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If there’s one criticism you can rightly hurl at us, it is we don’t do affordable performance cars. At least not often enough. You will find reams devoted to Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis but what about cars that the enthusiast on a budget can actually buy? This feature is for you. Every one of the 11 cars in this story is under 200,000 rupees. In the first part of this four-part series, the Maruti Suzuki Swift and Fiat Palio take the crown for pint sized fun, as you can find pre-owned Maruti Suzuki Swift and Fiat Palio hatchbacks in under one lakh rupees. And some other cars that will follow in the next parts are even half of that. And all of them, as we found out over the course of this test, will put a smile on your face. Zingy engines unfettered by emissions compliance; gearboxes that, to borrow a period phrase, cut through butter like a hot knife; low, very low, driving position; spindly A-pillars for great visibility; hydraulic and oh-so-feelsome steering; seat of the pants feel and light-weight bodies with nary a nod to crash safety.
All of these cars have blown out ten candles on their birthday cakes. Some are approaching their twentieth birthday. We have to warn you that these cars are unlikely to be trouble-free, even the Japanese cars, and parts will need hunting for. And please don’t ask about warranties. But when you are paying next to nothing, all this ceases to be a legitimate concern – the only question is how big the smile at the end of the day.
These are the true bhakts – Fiat owners. Don’t know what is it about them, maybe the fact that, like the Parsis, this is the only tribe that is shrinking in number, but Fiat owners loooooove their cars. And the Fiat Palio 1.6 is the poster child for them all. Actually, the poster child is the yellow S10 with Sachin Tendulkar’s signature on the rear spoiler but that car didn’t feel like getting out of its garage this morning. Well, neither did Sophia Loren show up for every shoot. When you go to bed with an Italian siren, be prepared for the tantrums.
Read more about Fiat here
When she is in the mood though, it’s time to get lucky. This orangey Fiat Palio 1.6 is having a particularly good day, the aftermarket Automech exhaust singing throatily and the 16-valve motor revving lustily. This was India’s first warm/hot hatch, the first to crack 100bhp (okay, 99bhp), the first car I tested at the VRDE, and the most handsome car on the market. Those alloys – it looks gorgeous even today! And back in the day, 14-inch alloys were A Very Big Deal. The Fiat Palio 1.6 marked the third coming of the company in India, after the Uno and then the Siena. Fourth actually, if you consider the Padmini days! And it had an even more profound effect on the Italian company’s Indian operations than the current turnaround being led by the Compass. They were going to make the Palio and then the Siena and Palio Weekend (the first estate to masquerade as an SUV, very desirable but too niche) along with the range of engines at the greenfield Ranjangaon facility outside of Pune. If Fiat had persisted, if Fiat had addressed quality issues, service issues, dealership issues, fuel efficiency issues… what they could have achieved. In the event the roads around the Ranjangaon plant remained deserted for years until the company struck a deal with Tata and contract manufacturing started.
Anyway, the past is past. Today 12 seconds to 100kmph does not sound very quick but behind the ’wheel the Palio feels eager enough, and the chassis – a trick only Fiat seemed capable of pulling off for the longest time – manages to offer both a good ride and fun handling. Stability too. And a nice steering feel. You will have to turn a blind eye to the cabin that feels every bit its age but neat touches like the white-faced dials and brushed steel pedals will also make you smile. Of course the, Palio 1.6 was in a niche, the volume push was towards the (dead) 1.2 petrol and the (rather good) 1.9 diesel. The latter was one of my first long-term test vehicles and it really was the nicest hatchback (back then) to drive – I put over 50,000km on it and had absolutely no problems. Like with anything, if you take care of it things are unlikely to go wrong and Mahesh Bandel who has owned the car you see here from new stresses nothing major has gone wrong with his car.
Or you can have guaranteed peace of mind with the Maruti Suzuki Swift. You won’t have to hunt for a first generation Swift, there are plenty around; you won’t have to worry about spares for this is Maruti Suzuki we are talking about, and you won’t have to worry about which side of the bed it has woken up from – Jap cars don’t throw tantrums. As I’ve said before the only problem with the Maruti Suzuki Swift is its ubiquity. There are so many of them that you don’t appreciate just how stylish it is, and if you do buy one nobody is going to give you a second glance. But this remains a great first car for the enthusiast. It will entertain you with its handling and you might even lift-off oversteer. You will get acquainted with even better steering than the Palio, electric steering that feels connected to the front wheels and tells you what is going on. You will experience the joys of one of the great Japanese motors, the Suzuki G13B engine that had its final hurrah in the Swift before somebody in Transport Bhavan had his 1.2-litre-sub-4-meter brainwave. And you will also discover that the Swift is cramped, the clutch is weak and the ride is harsh. Doesn’t matter. All easily fixed.
The Swift is an easy recommendation; the Palio needs a leap of faith. But with the latter, you also get an army of followers that makes up in enthusiasm for what they lack in numbers. Watch this space for the second part of affordable performance cars, coming soon.
Maruti Suzuki’s entry into electric-mobility; read about it here