Remember the first time you fell in love with cars? The time you buried your right foot into the firewall on a desolate road, the first car you redlined through the gears, that drag race with a pal, the first set of wheels that made you want to go fast. That feeling of flying with the wind and driving on a winding road like Takumi’s spirit runs through your blood can only mean you were behind the wheel of a hot hatch. America had their V8s, the rest of the world had their sportscars, we found our love for fast cars with hot hatchbacks. For some of us it was the Zen, for some it was the Alto 1.1 and for quite a few, it was the Palio 1.6 GTX – all came at different times but kept our octane ratings high and our right foot pinned. Our hot hatchbacks though were more warm than hot, as cars like the Polo GTI and Cooper S will demonstrate, but their impact was more than the sum of their horsepower figures. They bred enthusiasts. All of us at evo India started our motoring lives with these cars. The Alto, the Zen, the Palio, they’ve passed the baton now, the cars in these pictures are the new flag bearers. The Polo GT TSI, Abarth Punto and the Baleno RS have the responsibility on their collective shoulders to carry the burden of a petrolhead’s expectations. Which one will you start your enthusiast life in?
It may seem like the Polo GT TSI is a car for the new petrolhead but it has been around for half a decade now. Five years doesn’t seem to have aged this car one bit though. It still looks the most desirable of hatchbacks in this company to my eyes, and the way it drives will make you experience German (over) engineering that neither the Baleno nor Punto can match. The steering adjusts for rake and reach, every button falls in place perfectly, the view out of the driver’s seat is perfect and the DSG gearbox is so quick you will question the need for a manual gearbox. On nine out of ten days, I’d pick the Polo for the quick shifts from this dual-clutch ‘box but on that tenth day on a winding road when all that matters is an involving drive to the summit of the range, I yearn for a proper stick shift.
Move past the resting left foot and you will love the way the Polo turns in, the gradual build up of torque from the TSI motor and the thoroughly mature damping. It’s not a sportscar so you can’t expect very stiff suspension and no roll in corners but the roll doesn’t make you nervous, and while the electrically assisted steering has no feel, it’s precise so you know exactly what’s going on. The weight of the throttle pedal is just right and the chassis is simply outstanding. The Polo was designed to handle 189bhp in the GTI so it feels pleasantly over-engineered for this 103bhp GT TSI, something you can’t say about the Baleno. I think the biggest takeaway is that if you didn’t know that it was the oldest car here, you would think it’s the newest.
The youngest kid on the block however is the Baleno RS. If there’s one manufacturer in India that can gauge the pulse of an enthusiast, it is Maruti. Cars like the Alto, Zen, Esteem and Baleno (sedan) were huge hits in the enthusiast and motorsport community, and who can forget the good ol’ Gypsy. But it has been ages since we’ve had any reason to turn towards Maruti for a fun-to-drive hatchback. Until now. The Baleno RS, without question, has been the most eagerly anticipated car amongst petrolheads – on paper the light body shell and turbocharged motor makes it ideal for quick runs to the grocery shop and the weekend autocross. In keeping with the times the RS also gets a turbo-petrol mill, but it is the smallest of the lot displacing just under one litre. It’s also the least powerful at 100.5bhp with 150Nm of torque but you’d be surprised by how quick the RS is off the line.
