I miss manuals. I know it sounds silly saying that in a country where at least 90 per cent of all cars are sold with a manual gearbox, but what I mean is a slick manual mated to a slick engine in a car that you enjoy driving, not Uber-ing across the city. Call me old but I miss not having a modern-day equivalent to the old Zen or Esteem – cars that made the phrase hot-knife-through-butter mandatory in every road test.
Today you have to go all the way to the manual Octavia to find a modern day Esteem equivalent, the 1.8TSI to be precise because when it comes to lighting the fires of an enthusiast, petrols still rule. And then I got my hands on the Baleno RS and re-discovered the joys of rowing through a gearbox. Over the past two months I’ve been nipping around Pune city in the RS and the more I drive it the more I love it. On the practical side of things it is perfectly sized for city commutes, small and compact to dart into gaps but spacious enough for friends to pile in at the back. But when you’re alone, that’s when the RS makes you smile.
Okay, 100bhp is not a huge amount of power these days, but when slotted into a car that weighs under a tonne – and wearing relatively skinny tyres – it makes for a rather entertaining car. Below 2000rpm there is a bit of lag but that actually makes it all the more fun when the boost kicks in and swings the tacho the dial followed by a (flat) shift just before it hits the rev-limiter. But the thing that I enjoy most about the Baleno is downshifting, heel-and-toe-ing to rev-match, a skill that has fast become obsolete what with the proliferation of automatic gearboxes but one that every enthusiast must be completely proficient in before he can truly call himself an enthusiast. Have you tried it out? The mark of a properly executed heel-and-toe is the passenger should hear the downshift (the revs rise) but never feel it; the head must never toss back. Try it out – I guarantee it’ll put a smile on your face. When the Baleno RS comes back to us after all the end-of-year magazine award jury rounds, I’ll do a video on it to illustrate. I’ll admit that it is not the most (fuel) efficient way to drive but even with all this I’ve been getting around 16-17kmpl and that is pretty darn good.
If this were my car there are some things I’d promptly do to it. First things first, a sporty exhaust – not that I have any great need to announce my departure to the neighbours but that aural pleasure of a brap-brap-braaaaping exhaust exponentially amplifies the Thrill of Driving. I’d put wider tyres to enhance the grip, though I wouldn’t bother upsizing the rims that will just ruin the ride. I’d check the KW / Tein / Koni / Bilstein websites everyday and place an order the day they launch street-sport suspension for the Baleno. And I’d upgrade the speakers because they’re way too tinny. Maybe even a slightly more sporty body kit. The beauty of the Baleno is that it is affordable and that means you can splurge on performance upgrades without thinking ten times about spending the cash. Just like we did with our Zens and Esteems all those years ago.
Sticking with the Esteem theme, I also think the Baleno RS will make for a damn good car to go rallying with. The inherent handling of the Baleno is really good with a nimble and very responsive front end that can only get even more nimble and precise with higher-spec suspension. The body shell is light which makes a world of difference to the power-to-weight ratio, the torque of the engine (which can be easily enhanced, me thinks) is great for powering out of tight corners and even taking into account the turbo multiplication factor it will slot into the 2-litre class, giving the current Cedia and Polo major headaches. Now if Maruti returns the Baleno RS to our fleet I’ll happily bell the cat.