It is a strange thing this, Maruti-Suzuki the most grounded of Indian car makers flying high – in spirit – with its wild naming spree of its most recent new car models. Take its Sting Ray moniker, this was way too extreme especially for its blunt nosed styling approach to the Wagon R when all along the very mention of that evocative name makes one consider the decidedly 1960s muscular chic exemplified by the Chevrolet Corvette, especially the twin window fastback versions.
Given this context then the all new addition to Maruti-Suzuki’s large small car portfolio is certainly not a fruity take or a salacious edible on a lunch or dinner spread but actually a model name that comes to India from the firm’s global portfolio, one that has done duty in Japan but rather more prominently in south east Asian markets. The all-new Celerio is actually a move by the market leader to do the impossible using its vast product bin and utilizing vital bits and pieces to come up with a car that is incrementally in tune with the times and the competition. Oh and by the way lets get the name out of the way – celestial river is what Celerio means literally in the Latin or Greek but the moot point is whether this car has the wherewithal to do the business and ramp up the passion for more punters to upgrade within the Maruti-Suzuki portfolio while also sucking in many others from the competition.
The Celerio is a large hatchback deemed to operate in the space where normally the Ritz operates at the top end and the Wagon R at the other extreme. What this clearly illustrates is that it is an even narrower band that has now been further thin-sliced by its maker to make room to push in yet another small car offering. Fathom this and you begin to understand why this carpet-bombing approach at the base of the huge 2.0 million plus car Indian market has paid rich dividends for its maker. Also precisely the reason why others haven’t got to grips with confronting it with the challenge needed, either individually or collectively!
DESIGN & STYLE: Substance for the former and an abject lack when we factor the latter element!
So having established the reason for its introduction lets move to this all-new car, which is longer, wider and decidedly different in its design language from other Suzuki models of the last 5 years. Code-named YL7, this was in the making for the last couple of years. Using a mix of technical resources from Japan and India, the Celerio cannot in any sense of the term be termed stylish even though its makers claim that it does sport character highlights to make it appealing. This CICO (curve in, curve out) approach does have the by now de rigeur character slashes on the flanks, both below the waist line and one just kicking up above the sill level. Add to that a new wide stance smiley grille up front (almost an interpretation of the Toyota Liva with more slats thrown in) flanked by decidedly rakish swept back headlamps, an even more stylized front bumper with a sizeable air dam and also a stepped bonnet line to indicate contemporary style.
We found the styling to be pretty bland to state the obvious but then there is method in the madness and that calls for a peek at the specifications or a physical measurement of the car’s dimensions. It is not about its 3600mm length but the all-new 2425mm wheelbase floorpan that the car sports along with a very wide track that helps to deliver a 1600mm overall width which helps with the Celerio being endowed that vital bit we term presence. There certainly are prettier small cars around but then the Celerio is the one with the presence among the new crop and it certainly emerges strong in this intangible strain which is so very much a small car holy grail.
With next to no overhangs front or rear and with the 14-inch wheels marking up all four corners, one can make out a pretty lusty-to-devour approach that pays handsomely once you step into the cabin – probably the most spacious we have seen to date in a Suzuki hatchback. And when you take in the fact that newer tackle from the competition – especially the Ford EcoSport - pales in comparison in this regard you know that even without saying it Maruti Suzuki is delivering that knock out punch from the start! Also a point worthy of mention is that when you pop up the hatch you can squeeze in 235-litres in volume terms of luggage. It is not just about the dimensions that are significant but the fact that the car tips the scales at just around 810 to 830kg (kerb weight depending on trim and equipment levels specified) and you begin to get the picture.
A logical corollary to this light weight approach was to ask whether the Celerio meets impact legislation and the Maruti Suzuki boffins informed that it does meet all Indian crash test norms thanks to not just better design of crumple zones and such but also because of the ample use of high tensile steel sections in critical areas of the Celerio’s monocoque. These help give it that strength and rigidity to go with the lightweight package and as we shall see going forward there are other benefits to mind and heart as well.
