In the last few years, hatchbacks might have not been as badly affected as the saloons, but the market isn’t as rapidly widening as it once was. And that’s mainly because of how the growing love for anything with a jacked-up body and infinitesimally increased ground clearance takes precedence over logic. Every carmaker wants to have an ‘SUV’ in every possible price bracket. While many of these are decent products, no doubt, they’ve inevitably caused a lot of great products to leave the market. But not the Maruti Suzuki Baleno. One of the leading hatchbacks commercially, it isn’t going to give in to the onslaught. And now, the car is back for a second stint stronger than ever. We sum up what it has to offer in a few simple points:

Loaded to the gills!


The most important bit about the new Baleno is that it’s gone where other Maruti cars haven’t — with the brand showing a keen interest in new-age features, quite possibly letting go of the complacence it could afford to have given stellar sales. On the all-new Maruti Suzuki Baleno, there’s now a ‘floating’ display perched atop the dashboard, a head-up display right above the instrument panel, fast-charging USB and USB-C ports, cruise control, etc. There’s also a neat 360-degree camera, which in addition to showing the bird’s-eye view of the car (which is helpful while parking), allows the driver to pause the automatic 360-degree rotation and choose a specific angle. This makes negotiating unimaginably tight spaces exceptionally easy. Maruti mentions that the front cameras can be used at speeds up to 10 km/h.

The other inclusion that’s surprising here is side and curtain airbags. Among the budget, India-made Maruti Suzuki cars, the Baleno, I believe, has the distinction of being offered with six airbags; think the Kizashi was the other Maruti Suzuki car with six airbags, although that was far from ‘budget’ or made in India. While the Baleno hasn’t been tested for crash-worthiness by an independent agency yet, the inclusion of six airbags is a good move by Maruti Suzuki. The company further emphasises that high-strength materials have been used in the car’s construction, too. Also, considering that the Baleno-rivalling i20 has had six airbags right from its first generation (from a decade ago) and others like the Polo, Punto, and Jazz (and not to forget the new Altroz), among others, have had safer cabins than the previous Baleno, it’s about time Maruti Suzuki took care of its shortcomings. And by the looks of it, the company most definitely has!

New wine, new-ish bottle


The Baleno was never a shoddy looking car, and while it shared its name with an earlier saloon/estate model from the past, its popularity is so immense that people don’t confuse it with the older car. The new model moves forwards with better styling but the silhouette and overall stance remain largely unchanged. This familiar-looking ‘facelift’ isn’t a bad thing, either, because the changes are easier to spot. The new headlamps and tail lamps create a lasting first impression, which wasn’t quite the case with the pre-facelift car when it was new.

But it’s on the inside where the Baleno has seen a sea of changes. The all-new dashboard has a dual-tone theme, it’s packed with features as I mentioned above, and the quality isn’t bad, either. The execution is also very unlike Maruti Suzuki; for instance, the inclusion of blue plastics on the dashboard and the door card is straight out of Mercedes-Benz’s rulebook. I showed it to a few fellow classic-car enthusiasts and they seemed to agree that it does look a class above the rest. The blue+black theme continues on the upholstery, too. And while the seats aren’t the sportiest, the presence of side bolsters on the front chairs does help in keeping the occupants comfortable and secure.

Effortless to drive


The Baleno might’ve got rejuvenated but the formula remains unchanged: for Maruti Suzuki, it’s a car that’s positioned the highest among hatchbacks, offers convenient and hassle-free ownership, and to top it all, it doesn’t need too much effort to drive. But like everywhere else, Maruti Suzuki has improved on a few aspects here, too. For example, the new suspension soaks up bumps better than before, offering a great ride quality. They might’ve got rid of the micro-hybrid unit the Baleno still gets an auto-stop-start system) but the updated 1.2-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated engine makes 66 kW and 113 Nm, which is more than adequate for a car this size.

The 5-speed manual gearbox now gets a hydraulic clutch, which the company claims will have a longer life. For those looking at the Baleno Automatic, Maruti has made it even more cost-effective with an AMT gearbox instead of the previous car’s CVT. There’s no doubt that the CVT is inherently smoother and better-engineered, but during my time with the car, the AMT turned out to be a pleasant surprise. While nowhere as seamless to shift or as fast as conventional automatic gearboxes, the AMT is fairly smooth and responds to manual inputs well. The trick here is to work with the gearbox rather than making it work for you. An example of that can be lifting off the right foot when switching gears manually (as you would in a three-pedal setup) and the system will reward with great shifts. But even if you wanted to use it like any other automatic, it doesn’t cause jerks or slow kick-downs as the previous iterations of AMT.

What does the Maruti Suzuki Baleno lack?

It’s not the most exciting
If you’re looking to replace your existing sporting hatchback (say something like the Polo GT) or are interested in buying your first fast small car, the Baleno is unlikely to be the one. It picks up pace easily and in everyday scenarios, the brakes seem to work fine, too, but it’s not something that encourages you to drive harder.

Missing: Rear armrest and sunroof


With the update, the Baleno has become a solid rival to well-loaded cars in the segment. In fact, with things like HUD, six airbags, and the 360-degree camera, the Baleno is among the best. Which is why excluding things like the sunroof seems a bit weird, considering that buyers do appreciate it. Is it useful? Hardly. What’s useful but missing from the new Baleno is the rear armrest.

Variety
Maruti Suzuki said goodbye to diesels a while ago and the Baleno RS didn’t work, either, so what the new Baleno is left with now is one engine and two gearbox options. Similarly, the colour palette also doesn’t have any fun shades, either.

Final thoughts


While with its familiar looks, the Baleno might seem to be just a facelift, Maruti Suzuki has gone the extra mile in updating everything that had to be upgraded: bodywork, steering setup, suspension, interior, passive safety, etc. With a clear emphasis on offering as many useful features as possible is also worth an appreciation, and the connected-car tech is present, too.

Driving it might still not quite be an occasion, but the quality improvement is tangible. And the way the Baleno behaves on the move has seen an improvement, too. It’s more comfortable than before, the space inside is as good as ever, and one wouldn’t mind travelling long distances in it. That does speak for itself on how much Maruti Suzuki has upped its premium hatchback game.

 

Prices start at Rs 6.35 lakh, ex-showroom, for the base manual-gearbox model. The least expensive automatic is Rs 7.69 lakh, exactly Rs 50,000 dearer than the same trim level on the manual. That difference remains constant, with the top-spec manual available for Rs 8.99 lakh and the Baleno AT at Rs 9.49 lakh. It’s not just amazing value, the Baleno, it doesn’t feel like a car that’s built to a cost, something common with many Maruti Suzuki cars. May this be a new direction for products to come, because as an example, Maruti Suzuki has pretty much nailed it with the all-new Baleno.