The new Zen Estilo is for the most part a carry forward of the original Suzuki MR Wagon. With a tried and tested engine, the Estilo is undoubtedly a smart, stylish package that should find a number of young buyers.

S. Muralidhar

Maruti's premium compact car the Zen had an amazing run right until early this year, when it was yanked off the turntables at the company's showrooms.

It was the first premium compact car in the country. The enviable 13-year history of sales is the highlighted by the fact that Maruti had but once tried to give the Zen a facelift.

The car had had a loyal the fan following that had fallen for the car's jellybean design. But with the entry of more players and choice in the compact car segment widening, the Zen's design did seem less attractive, though it still had the trusted, peppy and rev-happy engine that was a delight to drive for the enthusiast and the novice alike.

That despite its production having been stopped from March, the Zen should win the top honours in TNS' Total Customer Satisfaction Study 2006 under the premium compact segment, ahead of the Hyundai Santro and the Tata Indica, no doubt made Maruti sit up. The company also divined the Zen's undiminished image amongst the young and the old, as also among the performance and the style conscious alike.

The Zen brand is quintessentially Japanese and with its strong recall, Maruti-Suzuki was not going to let it die. So, after a breather, the Zen is back adorning the panels of a completely new premium compact car. Here's the new Zen Estilo, the all-new small car from Suzuki with a refreshed, but recognisable brand name.

Spanish twist

The Zen Estilo (with a lowered emphasis on the `t', Spanish style) is, even as the name seems to suggest, an amalgam of Japanese simplicity and European chic. Put together to conform to the standards of a `monoform' design, the car is for the most part a carry forward of the original Suzuki MR Wagon, the Japanese parent's popular small car.

The MR Wagon was introduced in 2000-01 and sold only in Japan for about four years, before it was withdrawn last year. The car is about a generation old by definition, but barely looks the age.

After withdrawing it from the Japanese market, Suzuki and Maruti decided, in February 2005, that this small car could be an apt addition to the latter's family of premium compacts in India. After some quick redesigning and re-engineering to partially change the looks at the front and the rear and for integrating the relatively bigger 1.1-litre Wagon-R engine (the Japanese version was offered with a 660cc engine), Maruti managed to roll out the car from within about 18 months.

`Estilo' means `stylish' in Spanish and the car's design has a lot of that European panache all around. At first glance, the new Zen looks a lot like a minaturised family van. But that is because of its smooth flowing, simple lines and the monoform design. It is a blend of the jellybean and tallboy designs, giving it a unique stance and looks. With what seems to be a cab-forward stance and straight free flowing lines, the Zen Estilo will stand out in a parking lot, even though there are hints of the Wagon-R in its overall design, especially when looked at from a distance.

Large trapezoidal headlamps dominate the short, sharply sloping bonnet. The clear-lens type headlamps feature large twin reflectors that house the primary, high beam and turn indicator bulbs. Flowing and merging with the lines of the small bonnet panel is a simple grille with a single slat, centred Suzuki logo and chrome lipping.

Just below the grille, the oversized front bumper features an Indian R&D designed addition a deep cut, curved notch that gives the Zen Estilo a smile. A large air dam in the bumper, with fog lamps (in the top-end variant) on either side balances the front design.

From the side, the Zen Estilo's monoform design is easier to discern. The windscreen gradually swoops up and narrows as the roofline begins. The roof gradually slopes downwards to the rear where it meets the hatch door.

The rear is relatively simpler with triangular tail lamps, Wagon-R style rear glass and oversized bumpers. The Zen Estilo badging is featured prominently to the right of the hatch door.

The deep angle of the new Zen's A-pillars and the wider curve of the C-pillar leave room for quarter glasses at the front, before the outside rear view mirror (ORVM), and just after the rear doors. At the side, body-coloured lift-up style door handles have been borrowed from the Wagon-R and the new, larger ORVMs offer a better view of the action at the rear. The mirrors can also be adjusted electrically in the top-end VXi .

Fresh interiors

Despite the ground clearance being similar to the Wagon-R and high shoulder line, the new Zen has a lot of glass area all around giving the interiors a well-lit, airy feel. The Maruti R&D and Suzuki engineers have collaborated to effect the design changes and the new material used for the Zen Estilo. Some of the biggest changes have been done to the interiors.

In keeping with the new Zen's young and upmarket positioning, the interior has been given a plush, premium feel. A two-tone colour theme has been adopted to offer a feature that is usually found only in sedans. The dashboard has a simple, symmetrical layout, with Swift style combination of circular and rectangular air-conditioning vents. The three-spoke steering wheel has a nice firm feel to it.

Right behind the steering, the instrument cluster has been jazzed-up to give it a 3-D effect. Featuring a deep yellow and orange colour theme, the dials of the speedo and rpm meters give the interior a special night-time charm. A slot for a 2-DIN music system, rotary knobs for controlling the air-conditioner's thermostat, fan speed and airflow direction, a flip out cup holder and ashtray are provided on the dash's centre console.

