Legend meets the Living : Maruti Suzuki Zen v/s VW Polo GT TDI

  • Mar 14, 2014

The year is 1993, and Maruti Suzuki takes the company dominated Indian hatchback scene by storm with the introduction of the Zen hatchback. The Zen is like nothing else the country has seen as it is a hatchback that comes with coil spring suspension featuring an independent McPherson setup at the front and a 3link rigid axle with isolated trailing arm at the rear. This along with an extremely effective airconditioning system gave this car somewhat of a luxury car status in its time in India. I say ‘luxury car status’ also because back in 1993, it did wear quite a hefty price tag and to put this in context, most of India could not afford the Maruti 800 in those days.

But the luxury notion of the Zen was laid to rest by petrolheads across the country who quickly realized that the true potential of the Zen lay under the hood. The car’s 1.0 litre petrol engine was a sensation in its time, its rev happy nature combined with the car’s light kerb weight of 765kg gave the Zen performance that few cars on our roads could match. It would also be worth mentioning that the Zen was such a hit among enthusiasts that it became popular in the Indian racing scenario in no time. And modified versions of the G10B engine went on to produce over 100PS of power. Zens were even made to run on injected doses of nitrous oxide for added oomph during those drag races!

This by default made the Maruti Suzuki Zen ‘India’s first hot hatchback’. A title the little hatchback holds onto with pride as even after eight years since its production came to an end, many Maruti Suzuki Zens are still on the road today.

Talking about today, we have here with us India’s current fastest hot hatchback, the Volkswagen Polo GT TDI. At this point enthusiasts will raise their eyebrows and shout, “What about the Polo GT TSI”? The answer to the question is that, while both cars have a top speed of 190 km/h, the GT TDI is quicker than the GT TSI as per timings. The Polo GT TDI does 0-100 km/h in 10.51 seconds while the Polo GT TSI takes 10.91 seconds. The GT TDI takes 17.20 seconds to do a quarter mile while the GT TSI takes 17.72 seconds. Right, now that we have established the current fastest hot hatch, lets see how it compares to its rival from two decades ago.

In its day, VXi variant of the Type 3 example of the Maruti Suzuki Zen retailed with an estimated ex-showroom price of Rs. 4.35 lakh. Today, the price for a good example of the Type 3 Zen VXi is worth around Rs. 1,75,000. While a brand new Volkswagen Polo GT TDI will set you back by Rs. 8.10 lakh ex-showroom Delhi.

To give you a context here, this is not a straight out head to head comparison as the Volkswagen Polo GT TDI packs in a bigger engine that develops more power than the Zen’s engine. And lets get this out of the way, the Polo GT TDI is faster than the Zen.

You might be wondering then, what this shootout is all about. Well, think of it as an exhibition match. A display of what these cars are all about and focus more on what we enthusiasts rave about, the true experience of a car. And on those grounds, the Zen still holds a candle to some of the best hatchbacks in the country.

Without further ado, lets get down to the exhibition match between India’s original hot hatchback and India’s fastest hot hatchback.

Round 1: Exteriors

Lets begin with the legend, the particular car you see here is the last avatar of the icon that once was. Launched in 2003, this Type 3 model of the Maruti Suzuki Zen VXi has a rectangular double slat grille with the Suzuki logo placed in the centre, clear lens headlamps, body coloured bumper with a trapezoidal air intake in the centre and fog lamp housings at either end. The windscreen is nicely raked and the bonnet has a subtle power dome.

The Volkswagen Polo GT TDI has much of a similar front profile with a raked windscreen that also has a curved stance, the bonnet has a subtle power dome, a sleek double slat grille finished in black with chrome linings lending a premium appeal, while the bumper gets a black air dam in the centre with fog lamp housings at either end while the clear lens headlights have black borders to lend a visual contrast.

The side profile of the Maruti Zen VXi has simple and elegant lines that give it mildly flared wheel arches, black ORVMs, door handles and rubber beading on the lower section of the doors, along with black steel rims with multi-spoke wheel covers. The side profile of the Polo GT TDI too has mildly flared wheel arches, blacked out window line with two tone rear view mirrors, body coloured door handles, a sharp belt line stretching from the front apron to the tail light, a nice kink in the lower section of the doors and 10 spoke alloy wheels.