The Maruti weighs just 950kg, 169kg lighter than the Polo and almost quarter of a tonne less than the Punto. Ask anyone with even a sock dipped in motorsport to tell you how to make a car go faster and he’ll not tell you to bolt on a bigger turbo or remap the ECU. He’ll tell you to make it lighter, and that’s why all eyes are on the RS now. It’s very nimble, has a good ride because there’s less weight to rebound off a pothole and it comes with a manual gearbox. It’s not the slickest of gearboxes (though it is in this company) but it still keeps you involved and since the Boosterjet motor has a very strong mid-range, the RS requires fewer shifts than a naturally aspirated Baleno. The suspension could have been stiffer, Maruti could have kept the roll in check for more planted cornering and it could have had better tyres (it should have!) but then again this is also a city car for the those whose purpose in life isn’t limited to belting round corners. For those whose waking hours are spent figuring how to slice a series of bends there’s great joy and infinite pleasures to be had in making the RS go faster. Tyres, suspension, springs, lowering kits, bigger wheels, ECU remaps, loud exhausts, even a noisy exhaust blow off valve, man you should buy the Baleno RS just for the things that you can do with it. And the good thing about a car like the Baleno RS is that it comes from the Maruti stable, so you are guaranteed of reasonably priced parts, you know things will not go kaput too quickly even if you overdo the go-faster parts and round the next corner is one of the 3225 authorised workshops.
There are far fewer Fiat centres in the country and even fewer Abarth Puntos on our roads. Get in one and smash the throttle though and you will know which is the warmest of these warm hatchbacks. The Abarth pins you in the seat under hard acceleration, something neither the Polo nor the Baleno can do, and if you dump the clutch and redline through its gears, you will get wheelspin in third gear too, that’s the 145bhp and 212Nm of torque making their presence felt. Fiat sent us the Punto with 205/50 R16 Yokohamas, wider and stickier than the OE-fitted Apollos. These tyres make a world of difference to the way the Abarth puts down the power, there’s a lot less drama and torque steer is almost entirely eliminated, making the Punto faster in corners and quicker to get off the line. Moral of the story – upsize your rubbers, never mind the consequences on fuel economy.
The Abarth is the muscle car of this lot and leaves you with a child-like grin. That’s what hot hatches from our youth did to us. They gave you that sense of speed. The Abarth is a badass car. It has a big scorpion decal on the roof, has ergonomics by someone who’s anthropometrically dyslexic and has such a rubbery gearbox that it’s rumoured to make scale model tyres in its spare time. But it will make you the happiest.
I’m sorry but I cannot pick one. I want the Polo GT TSI on nine out of ten days, the Abarth Punto on that tenth day, and if I didn’t have the choice of two cars, the Baleno RS as my daily driver. Meanwhile the rally boys at evo India are in love with the Baleno RS, they say its chassis and motor have the potential to sweep the INRC. What we have here then are three cars that appeal to three unique buyers, all three dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts. From one option (GT TSI) to three bona fide hot (ok, warm) hatches the future is pretty rosy and if enough of you buy cars like the Baleno RS then other manufacturers will be forced to sit up and take notice. Tata Motors have already thrown their hat into the ring with the JT Special Vehicles division that will massage the Tiago and Tigor to make it go round corners harder and faster. And there’s Hyundai with a hardcore World Rally program built around the i20 and the N performance-oriented sub-brand – it’s but a matter of time before there’s some trickle down to India. And if you want to spend serious dough you already have the Polo GTI and come September we will have the new 227bhp Octavia RS. What I’m trying to say is that enthusiasts never had it better and it all starts with these three warm hatches. Now who does aftermarket suspension for the Baleno RS?
Big thank you to IndiKarting circuit at Kharadi in Pune and Rayomand Banajee.
Volkswagen Polo GT TSI
Engine 1197cc, four-cylinder, turbo petrol
Transmission 7-speed DSG
Power 103bhp @ 5000rpm
Torque 175Nm @ 1500-4100rpm
Top speed NA
Price (ex-showroom, Delhi) Rs 9.11 lakh
Fiat Abarth Punto
Engine 1368cc, four-cylinder, turbo petrol
Transmission 5-speed manual
Power 145bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 212Nm @ 2000-4000rpm
0-100kmph 8.8 seconds (claimed)
Top speed NA
Price (ex-showroom, Delhi) Rs 9.90 lakh
Maruti Suzuki Baleno RS
Engine 998cc, three-cylinder, turbo petrol
Transmission 5-speed manual
Power 100.5bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 150Nm @ 1700-4500rpm
Top speed NA
Price (ex-showroom, Delhi) Rs 8.69 lakh