastic. It hasn’t aged one bit, helped by the fact that I haven’t seen a single one on the road, so the novelty factor remains strong. That slim, thrusting nose; the sliver of chrome framing the headlamps; the blacked-out window line that gives it the impression of a rising shoulder line; the blacked-out roof flowing into the tailgate; the door handles in the C-pillars; the muscle in the arches; it really is a very good looking car. And it will continue to turn heads even when the new i20 hits our roads very soon.
Of course, you’ve seen images of Hyundai’s new i20 that is just a month or two away — it’s all over social media. And while not as polarising as the Creta, well, it isn’t going to be universally loved like the Altroz. Anyway, that’s a topic for later — we still have this Elite i20 and it doesn’t look half bad, does it? It’s still pleasing to the eye and, more importantly, has good proportions. In fact, the wheel arch gaps are better resolved than on the Altroz, as are the panel gaps. Look closely at the Tata and you will not notice gaping gaps but you will notice inconsistencies in the gaps.
As for the Polo, there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said before. Yes, it is a ten-year-old car. Yes, it is way too familiar. And yes, it has aged remarkably well.
The Baleno you see here is before the BS6 facelift that has sharpened up the nose with a new bumper, projector headlamps, wider grille and new alloys. It also gets an uprated engine with the power up by 7bhp thanks to the SVHS mild-hybrid system that also includes automatic stop-start, brake energy regeneration which is then used to torque-fill, and better fuel efficiency too. We will have a test of that soon, but we had to have a Baleno in this test and so borrowed a friend’s mum’s car. After all a comparison of premium hatches would be woefully incomplete without the car everybody is buying.
Engines and performance
Sticking to the engines, I must highlight that both the Baleno and Polo no longer get diesels. The Baleno sticks with the 1.2-litre K12B 4-cylinder with and without SVHS and it is the former we have here on test — a wonderfully refined motor. The refinement, silence, absolute lack of vibrations and smooth power delivery does the hard-earned reputation of Japanese engines proud. At a gentle cruise you cannot hear the powertrain at all, and this particular example is mated to a CVT gearbox that is a delight for pottering around in the city. It is such an easy, undemanding car to drive at eight-tenths. Great visibility, good driving position, lots of space, wide and supportive driver’s seat, spot-on ergonomics, no wonder our friend’s mum swears by it. Push it though and there’s a pronounced rubber-band effect from the CVT, and because the engine is revving its head off the noise levels are rather alarming.
On paper this is the least powerful in this test but because it is also the lightest — by a fair margin! — it doesn’t feel underpowered. I suspect with SVHS the Baleno will be even quicker and, with experience, I know the manual gearbox will make it great fun to cane the engine.
It is the i20’s 1.2-litre mill that you could term dated. Refinement is great but it doesn’t rev as eagerly as the Baleno, nor is it as powerful. But then again there’s a turbo-engine coming in the new i20 and that will turn the tables around as far as the fun factor goes.
If you’re looking for fun though you have only one option and that is the Polo TSI. This is the only turbocharged petrol motor in this segment (the Baleno RS wasn’t upgraded for the BS6 era) and with 108bhp it kicks out over 20 horses more than its rivals. That’s a massive advantage, which is further cemented by 50 per cent more torque than the other petrols — which makes it an absolute delight. At idle and low revs, you can feel that irregular idle and thrum so unique to 3-cylinder engines, and it is on the noisy side, but floor it and you won’t care at all. Not only does it have a rapid turn of speed (0-100kmph in just under 10 seconds) but get it past 2000-2200rpm and there’s a wave of torque that’s intoxicating. It is not just the most fun to drive in this test, it is the most fun to drive by a country mile.
As for the Altroz, the version we have on test here is the diesel. I dug through my notes on the petrol (seven months is long enough to forget a few things) and turns out this 1.5-litre 4-cylinder diesel is more powerful, considerably more torquey and scores higher on refinement than the 3-cylinder 1.2 petrol. In fact, on my first drive I did say that the diesel is the engine to opt for, particularly since the petrol ran out of steam way too early on Jaisalmer’s empty and endless roads. This diesel is Tata Motors’ own engine, BS6 has killed off Fiat’s 1.3 Multijet, and the torque makes overtaking easier on the highway. The only downside to the engine is the lethargic throttle response — stomp on the accelerator and it counts down from three before responding. Otherwise the motor has the juice to push the chassis. Which is rather good.
Ride and handling
Tata motors have always delivered cars that ride and handle extremely well and the Altroz builds on that reputation. It rides like a far bigger and far more grown-up car, smothering bumps and filtering out road shocks. Of all the cars here, the Altroz is the least unsettled by bad roads, and over smaller speed breakers you do not even need to slow down. In keeping with trends this new Alfa-arc platform has been extensively lightened but it isn’t a feather-weight like the Baleno and that makes it feel more planted, less flighty, and less eager at transmitting every single road ripple and undulation into the cabin.
The handling is also surefooted, it grips well and there’s not much body roll. In fact, the Polo has more body roll, but the Polo also feels more involving, thanks to steering than isn’t as light or lifeless as the Altroz’s.
