Comparing hot hatches – Fiat Urban Cross vs Suzuki Baleno RS vs Volkswagen Polo GT TSI vs Tata Nexon
They were the stuff of petrolhead wet dreams, those turbo petrol engines. Stuffed in to hallowed cars like the Ferrari F40, the Jaguar XJ220, the Porsche 930 Turbo and 959, these engines were the bastion of high-performance, of corrupting power and unhinged delivery. We’ve all heard horror stories – of how docile they were with the tacho needle below 3000rpm, almost mundane, but all hell would break loose when the turbos lit up. Tyres would be shredded, lap times would be decimated and unsuspecting drivers would find themselves heading nose-first for the hedges. Then there were the rally cars that sent shivers up our spines. Those pixilated videos of Audi Quattros parting the hordes of spectators with their wastegate whooshes, of Lancia Delta S4s and Peugeot 205s bellowing through narrow forest stages. The generations of Mitsubishi Evos and the Subaru Imprezas that followed kept reinforcing that one thing the turbo petrol engine stood for. Performance. Hardcore, unfiltered performance. To hell with spine tingling exhaust notes at 9500rpm, or the linearity of power delivery. This was a pursuit of power and speed, regardless of the cost.
Eventually, downsizing of engines with stringent emission norms being introduced worldwide has forced turbos in to the mainstream – turbo engines are more efficient after all. Nearly every new supercar packs a turbocharger, and performance is higher than ever. Years of research on the turbocharger as well as handy electronics mean that modern turbo petrols aren’t as untameable as their predecessors. The other side effect of making turbos the norm is them trickling down to more affordable cars. The cars in question are nowhere close to the hardcore supercars of yore, but their origins lie in those manic motors. Enthusiasts rejoice!
Look, we had the Mk1 Octavia RS, and now the Mk3 Octy RS. But neither of them are properly affordable. The car that really democratised the turbo petrol was the Volkswagen Polo GT TSI. Okay so it wasn’t a proper hot hatch, it was more a warm hatch than anything else but it was the warmest hatch we’d ever gotten our hands on. The 1.2-litre turbo petrol engine made 103.5bhp and 175Nm of torque, nothing mind-numbing, but sufficient for an enthusiastic run through the countryside to get your pulse racing. The DSG twin-clutch gearbox raised the bar of what can be expected of an auto-box at that price point. Lightning fast shifts with an uncanny ability to keep you constantly on the boil meant you actually embraced the lack of a stick shift, and didn’t moan about the absence of one.
Then there was the dynamically sound chassis. The engine and transmission were brilliant, but what made the Polo really stand out was its tight body control. The chassis is rigid, and has the potential to handle much more than the power the 1.2 TSI engine came packing straight off the shelf. In fact, the R2 Polos built to compete in the INRC ran the same chassis but with the high-performance 1.6-litre motor tuned to something close to 170bhp. On the road with the TSI engine though, the Polo was close to faultless. If you’ve got a good twisty road ahead of you, it gives you loads of confidence to keep pushing it further with each successive corner. The feedback through the chassis is progressive and it never gets snappy or unforgiving. The only criticism that can be levelled against it is one that we have against a lot of VWs and Skodas – the dead steering. The electric assistance kills any sort of feedback that tells you you’re approaching the limits of grip and you have to rely on screeching tyres to tell you that you’re too hot in to the corner.
Nevertheless, four years after it was launched in the country, it remains the benchmark for affordable turbo petrol cars in the country. Not only does it thrill the enthusiast, but it is extremely convenient within the city. Over the years, VW has given it a mild nip and tuck, but the overall design language has remained unchanged and still manages to look fresh. Priced at Rs 9.2 lakh, it remains the benchmark for affordable turbo petrol cars in the country.
Power to the People
You know the turbo-petrol has really arrived when a mass-market player like Maruti Suzuki dips its fingers in the pot. The Baleno RS undercuts the GT TSI by Rs 90,000 making it a more affordable option and by no means is it more sedate. Based on the standard Baleno platform, the RS comes packing Suzuki’s 1-litre Boosterjet three-cylinder engine. Output is 100.5bhp, not too much off the TSI, but where it really gains ground is with its weight. At just 950kg, it is the lightest car here and it feels it.
The Boosterjet motor is a sweet, sweet one. It loves being revved, has very smooth power delivery, better throttle response than the TSI and is never notchy or spikey. The Baleno also gets a manual gearbox, placating all those enthusiasts who couldn’t get over the fact that the Polo didn’t have the option of one. You sit nice and low in the car, it is sporty and the exhaust is the sportiest of the lot here. It has a muted snarl, sufficient to remind you and your passengers that this Baleno is packing something more under the hood.