CHASSIS & SUSPENSION: All new cobbled up using best thoughts and raiding the ample yet varied Suzuki small car parts bin!
What is truly impressive about the Celerio’s chassis and suspension is not that it breaks any new ground but just very careful design and optimization has gone into getting the structure spot on not just for rigidity but also for NVH and the same holds true for the suspension front and rear. No radical advances on any front here but just precision and discipline in the design and the manufacturing process to get the sum of the parts to deliver big. McPherson struts do the business up front while a coupled torsion beam axle with coil springs holds up the rear. The Celerio comes with electrically assisted power steering that is nicely weighted rather than having ample feel or feedback but given the category it serves, this is far more important than being razor sharp or overtly telepathic. Nonetheless a 4.7-metre turning radius is nothing to sneer at for a car of its proportions – especially that wide bit.
The Celerio runs on 165/70-R14s on the VXi and higher versions while the entry level LXi version rides on 155/80-R13 rubber. Tyres on all the test cars at our disposal in Jodhpur were on JKs and they seemed well tuned to the overall ride of the car. Brakes up front are ventilated discs with drums being the preferred option on the rear wheels. Surprisingly ABS is not offered, even as an option and it is only penciled in on the top end ZXi and that too as option! Maybe Maruti Suzuki needs to suss this out sooner rather than later and make this a hygiene factor just as air con and power steering have before it.
ENGINE & TRANSMISSION: Tweaked to the gills is the former while a virtual bunny out of the magician’s hat for the latter!
One of the biggest assets these days for any small car is to rely on a frugal but very well built one-litre petrol mill capable of delivering the torquey driveability that ends up paying big in low fuel costs. Many carmakers the world over have realized that a three-cylinder in-line unit is the best configuration to employ in such a scenario and Suzuki is no different. However, what is important to note is that Suzuki has more experience of triples than many other big names in the auto business and its 998cc K10B unit (christened by its marketing whiz as the K-Next engine) is brilliant in its role under the bonnet of the Celerio. It has been extensively given the once over (even though it is a relative youngster in the business!) especially in the areas of friction reduction and also in subtle ignition revisions so that the recalibrated maps help deliver 90Nm of torque at a very easy 3500rpm. Comparatively not too heavy on tech unlike the EcoBoost motor made by Ford for duty in the EcoSport, the K10B engine is though far more consistent and stable without being way too sensitive in our driving conditions, something which negates the very plank on which the Ford is expected to shine!
I mentioned earlier that NVH was a key detail that the Maruti-Suzuki engineers paid a great deal of attention to and apart from the rigid yet light structure and high tensile steel, the all-aluminium alloy engine has all new hydraulic engine mounts which help to keep the drive smooth and unfussy. Maruti-Suzuki has also picked a leaf from Honda’s manual on engine design and operation by formulating an all-new engine oil to reduce frictional losses and thereby help those 68 horses (developed at 6000rpm) thrumming nice and easy while also aiding the cause of low fuel consumption. Throw in high-grade polymer materials used in the intake manifold and also the fuel tank (35-litre capacity) and you can find further proof of the measures to better the power-to-weight ratio and aid in all round performance gains.
Brings me then to what is truly one of the smartest moves made by any carmaker in recent times to help fuel customer convenience further and that too in a positive manner with not much of a trade-off. Maruti-Suzuki have a choice of transmissions on offer with the Celerio, the standard unit is a robust slick-shifting 5-speed manual transaxle but the other transmission is the one where the clutch pedal goes missing in the footwell area of the cabin. Before you jump to saying another automatic wait, for it isn’t exactly an automatic slush box or even a dual clutch unit but an automated actuator helping to clutch-declutch and shift gears automatically dependent on throttle position and revs. This electronically controlled actuator helps control and synchronize both clutch and gear shift operations and is actually a cost effective and very efficient way to deliver ease of driving especially in our intensely chaotic driving conditions.
