The age of the small hatch masquerading as a jacked-up sports utility vehicle is not quite over. And with the SUV craving an ongoing trend, it is not surprising that many car manufacturers are still trying to leverage model life-cycles by building SUVs on hatchbacks. To be fair, there is a section of car buyers who are happy to buy an affordable vehicle sporting the SUV body-style, offering the practicality and versatility of a SUV, but which is still not one under its skin. But the market for badge-engineered hatches with just larger cladding and some cosmetic differentiators is on the wane. Maruti Suzuki showcased the Fronx during the Auto Expo earlier this year. And with this model, it is hoping to walk the fine line, offering its customers the SUV body-style with enough differentiators to separate it from its hatchback sibling.
The Fronx is based on the Baleno, and like the latter, it will also be retailed through Maruti Suzuki’s NEXA channel. It is a SUV-like hatch, which has more SUV character in the flesh than its pictures may seem to suggest. There’s much that Maruti Suzuki designers and engineers have done to make the platform siblings different from each other. Yet, there is now a design language that seems to run across a few models, giving them a familiar face. This is a first for a brand that has never had a family design language. The Fronx, the Baleno and the Grand Vitara now sport similar DRLs and the front fascia too bear resemblance.
Unlike its awkward sounding name, the Fronx’s design is quite refreshing and its stance exudes a SUV flavour. Much of that coming from the 190mm ground clearance (+20mm compared to the Baleno), the pronounced wheel arch cladding and the proportionately larger fenders with their faux underbody skid plates. The front design is sportier and more upright compared to the Baleno due to the main headlamps being positioned on either side of the fender, and the triple LED DRLs taking up the traditional headlamp position just below the bonnet slab.
Differentiating the bonnet grille design, the Fronx sports a glossy black grille, with a thick chrome band that runs across with the Suzuki ‘S’ logo in the middle. It doesn’t get a chrome frame for the grille. The front fender gets a layered construction, with the black cladding and the faux underbody protector providing contrast.
The side profile is where the design seems more hatchback like. But the roof rail, the side character garnish and the thick wheel cladding manage to deliver some SUV design impact. It is also the angle from which the higher clearance is obvious. The rear of the Fronx features connected LED tail-lamps with a light configuration that mirrors the tri-cube DRLs. The thin LED connecting section runs across and accentuates the sense of width of the Fronx. It also highlights the haunches of the Fronx and adds a parallel element to the sculpted lines on the rear fender. The design of the chunky faux underbody skid plate sends out the vibe of an off-roader. I was driving the top trim variants of the One-litre K-Series Turbo engine. So, some of the design features mentioned may not be available with lower trim variants.
In terms of dimensions, the Fronx shares its wheelbase with the Baleno and is different from the latter only with its 50mm increase in height. The length and width are only marginally more. The boot volume is a little lesser in the Fronx (308 litres) due to a slightly raised loading floor.
The interior of the new Fronx also seems different at first glance. There is still no mistaking the cabin to be from any other badge. But the black and wine-red combination of colours chosen for the theme works. At first glance, it looks very new, till I settle in behind the wheel and familiar elements start popping into my eyes. There are quite a few shared parts between the Fronx and the Baleno. The 3-spoke, leather-wrapped steering wheel, the infotainment system, and the instrument cluster are all elements that seem like straight lifts from the Baleno. The dashboard and the instrument binnacle are largely identical and only feature some minor variation in the inserts. The 9-inch infotainment system brings together several functions, offers wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and gets Arkamys surround sound tuning for the 6-speaker music system. Lower trim variants get a smaller 7-inch infotainment screen and, of course, fewer convenience features. The seats in my test mule featured fabric upholstery, and though the squabs were a tad soft, they offered decent support while cornering.
There were quite a few other features in the cabin, including rear aircon vents, wireless charging, 360-degree surround view camera and cruise control. The head-up display (HUD), which was introduced in the Baleno, finds its way into the Fronx too. Overall, cabin space and room for passengers is identical to the Baleno, which is frankly good for a SUV-body style in this south of Rs 10 lakh segment.