Brilliant in its own right, the Baleno can’t match up to the finesse of the Polo. The steering is too light and the car doesn’t feel as planted as the VW around corners. The suspension is stiffer than the Polo and that means if the road is undulating it can hop around a bit at lower speeds, though as the speeds get higher it get better and better. But the front end is even more eager than the Polo, as we discovered when we took it to an autocross and it decimated many rally-prepped cars. The wider track of the Baleno gives it a more four-square stance and there’s less weight over the front end making it less understeery. In fact the Baleno has all the makings of a great motorsport car – be it race or rally – and the fact that being a Maruti, parts will be easy to source and cheap to purchase, should make it the car enthusiasts have been clamouring for.
However, if you still think Rs 8.3 lakh is too much to shell out for a turbo petrol, there’s good news. Tata Motors has launched the Nexon with both petrol and diesel engines. While the diesel is what will rake in the moolah for Tata, the petrol engine is what caught our fancy because of that turbocharger it has latched on to it. This is the same engine that will eventually make it under the hood of JT Special Vehicle’s hot hatch so it definitely will get sporting cred. It puts out 108.5bhp and 170Nm, and isn’t really outclassed in terms of numbers when compared to the competition here. The crucial bit here though is the price. While the Nexon’s variant we’re testing is the most expensive top-of-the-line petrol Nexon XZ+ trim, you can get the base Nexon XE for Rs 5.85 lakh. Sure it scrounges on equipment – there’s no entertainment system, speakers, DRLs, parking sensors or automatic climate control – but it still packs that engine under its bulging hood.
The Tata Nexon doesn’t look sporty. It looks young, quirky, different… but not sporty. It’s a compact SUV-hatchback crossover after all, and that means it has flab – some 287kg more than the Baleno RS. You also sit high up in typical SUV style. So straight off the bat, the Nexon doesn’t have the credentials to be an enthusiast’s car but then when you get in and drive it, it will pleasantly surprise you. The engine is punchy — it has lag below 2500rpm but once the turbo has spooled up, it gets a move on. The engine is a three-cylinder one and it is a bit noisy without the refinement of the four-cylinder TSI or even the three-cylinder Boosterjet. The gearbox has nice short throws, almost (but not quite) as sweet shifting as the Baleno’s.
However, the Nexon easily has the most supple ride quality of any car here — it is nicely controlled and though it is slightly on the stiffer side, it handles bad roads really well with good damping. The real highlight of this car is the way it handles bendy roads. Something you don’t expect of a tall car is good body control around bends but that’s where the Nexon shines. There is slight body roll, but you lean on it and it carries good speeds without descending into messy understeer. Again, the chassis responds progressively to your inputs and it corners well. Another thing that Tata have got spot on is the steering. It is well weighted and there is feedback from the wheels when you’re really thrashing it in the corners. This connection is missing in a lot of new cars these days, including the Polo and the Baleno. It actually feels like a great driver’s car, except you’re sitting a foot higher than you should be courtesy the SUV packaging.
We’ve been comparing the Nexon to proper hatchbacks so far. But what about a crossover? Essentially a jacked up Abarth Punto, the Fiat \Urban Cross is the only other turbo petrol crossover at this price point. Now the Urban Cross is a little old school – Fiat seemed to have bothered only about getting that engine spot on, and thought the rest of the car would engineer itself. It’s got strange ergonomics, little space and questionable dynamics but under the hood is the party piece. The 1.4-litre T-Jet engine belts out 140bhp and 210Nm — by far the highest of any car here, and it sure as hell feels the fastest. There is tons of torque steer when the turbos light up, it spins its wheels even in second gear, and it even has a sub-10 second 0-100kmph time.
However the issues are apparent. The gearbox is rubbery, the space inside is cramped, it lacks basic equipment like a reversing camera (or even sensors!) and the interiors look dated. Jacking up the suspension has messed up the dynamics as well. While the Abarth Punto has sorted body control, the Urban Cross just doesn’t respond with the same finesse around corners. The ride quality is good, yes, but again it can get a bit wallowy. Even though the tailgate mounted spare wheel has been knocked off, the car still feels heavy if you fling it around enthusiastically. There is good feel through the steering though, and while it is the most expensive car here, it makes sense if you factor in the discounts Fiat dealers will throw at you.
The Nexon has this wonderful duality about it — it has the capability to thrill, while retaining the stance of a more traditional upright SUV. That duality is precisely what prompted us to bring this odd bunch of cars together. This test is not so much a comparison as it is laying down the segment benchmarks in the sub-10 lakh rupee segment and then seeing whether this newcomer can light the fires of the enthusiast. The fact that it can hold its own against the likes of the Polo GT TSI and the Baleno RS speaks volumes about its capabilities. Would we recommend it over the two? Yes – if a compact SUV is what you’re after and particularly so if your budget is tight. The Nexon lowers the entry point in to this elite group by a significant amount. Under 6 lakh for a turbo-petrol — that’s unheard of!
It also shows its only direct rival, the Urban Cross, how a properly engineered chassis can transform the whole package. The Nexon simply makes for the better car with its properly tuned set up. All its gizmos, the space and undercutting it on price just add more reasons to why it makes sense. Tata is really on to something here.