Around the back, the Maruti Suzuki Zen VXi has a busy little rear end with the license plate mounted in the centre, clear lens tail lights with multi reflector stop lamps, badging between the lights and the plate housing that has the Suzuki logo mounted on the top centre section. Then there is the rear defogger window with wash wipe. It would be worth mentioning that earlier models of the Zen got windshields with rubber seals while this Type 3 model got a more modern way of attaching windshields that is used today. Oh yes, and that rear spoiler is not standard equipment. The bumper has three trapezoidal sections, a large one in the centre and two smaller ones at either end housing the rear fog lamps.

The Type 3 Zen was sold in five colours, namely, Superior White, Bright Red, Silky Silver, Beam Blue and Pearl Silver.

In comparison, the Volkswagen Polo GT TDI has a minimalistic design approach that works in giving it a very elegant and stylish rear end with sleek rear window, large tail lamps, a VW badge in the centre sections that doubles up as the hatch release, GT and TDI badging on either side and a large bumper housing the license plate in the centre.

The Volkswagen Polo GT TDI is offered in three shades, namely Flash Red, Candy White and Deep Black. Its also worth noting that the GT versions of the Polo are not available in any metallic paint schemes and the three shades mentioned above are all solid colours.

Round 2: Interiors

On the inside, the Maruti Suzuki Zen greets you with a sea of dull gray plastics, but then again this is a car from the 90s and hatchbacks still had exposed metal parts inside the cabin. The quality of plastics is acceptable even today with soft touch plastics on the door pads that are trimmed in fabric at the top, while the dashboard plastics look like new after all these years. The front seats got curved contours that hold you better in place around corners while the rear seats got more cushioning and head rests. For tall passengers rear leg room is an issue and so is under thigh support while passengers of average height have a fairly comfortable rear seat experience. Fitting three abreast on the rear seat is a bit tight though.

Hot hatchbacks also need to be well equipped to complete the overall package, and this being the top-of-the-line VXi trim the car was very well kitted vehicle for its time. Loaded with central locking, power steering, front power windows, day/night interior rear view mirror, vanity mirror on the passenger side sun visor, front cup holders, manual internally adjustable ORVMs, air conditioning and heating, power outlet at the front, front and rear fog lamps, child locks for the rear doors, seatbelts for all five passengers, rear defogger and rear wash wipe. The Zen also had 210 liters of boot space which was rather spacious for its time and added to the practical nature of the car.

The Volkswagen Polo GT TDI comes in the top end Highline trim that packs in remote central locking, one touch up/down power windows all around, day/night interior rear view mirror, vanity mirror on passenger side sun visor, front cup holders, power outlet, electrically adjustable ORVMs, climate control, rear defogger and wash wipe, four speakers hooked to a double din stereo with USB, SD card, Bluetooth and AUX connectivity with steering mounted controls for phone calls, volume controls for the stereo and changing tracks.

This being a Volkswagen, the interiors are very well appointed with quality materials that feel tough and built to last. Fit and finish is good with Titanschwarz fabric upholstery for the seats, leather wrapped steering, gear knob and hand brake lever along with chrome accents on the air vents and switchgear that give the dashboard an upmarket appeal. Seat comfort is good for both rows of seats with good under thigh support and head room while there is a fair amount of shoulder room for three passengers at the back. The Polo GT TDI has a boot space of 280 liters.

Round 3: Engine and Gearbox

Now that we have dealt with all the aesthetics, let’s get down to business. Under the hood, the Type 3 Maruti Suzuki Zen is powered by an all-aluminum 1.0 litre, four cylinder, 16 valve, fuel injected engine that develops 61PS of power @ 6,000 rpm and 78Nm of torque @ 4,500 rpm. This may not sound like much today, but back in the day the Zen’s light kerb weight of 765 kg did help did give it a rather peppy nature.

That said, the engine has two very distinct characteristics. When you go light on the throttle the Zen feels like your average compact hatchback puttering about town in an economical manner that returns 16 km/pl with the air con off during winters and around 14 km/pl with the air con running full blast during the summers. And yes, the unit truly is effective as you have to reduce the fan speed after some time when it gets a tad chilly even during peak Delhi summers.