To the right of the dashboard, a cellphone holder-cum-open storage slot adds storage space to the slightly crooked and cramped glovebox. The open storage slot would have housed a front passenger airbag in other markets. To the left and just below the steering wheel is a coin storage slot, in addition to the headlamp-levelling switch.

There is a lot of plastic in the new Zen's interior, a feature that is not unusual in this segment of cars. But, thankfully, the quality of plastics used in the Zen Estilo is top notch. With the car so snub-nosed, there had to be a bit of intrusion into the passenger cabin space for accommodating the engine. That has led to the dashboard featuring a fairly large swathe of surface on top. Again, thanks to the non-reflecting type good quality plastic used, this does not affect the driver by reflecting daylight off the windscreen.

Despite a couple of other small storage options being offered, we did feel that there could have been a floor console with additional space. The centre console on the dash also ends abruptly and could have instead flowed on to the panel housing the gearshift stick.

The seats in the Zen Estilo have been redesigned for providing better support and sport fresh new upholstery that is both meant to match the dual tone colour theme of the interior and also be appealing to younger buyers. The rear seat is not split folding type and features shingle-style, adjustable headrests.

Common parts

The Zen Estilo shares its platform with the Alto and the Wagon-R. Maruti has shrewdly commonalised a number of parts of the Wagon-R for the new Zen, enabling a good cut in costs. One key part that is also shared is the powertrain.

The same 1,061cc, four-cylinder engine and five-speed gearbox combo that power the Wagon-R have been strapped on to the new Zen. The engine's characteristics are identical, putting out a peak power of 64bhp at 6,200 rpm and maximum torque of 84Nm at 3,500 rpm.

But Maruti engineers have marginally tweaked the gear ratios of the new Zen to enable the engine to deliver better power to a vehicle that is slightly heavier than the Wagon-R. The Zen Estilo's suspension set-up is also similar to the Wagon-R's McPherson struts with a torsion type roll control device at the front and coil springs with gas-filled shock absorbers and a three-link suspension at the rear.

One feature that we felt Maruti could have done better with is replacing the thin 155/65 R13 tyres with wider rubber for better drivability. Obviously, Maruti's habit of employing every trick there is to keep the car's fuel efficiency right up there must have played a part in this choice.

Smoother gearbox

With the raised ground clearance, tall seating position and the rest of the borrowed components, one does tend to get the impression that the new Zen drives very much like the Wagon-R. Maruti engineers have done a great job of packing the Wagon-R's engine into the cramped bay of the Zen Estilo.

Based on feedback from the early customers of the original Wagon-R, Maruti has also worked on refining the gearbox that has been carried forward into the new Zen. As a result, the shift feel has definitely improved, but with the shift stick still being quite tall, a certain degree of vibration transfer is felt in the Estilo.

Another highlight that may be missed by many is the noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) packing that has been improved to reduce the cabin noise caused by the engine's proximity to the passenger area in the new Zen compared to the Wagon-R. A driver-side airbag and anti-lock braking are being offered as optional safety features on the top-end VXi variant.

Maruti will launch the Zen Estilo in the coming week and can be expected to price the car aggressively, in the Rs 3-3.6 lakh range.

The Zen Estilo is undoubtedly a smart, stylish package that should find a number of young buyers. With a tried and tested engine, known for its fuel efficiency too, the Zen's brand image could get a boost, though on a completely new car.

Advantage, monoform design

The new Zen Estilo's monoform design concept has quite a fan following. This is not the first car with the monoform exterior design, nor is it restricted to the small-car segment.

The Daewoo Matiz was a classic example of the monoform design, as is the Mercedes Benz A-class hatch.

Also, the Toyota Innova and the Honda Civic conform loosely to the monoform definition.

As the name seems to suggest, a car that features a monoform design has a single line defining its form. Starting from the front bumper, the design line (more evident from the side) swoops all the way to the rear bumper in one, uninterrupted sinuous stroke.

This would mean that the regular classic sedan mould or the simple two-box mould will not conform to this standard as the design line for these style of vehicles will be interrupted at the windscreen and the boot area.

This also obviously means that the monoform design will, to a large extent, require a cab-forward style basic structure.

Inherently, the monoform design enables carmakers push out the two axles to the extremes, thereby dramatically reducing the overhang and maximising the wheelbase, which in turn improves cabin space.

Cars sporting a monoform design also carry-off bright body colours very well.

No wonder the Zen Estilo is being offered with colours such as brilliant yellow, purple fusion, sparkling olive and bright red.

They should also find acceptance amongst the `Metrosexuals' in the 25-30 years age group, who are Maruti's primary targets for the new Zen.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 3, 2006)
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