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Affordable performance. It’s what allows the average Indian to dream of owning something more than just a run-of-the-mill vehicle. So how much of this applies to the Maruti Suzuki Baleno RS and the Tata Tigor JTP?
In a country where the majority of the roads are routinely pock-marked, and where ‘sporty’ usually means ‘expensive’, few manufacturers are willing to go the distance. Additionally, the low-end power which most enthusiasts crave for are more easily found on diesels than on naturally-aspirated petrols. But with the scramble going on lately regarding readying the cars for BS6, a lot of manufacturers are phasing out their small-capacity diesel offerings, such as Mahindra with their 1.2-litre KUV diesel variant. So ultimately, for those looking for torque on a budget, a turbo-petrol hatch is the way forward! And that is what brings us to the Maruti Suzuki Baleno RS and the Tata Tigor JTP; two cars from mass-market manufacturers which will help you live out your 0-100 dreams. After all, infusing a little bit of pizzazz into their otherwise sensible, comfortable, and fuel-efficient offerings isn’t an easy proposition.
Full disclosure, as a current owner of a Baleno RS, I completely ascribe to the ‘affordable performance’ adage; the idea of squeezing out just a little bit more thrills from not so much more moolah. I previously had a Swift ZXi, which I had driven quite a bit across west and south India. It was a hoot, always eager for a spirited drive. So when the time came to replace it, the first thing I looked for was an engine that one-upped the Swift’s. And the RS’ 998cc Boosterjet fit the role to the T, and it’s more than just a dash of performance added to the otherwise good old “sundar, sasta, tikaau” (nice, cheap, reliable) formula that Maruti is known for. It’s fast. Legitimately fast. Whereas I would find the Swift running out of breath after the 120-130kmph mark, the Baleno pulls cleanly, and keeps pulling for an additional 30kmph at least (a wonder considering the not-so-great stock Apollo Tyres) . Now I realise that a 160-170kmph top end is hardly the stuff of dreams, but the bump up in performance (101bhp, a full 18bhp over the Swift) is evident even to rookie eyes like mine.
We now move on to the Tigor JTP. Whereas the Baleno’s 1.0 litre Boosterjet engine is imported, the one in the Tigor (and Tiago) JTP is essentially the same engine as its non-JTP brethren. However, the JTSV (Jayem-Tata Special Vehicles) team, who aim to be what Abarth is to Fiat or AMG is to Mercedes, have taken the regular Nexon’s 1.2 that makes 108bhp and added a new intake, exhaust and ECU mapping, bringing up the power to 112bhp (an immodest gain from the stock Tigor’s 83bhp). And if that doesn’t sound like much, do keep in mind that the Tigor weighs a scant 1016 kg.
So, from the get-go, the Baleno seems to be on the back foot when it comes to the power-to-weight stakes. The list is lengthened, however, when you consider that the Tigor also offers driving modes (City and Sport) for when you want to stretch the budget a little bit on the fuel.
Summary glances done, we now get into the meat of the matter: how both of these cars perform. At idle, the Tigor JTP seems slightly more refined than the Baleno RS, despite having the same number of cylinders. This carries over to the exhaust note too, the Baleno sounds gruffer than the Tigor. Pick up speed and the contrast is stark. Whereas the Baleno sounds like it wants to tear into the horizon, when we tested them both, the throttle response in the Tigor felt a lot more urgent, with the turbo, too, kicking in around 2,000rpm. That’s because Tata’s pact with JTP is more than just a shot in the arm for the manufacturer. It’s a whole new direction for the brand, amply reflected by how ‘together’ of a package the Tigor is. There’s no drama and no wheelspin; the Tigor JTP just goes fast, and, unlike the Baleno, doesn’t make a song-and-dance of it. The combination of the tyre, suspension, steering and engine on the Tigor means that it will be quicker off the line on a straight road, and will keep the lead intact once a twisty section comes up. The Tigor felt planted while going along the various chicanes and hairpins around Lonavla, something the Baleno and its lacklustre steering couldn’t quite manage.
Now, driving a car isn’t really an isolated exercise, and no matter how well a car drives, if the driving position is not up to the mark, very few enthusiasts would really like to spend their hard earned money. Now, since I’m an owner, I would say I’m partial to the cabin of the Baleno, but the Tigor felt a welcome step up as soon as I sank into those seats. A little perspective here: The Baleno RS’ seats are identical to those in the regular iteration, and hence aren’t built for bouts of enthusiastic driving. Not so much in the Tigor JTP. The bolstering kept me firmly in place while I did my best impression of a Pikes Peak climb, trying to keep up with Abhishek as he went hell for leather up the slopes towards Aamby Valley. Supplementing the enthusiastic driving were the leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear shift lever, and those stylish metal-finished pedals. Another welcome addition was the well-shaped dead pedal that helped immensely in those fleeting moments when I wasn’t shuttling between gears, courtesy the ever-changing elevations and twisty mountain roads.
But it isn’t all Tigor, all the way. Whereas the steering wheel in the Baleno adjusts for both rake and reach, the one in the Tigor JTP only adjusts for rake, which might be a deal-breaker especially if you’re considering the premium that the JTP variant commands over the standard Tigor. Also, the retention of the stalk-type buttons that must be pushed in for locking the doors seem like a ghastly oversight, considering the price point that the Tigor JTP is positioned at (Rs 7.49 lakh, ex-showroom). And lastly, the number of blank buttons that hold pride of place just below the infotainment system seem puzzling, adding to the overall low-rent feeling.
Not so in the Baleno RS, that is based on the top-spec Alpha trim, with more premium bits like the auto-dimming rear view mirror, one-touch up and down driver window, UV-tinted window glasses and a legit TFT screen instrument cluster (instead of the LED-based one on the Tigor).
By now it may seem like the Tigor is a good few lengths ahead in this race, and I’m probably regretting my decision of going for the Baleno RS. Well, not quite. You see, Maruti’s decision to endow the Baleno RS with disc brakes on all wheels mean that it stops just that teeny bit better and where you want it to. Chalk it down to my rookie driving style, but the road’s full of idiots, as the tagline for a famous tyre manufacturer goes, and this feature goes a long way into ensuring some peace of mind. Next, whereas both the Tigor and Baleno come with tyres that are not-so-shabby yet not-so-good-either, Maruti’s decision to plonk 16-inchers on the Baleno (instead of the 15-inch ones on the Tata) mean that you have just that much more choice when you’ll go for that much-needed upgrade.
You’d imagine that this comparison has to have a clear winner. But life isn’t always so black and white. Both these cars have their own strong and weak points, as do both these brands. Additionally, no answer is enduringly wrong in the game of life. If you, like me, want a contemporary-looking weekend performer that usually doubles up as a family runabout during the week, then you, like me, would go for the Baleno RS. However, if you’re just a little less focussed on the glam quotient and want a set of wheels that does its job with no complaints during the week and can show up a few speed hogs on the weekend, then the Tigor JTP is for you. Now if only Tata could do something about those teeny tiny cup holders...