Digest this. If you’re a petrolhead, fond of nimble compact hatchbacks, anywhere in the world you will have access to a whole range of fun-to-drive petrol hatches. In India, however, thanks to government regs, manufacturers don’t bother with a petrol engine larger than 1.2 litres. Here, the diesel engines shoved under the bonnets of diesel hatchbacks are bigger, and all too often, more powerful. So you can buy the Sports Edition of the lovely Figo and be stay content with 87bhp from its 1197cc petrol. Or, you can get yourself the turbo-diesel variant and access the 99bhp that its 1498cc unit puts out. At the other end of the affordability spectrum take the case of the Volkswagen Polo GT. With the excellent petrol TSI you’ve got 103 trotting ponies, but with the oily TDI you’ve suddenly got six extra galloping horses in your stable. Begs the question, are diesel hatchbacks fun to drive then? Only one way to find out. We took the Figo S 1.5D and the Polo GT TDI and decided to put them to the test. But hey, wait a sec. Shouldn’t the Swift also feature here? Sure, there isn’t a sporty version but no one will question the Swift’s inherent sportiness either. And in its third generation the Swift continues to offer a decent load of thrills. Sirish certainly thought so and thus we brought that darty little hatch to the party as well.
The Swift certainly does. It has an aggressive face, sculpted body and a wide flat stance. All of which make it look sporty. Then there’s that flat-bottomed steering (the only car here to get it), twin pod instrumentation and the well-finished big round rotary knobs for the air con to add a dash of youth. The seats are lovely too, providing just the right amount of balance between cushioning and support.
The Ford Figo’s new age design suits it quite well and gives it an aggressive open mouthed look. The silhouette looks sporty too but it doesn’t seem to squat in that ready-to-spring-ahead sort of stance that the Suzuki has. On the inside, the Ford simply fails to make you feel special. The interiors are well-finished, so that’s not the problem. The problem is with the design. The cabin feels dark and dingy, the instrumentation is nowhere near sporty and the seats are too narrow. I didn’t find the Ford particularly ergonomic either.
Finally, the Volkswagen Polo. Even after so many years, how the Polo retains the old silhouette and continues to look relevant in an ever-changing space is beyond me. But it does, and I certainly think it’s one of the best looking hatchbacks out there. Even today. But, as a sporty proposition, it doesn’t look as exciting. For me, the Polo’s interiors sit smack between the Swift’s and the Figo’s on the count of sportiness. What does make the Polo stand out is its build quality. It’s absolutely solid. There’s no sign of give anywhere. If only build quality added to visual appeal.
It’s one thing to look like Usain Bolt and quite another to be able to jog like him. As a football player in school, I remember a number of boys who would turn up with the best possible football kit (those were the days before Decathlon). Despite their swagger most wouldn’t count for much on the field. So it’s important for each of these to be able to play the part as well as they look it if they’re going to have a fighting chance at winning our hearts in this test.
The Swift we had on this test was brilliantly sporty to look at but came with a handicap. Instead of a manual transmission, this one was equipped with an automated manual transmission. Despite all claims to the contrary, the AMT system is not equipped for performance. Its primary focus is to offer convenience without eating into fuel economy. And its engine is the smallest, least powerful in this lot. But it’s also significantly lighter, tipping the scales with a less than one tonne kerb weight.
The Swift manages to deliver a quarter mile run in 18.75 seconds with a terminal velocity of 121.41kmph. The 0-100kmph acceleration run is dispatched in just 12.56 seconds. And mind you, these are true speeds as recorded on our GPS-based VBox telemetry system. The numbers on the speedo are a tad more optimistic. Not a bad show at all. Except for that irritating head toss inherent in the shift quality of all automated manual trannys, even in the manual mode that we used to get these numbers. Leave it in D and you’ll certainly be slower. With speed rising rapidly, the Swift’s stability doesn’t come across as extraordinary. In fact, it’s a wee bit flighty at mid-triple digits on the speedo.
“The Swift feels a lot more confident and reassuring on the Lap of Mutha than it does on the performance run conducted in a straight line.”
The Swift feels a lot more confident and reassuring on the Lap of Mutha than it does on the performance run conducted in a straight line. Its 74bhp and 190Nm that didn’t count for a lot on the quarter mile run, has enough grunt nonetheless to make the car feel darty between corners as you power out of one and head for the next. On the brakes, off it and then you make the corner with the 185/65 tyres squealing delightfully. With much less mass to lug around, she turns quickly. The poise of the updated (from the Baleno) Heartect platform that the Swift is now built on is surprising. Teetering on the edge of balance, a little loose but not enough to give you a bad case of sweaty palms, the Swift never fails to make you smile. AMT or not. It reminded us why we had brought the Swift along to this test in the first place. If only that steering didn’t feel as lifeless as it does and if only it was a manual.