The dashboard construction is mix of materials including soft-touch panels. There was still quite a bit of glare on the windscreen under the afternoon sun in Goa. The top trims of the Fronx - Zeta and Alpha - get ‘Suzuki Connect’, connected car features with voice commands, and whole suite of useful features, including Amazon Alexa compatibility. Dual front airbags, reverse parking sensors, 3-point seatbelts, ESP and hillhold assist are standard across all trim variants. I missed a sunroof, more for a bit more light coming into the cabin than for any other utility that might offer.
The new Fronx is offered with two engine options - the 1.2-litre K-Series (K12N) dual jet, dual VVT petrol engine and the one-litre K-Series (K10C) Turbo Boosterjet petrol engine. As for transmission options, the 1.2L is offered with a 5-speed manual and an AMT (automated manual transmission) gearbox on it. The 1.0L Turbo is offered with a 5-speed manual and a 6-speed torque converter automatic. The 1,197 CC, dual VVT (variable valve timing) petrol engine is offered in the exact same state of tune as in the Baleno, and it delivers 89.7PS of maximum power and 113Nm of peak torque.
My test mules during the test drive organised by Maruti Suzuki last week were the top trim Alpha variants of the 1.0L Turbo Boosterjet engine, with the manual and automatic transmissions. This engine generates a max power of about 100PS and a peak torque of 147.6Nm from a low 2,000rpm. One-litre, 3-cylinder, turbocharged petrol motors today often manage to deliver on-road performance that is better than their bigger displacement, 4-cylinder counterparts. They’ve even managed to improve refinement levels and that gruff 3-cylinder noise has been replaced with a healthier sounding, very likeable petrol mill feedback. But many one-litre turbos aren’t frugal in the city driving cycle, where stop and go traffic with short spurts of acceleration leads to a big drop in fuel efficiency. However, folks at Maruti Suzuki have gotten over that problem by adding the company’s 48-volt ‘smart hybrid’ system, which should help stretch that petro-rupee. The 1.2L powertrain variants only get the idle start/ stop system.
The 1.0L Turbo Boosterjet engine has been reworked to meet RDE norms and to fit the character of the Fronx. The engine is best experienced when paired with the manual gearbox, or if you were to choose gears using the steering mounted paddles in the automatic. Despite the parallel assist from the smart hybrid and the turbo, there is a brief lull in the initial pick-up through the gears. It is probably a result of the engine tuning and to some extent the slightly shorter gearing. But once the needle closes in on the 2K mark, the Fronx takes off with gusto. Weaving through Goa traffic was a breeze. The Fronx still has a compact footprint, and it can be easy to manoeuvre and fun to drive in moderate traffic. You will need to shift down pre-emptively and be ready on the gas if you are expecting to get the most out of your commute. Compared to the Baleno, the tuning for the Fronx’s steering has been changed and that does add a bit more confidence at speed, though it is still lacking in feel. The claimed mileage figures for the 1.0L Turbo Boosterjet is 21.5kmpl (MT) and 20.1kmpl (AT). My test mules returned about 12.7kmpl after hours of driving without any focus on stretching the litre.
The ride quality in the Fronx is just a shade better than the Baleno, but that is probably more because of the quieter cabin. NVH packaging has been improved is what I was told. The slightly taller seating position and a marginally better view of the road is the other advantage. The suspension tuning has been focused on raising the vehicle without much of a compromise in the ride. So, while the suspension components themselves are identical to the Baleno, the spring rates and damper settings have been changed. The taller 16-inch rims and the higher profile 195/ 60 R16 tyres have also contributed to the higher clearance. The Fronx is being offered with five trim variants. The two base trims - Sigma and Delta - are only being offered with the 1.2L K12N engine. I expect prices to range between Rs 9 lakh and Rs 12 lakh.