Now we have had all-automatic transmissions even in small Marutis and Hyundais but these never could deliver the pocket-soothing operation of their manual-transmission siblings and loss of fuel efficiency was a major bugbear. Hence this solution now which results in the Celerio being pegged at an ARAI-tested 23.1kmpl! Yes you read that right – 23.1 kmpl which is indeed the same for the Celerio with manual or automated gear shift ‘box! And more importantly, this Auto Gear Shift, as termed in Maruti-Suzuki parlance can be employed in either full auto mode by its driver or be actuated in manual mode with sequential shifts backwards to go up the gearbox or forwards while shifting down – almost like on my BMW 525d! The ASG also has a creep function built into its electronic brain while the Kick Down facility for added thrust during overtaking is just like in a regular automatic.
INTERIOR & APPOINTMENTS: Large, spacious & comfortable but could have been better appointed!
I just couldn’t get to stay away from saying the obvious and even though it was barely a run under 150km in and out of Jodhpur, the fact that the Celerio impressed in more ways than one marks it out as one of the major automotive stars of 2014. First off lets get into it logically by sliding behind the steering wheel and lo behold what you have is a terrific driving position – right seat height, good forward and peripheral vision with no blind spots by a recalcitrant A-pillar and perfect ergonomics given the class of car that it is. Space is the key attribute to the cabin but along with the space also come new design fabric for the seats and a dual tone treatment to the dashboard. I like the way the interior packaging engineers had worked their craft but the door pads seemed too low rent for a car of this class. Maybe Maruti-Suzuki is picking a leaf from the Honda-Toyota way of doing small cars here rather than what should obviously be the other way around! Getting back to richer plastics the earlier would be a good bet we feel.
There is a new design steering wheel with multi-function controls for the stereo operation mounted on it. The Maruti-Suzuki engineers have gone a long way to making their electronically customizable central locking system packed with so many security settings that it made the head go dizzy. Too much fussiness here I thought when simplicity of operation would have been the way to go. Available on the option list is blue-tooth connectivity (shouldn’t be an option at all in this day and age we think), lane-change indicators plus of course alloy wheels. ABS as we mentioned is an option on the top end ZXi!
Speaking about comfort and space the driver’s seat has pretty much good configuration but could have done with a slightly larger surface area for the seat squab and in the zeal to reduce weight and also liberate a few extra millimetres for the back benchers, the seat backs have been made way too thin. The large cabin is sure to win many friends and there is ample head, elbow and leg room for the back benchers, perhaps the best in the category even if you factor in the Honda Amaze. Throw in the large 235-litre boot space and over 15 different utility nooks and holders; the cabin is dotted with occupant convenience features. Another very important detail, which should delight many, is the ease with which the back doors swing open wide and the low sill height to get in and out of the rear seats. This is very good functionality and when you check out the well defined H-points for optimum ergonomic seating at the rear you will see that in the vital areas the packaging engineers have put in a commendable effort.
Instrumentation is simple with a large dial analogue speedo dominating the senses while on the central console on the dashboard the large rotary switches for the air con system stand out prominently. There are different stereo units available for the ZXi and the VXi versions while a multi-function information display is integrated into the instrument cluster. On the AGS-transmission equipped models, there is also a gear shift indicator on the instrument console informing the driver what cog he is in should he need to be reminded.
FIRST DRIVE IMPRESSIONS: Very positive & surprisingly close to perfect in class!
The first thing that strikes you is how good the car feels once it starts rolling and the driving position certainly adds to the expectations. The engine is a jewel and really puts things into proper perspective, irrespective of the transmission employed. I drove the manual transmission car first and it was the usual slick and positive feel that Marutis are noted for. The manner in which the torque is produced - more than enough low down but strong and thick in the mid-range (which is what matters in Indian driving conditions) is the key to the Celerio's overall performance. There is not much to fault across the driving spectrum and in fact the strong driveability along with the light weight and also to a certain extent the new friction busting moves in the drivetrain are responsible for both in-gear driving thrust and also huge benefits in stretching the mileage to the 23.1kmpl claim made by its maker.