“Despite the weight penalty of more than 160 kilos, the Polo GT TDI runs the quarter mile four-tenths quicker than the Swift.”
Switching from the Maruti to the Polo, you instantly feel more grown up. It doesn’t feel as happy. Until you get going. Despite the weight penalty of more than 160 kilos, the Polo GT TDI runs the quarter mile four-tenths quicker than the Swift, posting a time of 18.36 seconds and a terminal speed of 125.55kmph. From a standing start, it blows past the 100kmph marker in 11.44 seconds, shaving more than a second off the Swift’s time. And it feels rock solid while it’s doing all this. No head shake. No flightiness. It’s almost as if the car bites into the tarmac and never lets go until you bring it to a stop. The only things that mars the experience somewhat is the gear shift mechanism because it isn’t as slick as you’d like it to be, and those tyres. The 185/60 profile tyres that the GT TDI wears on its 15-inchers are simply overwhelmed when you want to lay all that 109bhp and 250Nm on black top. I’d reckon better tyres and slicker shifts would gain the VW a few tenths on that acceleration run.
Even on the twists and turns of the Lap of Mutha, the Polo holds on to the ever changing lines like the car was glued on to the road. In the Polo, the driver’s confidence grows in direct proportion to the confidence levels exhibited by the car and thanks to that super taut chassis of the Polo, confidence levels are very high indeed. I would wager that if you were to put it on track with these two, you’d be able to go through every single corner faster than you would on either of the two. It’s easily the best handling car in this trio. But there’s a problem. Designed to behave itself on the unrestricted autobahns of Germany, the Polo feels so confident and reassuring at our very Indian velocities that I reach a point where I’m borderline bored. There’s none of the Swift’s drama. You’re mostly calm as you throw it from corner to corner, completely in control. I can’t believe I’m saying this but the Polo does feel a little too in control and perhaps for me at least that’s the bit where the Thrill of Driving gets a little muted. You’d have to push the VW much, much harder to experience that little jolt of excitement that you’d get much sooner on the Swift.
And that, brings me to the Ford. I don’t like its ergonomics and I don’t like its interiors. They’re just a shade too drab to help my spirits. But boy, she goes! Quarter mile in 17.6 seconds with a terminal velocity of 129.88kmph. A 0-100kmph acceleration run in just 10.31 seconds, over a second quicker than the Polo and over 2.2 seconds quicker than the Swift. I had thought the Polo would be the quickest of the lot but the Figo just takes it to another level. And it’s pretty stable too. Sure, it probably won’t be able to stay as stable as the VW at autobahn speeds but at the now legal 120kmph on our Indian expressways, it feels like a breeze. It’s only when you get past 140-150kmph on the speedo that the difference in stability between the Figo and the Polo begins to come to the fore.
“While the Polo is the grippiest of the lot without doubt, it is the Figo that is the most enjoyable for it straddles the middle ground.”
And then you get to the Lap of Mutha. While the Polo is the grippiest of the lot without doubt, it is the Figo that is the most enjoyable for it straddles the middle ground. Through the corners it feels nearly as confident as the German hatch, poised and reassuring enough to give you the confidence to push a little bit harder. But there’s just enough of drama to transform smiles (which you’d get in the Polo) to the grins that make the Swift so lovable. So you end up with a greater margin of confidence, reassurance and safety than on the Maruti but without compromising on the thrill of it all. The end result is a bargeful of fun.
Let’s go back to the question we had asked at the start then. It’s quite clear that the Indian driving environment is clearly the exception to the rule. Here, unlike elsewhere in the world, diesel hatchbacks do have a sense of humour that induces anything, from smiles to grins. That they’re practical to own and economical to run in our country is an added bonus no enthusiast will really crib about. After all, diesel hatchbacks or petrol, a tankful of fuel earned equals a pocketful of cash emptied.
But what’s the point of a comparison if we’re not going to tell you which one to buy. So here goes. The Swift is the best looking of the lot and feels the cheeriest too. It’s thoroughly enjoyable to drive too, more so if you have the manual. The issue of convenience notwithstanding. Darty and fun but with all the practicality that is the hallmark of a Suzuki. It is a good bargain. The Polo, while not youthful, looks timeless in its appeal. It is built like a tank. And it goes like a bullet (not the bike please). You’re welcome to disagree but I don’t think there’s a hatch that corners harder. It’s just that the VW isn’t as engaging and involving. With its much higher threshold for everything it feels a smidge too sober, and when you do cross that limit you end up understeering heavily and helplessly. More so there’s that lifeless electrically assisted steering.
The Figo. Now if you’re only after the Thrill of Driving and the mundane practical bits are only collateral gains for you, this is your car. It’s as solid and stable as the German but without its sobriety. The Figo will happily wag its tail when you want it to and then shoot like a thoroughbred when you need it to. Besides, this is the quickest car of this trio. By the way, did I mention cheapest also? Well, there you have it. A verdict for a diesel head.