In the city or during tight manoeuvres, the Polo does feel like it has an overly heavy steering but that steering weight is what delivers oodles of confidence when you pick up speed (which the Polo does, so easily). The chassis gives the Polo a planted, solid stance that fills you with confidence, and the very high torsional rigidity allows for softer suspension settings that enables a good ride too. Throw it into bends and there is plenty of body roll but at the same time it also has the most cornering grip and the best feedback and sensations through the steering wheel. As for the i20, the ride is on the firmer side and is nowhere as compliant as the Altroz. The steering too is very light and completely lacking in feel which means you don’t get as much confidence to push it through corners. Though when you do push it, the grip levels are surprisingly good.
This is one area where the Baleno does not shine. The example we have here is on 15-inch steel rims and the narrow tyres squeal and understeer at the slightest hint of a corner. The 16s get wider tyres but those too, from experience, are undertyred and incapable of highlighting the abilities of the chassis. I should know. Two years ago, I slapped on MRF rally rubber on a Baleno RS and in my first outing at an Autocross event I went second fastest, bested only by an Autocross regular who borrowed the very same car. Slap on quality rubber and you realise the Baleno has a very eager and responsive nose and the light chassis delivers quick direction changes. The Baleno RS would have made for a great rally car! But what cannot be cured is the steering that is vague, imprecise and doesn’t have proper self-centring.
As for the ride quality, the Baleno feels brittle, stiff and light. The sense of lightness — starting with the way the doors shut, to the (lack of) steering weight, to the way the suspension jars over rough roads — doesn’t encourage you to drive it enthusiastically.
I haven’t spoken about what these cars feel like from the inside. Let’s start with the Polo that is, again, way too familiar, way too old and way too cramped. The all-black theme and the lovely flat bottom steering wheel do redeem some points, as does the good driving position, but this is a car you will buy to drive, and not for any other reason.
The Baleno too gets all-black interiors, but in contrast to the Polo it is massively spacious. The front seats are the most supportive and the rear knee room is the most generous, as is the shoulder room. The spaciousness is one of the reasons why it sells so well, as is the fantastic reliability and peace of mind that Suzuki still outscores everybody else on. I am not a fan of the dashboard design but it has to be said that the ergonomics are perfect and variants with the touchscreen do get all the connectivity options that you would want.
Well, that is until the new i20 comes and brings connected car features to this class. For now, though the i20 still doesn’t feel cramped and the front seats are, along with the Baleno’s, the most comfortable in this test. The touchscreen infotainment too works rather well and of course build quality and fit-finish is very good.
As for the Altroz, the A-pillars are really thick and do compromise visibility. I did criticise the dash for having too many different surfaces and materials but there’s no doubt that this is the best-looking of the lot. Then there are the doors that swing open at right angles to the car, aiding ingress-egress. It is a close third to the i20 on spaciousness but there are a few ergonomic niggles. The steering doesn’t adjust for reach and that means I couldn’t get a good driving position with my legs bent more than I would have liked. My bent knee highlights the fact that the front seats have a narrow squab and don’t offer proper under-thigh support, and the shape of the seat is such that there’s a portion that digs into the upper half of your back. At the back, the recline angle is too upright and again the seat squab is narrow and lacking in under-thigh support.
The Altroz is the only one to get a digital cockpit which is a nice touch. Not so nice is the weird shape of the speedo that isn’t a square or a circle, and the digital tacho is hard to read.
Tata Altroz has a 5-star safety rating
Finally let’s talk safety. The Altroz gets a full five stars on the G-NCAP crash test and that’s good enough reason to crown it the winner. You can always live without a few features or a little less space or a weirdly shaped speedo, but safety is something you must never, ever compromise on. And having proven its worth in the crash tests, it’s not only easy but also my responsibility to recommend the Altroz over the others in this test.
Safety is not the only reason why the Tata wins this test. It is the best-looking, by far. The interiors are equally pleasing on the eye and are the most modern. The ride and handling balance is very well judged for Indian roads. It is and feels well engineered, right from the start. And it undercuts its rivals on pricing. No need for nationalist chest-thumping; the Altroz scores on all fronts to ace this test.
Of course, the Baleno continues to remain the tried, tested and zero-worry option. Not without reason will you not want to experiment and the Baleno is impossible to ignore especially when you know that nothing will go wrong with it. Time and again Maruti Suzuki’s cars have proved to be the most reliable when it comes to long-term ownership and they also deliver the best fuel efficiency and thus cost the least to own and run. On top of that the Baleno is also the most spacious in this test and with the CVT is the lightest, easiest, most effortless city car around.
And Toyota sells the same car, the Glanza, in case you want to try out the only other network that has a similar reputation for quality.
The i20 still doesn’t feel dated in this test but fact is there’s a new one coming, with a turbo-engine to boot. Right now, though, there’s only the Polo with a turbo-petrol and it is, by far and away, the most fun to drive. Sure, it doesn’t have the extensive feature list as the others, and it is cramped and it has been around for a decade but, after the Altroz, the Polo is the safest car in this test with 4 stars in the crash tests (remarkable for a ten-year-old car). And for the same price as the naturally aspirated and (frankly underpowered) rivals, you get an award-winning, intoxicating, massively enjoyable turbo-petrol engine. It is a no-brainer for the enthusiast!