The ASG is the real game changer though and it works like a breeze. While not actually a proper automatic it does the job very efficiently with good shift quality (here time is of the essence) that is more than adequate for regular operation on our roads. There is provision built into the gear gate for using it as a proper automatic or if one prefers manual shift actuation that is also possible with the sequential shift gear change which is so very much like what I have in my daily driver - the BMW 525d. Driving the Celerio while in automatic mode, it is sheer modulation of the throttle pedal which will help effect the upshifts quicker if you intend to achieve both linear forward progression along with high fuel efficiency. I think that many owners will need to ge to grip with this throttle modulation bit but it isn't difficult to master and once you have mastered this line of action expect the Celerio in ASG guise to match its manual transmission-equipped sibling on the fuel efficiency front as well! Speakign with the Maruti-Suzuki engineers and product managers, I was told that in many a situation, with good understanding of the ASG mechanism plus the need to know when to get off the throttle and back again to effect the upshifts - its a "touchy-feely" thing this! - the ASG Celerio returned a shade higher efficiency than the manual!
I for one liked the creep facility which is so very much needed when crawling in slow bumper-to-bumper traffic and the best thing is that it keeps the engine humming in low revs without compromising on momentum or impacting the fuel efficiency. And of course there is also the kick down facility when in full auto mode to have extra thrust when needed to overtake just like in a proper automatic.
The ASG is a strong pointer to more convenience in the class for the masses and that too it is a smart yet less pricey method to deliver in the small car segment compared to a full blown automatic gearbox. The chances of this sort of a transmission also appearing in other models in the Maruti-Suzuki portfolio are more than bright but it will all depend on how effectively this piece of kit is priced - too high and it will negate everything, so how balanced is the sticker tag in comparison to the manual is going to be a big detail for the end user.
RIDE & HANDLING: Planted and neutral!
Having been allowed to drive the Celerio over a 150km route in and out of Jodhpur which features some very good quality tarmac surface, the Celerio felt superb. The wide track and the long wheelbase deliver a very planted feel and with the car being just rightly 'tyred' for our conditions and user appeal, the ride is fairly well damped. We will need to wait for a complete road test of the Celerio to deliver a more exacting verdict of the ride over a selection of roads but overall the package seems strong on this front
The steering is nicely weighted and has just about the right feel for this segment of car - you don't need overtly sensitive stuff from the front end coming up to overwhelm the family driver and that's how the Celerio impresses. All controls fall to hand and with a fantastic driving position, hauling and hurling the car through corners is made both enjoyable and predictably easy. The stance of the car under braking and turn-in is positive and will delight users in this class of car and overall this is a neutral handling, very stable proposition.
EARLY VERDICT: The making of a winner!
Overall this is the general high standard that we have come to expect from Maruti-Suzuki since the very first 800 rolled into the Indian psyche in the middle of the 1980s. It is however a more mature product, very much in tune with the contemporary and yet like the original a tremendous value offering in the class for the masses.
When we drove the Celerio in Jodhpur we were assigned one top ranking engineer / product planner to accompany us on the drive and also to keep track of our every nuance, quibble and impression of the car during the drive. What I didn’t like was the abject lack or even an effort to have air bags even as optional fitment in the equipment lists. I have also raked up the point of the lack of ABS, which in this day and age is so very vital. In so many respects Maruti-Suzuki has played the role of the market leader with aplomb and it carries this trait firmly forward even with the Celerio only to queer it somewhat on the missing safety bits. How much these make an impact to the pocket is for the market leader to educate and impress its customers and I am sorry to see this not having been attempted.
This apart, I think the price positioning of the Celerio would be vital, not just for its maker which wants to have the top five best sellers in India come from within its stable but also to contend with some heavy firepower coming in the small car class from so very many rivals. And should Maruti-Suzuki step up to the plate it would help further the ongoing evolution of the small car segment in the land.