Put your foot down and the car instantly changes character with the engine note changing to an angry tone that brings the car to life. It’s at the higher end of the rev band that engine comes into its own with a nice vibration setting into the floor panel as you approach the redline. And when you do this, trust me the Zen is seriously fast. The five-speed gearbox is a slick shifting unit and gearshifts are spot on, something that aids in exploiting the true potential of the engine. Another fact that never fails to impress me is about the top end punch of the all aluminum engine is that power never tails off. The needle nudges 160 km/h on the speedo without breaking a sweat and stays there till you lift off. Ofcourse, there is some speedo error as is the case with all cars but being a petrol-head, I like a car that can fully utilize its speedo - very few standard production cars can do that.

The engine has absolutely no flat spot even when you drive with half-hearted enthusiasm. But to truly realize the true potential of the car, you must go pedal to the metal and when you do, there is no looking back. The sensation of driving dominates everything and the minimalistic approach of cars from the yesteryears lets you feel every bit of whats going on, and the Zen will get you hooked! Which is a good thing as the tireless engine lets you go all out, all day long without breaking a sweat. And this is a 9 year old car mind you!

The Volkswagen Polo GT TDI on the other hand is a very different performance machine owing to its diesel engine. The 1.6 litre common rail turbo diesel engine develops 105PS of power @ 4,000 rpm and 250Nm of torque between 1,500 and 2,500 rpm. While NVH levels have been well contained, the diesel clatter is always evident right from the time you start the engine. As the revs rise the engine note turns to a nice growl at the far end of the rev band. The engine always has enough power when you are in traffic and there is hardly any turbo lag. When you floor it there is some lag until the turbo kicks in, but once it does there is no looking back as the surge of torque catapults you in to the horizon in no time and I never get tired of saying that this is a seriously fast car.

The  Polo GT TDi comes with a five-speed gearbox that no doubt is accurate and has a short throw, but shift quality needs to be bettered for smoother and faster gear changes. The clutch though is light and although there is a lot of pedal travel, the wide torque curve doesn’t require you to change gears very often in city traffic.

The engine is fairly rev happy for a diesel and as long as you keep the turbo spooling, the Polo GT TDI always has enough power up to 5,000 rpm when power begins to tail off. And ofcourse, even after spirited driving, this car will be easy on the pocket, thanks to lower cost of diesel over petrol!

Round 4: Handling and Braking

The suspension setup of the Zen as mentioned above also comes fitted with gas filled shock absorbers that do a good job at damping our uneven and pothole spotted roads as long as you keep the speed low. But body roll is fairly pronounced and carrying high speeds around corners causes the car to lean a bit. However, once you get used to it, the Zen can be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and with some steering trickery can be made to exit some very fast corners, with a fair bit of drama ofcourse.

I especially love the chassis of the Zen, it is beautifully balanced and even when you push it to the limit with a nice four wheel drift, the car is always under control. Its sort of a bare-bones go-kart experience that you simply can’t put a price on.

The only let down here is the steering, the Type 3 Maruti Suzuki VXi Zen comes with electric power steering that does make for a breeze while parking the car in tight spaces and maneuvering in traffic. But when it comes to feedback, like all electronic units, there just isn't enough communication between it and the front wheels. Although, you get used to it over time and know what the car is doing. Its also worth mentioning though that it never goes light even at top whack.

Stopping power is provided by disc brakes up front and drums at the rear that manage to provide effective braking. And it must be said that the threshold for the wheels to lock up is rather decent.

The Volkswagen Polo GT TDI comes with McPherson Strut suspension upfront and semi-independent trailing arm suspension at the back with coil springs all around and gas shock absorbers. I would say that Volkswagen has struck a good balance in setting up the suspension as the car deals with broken roads rather well and remains unsettled by pot holes even at high speeds. There is some amount of body roll under high speed cornering. But its nothing you can’t deal with, the only grouch is that you can always feel the weight of the heavy diesel engine upfront, something that tells you to back off a bit. Not to worry though as the 185/60 R15 tyres provide good traction at all times.

Like in the Zen, the electronic power steering unit in the Polo GT TDI is accurate but does not weigh up in a consistent manner and feedback could have been more accurate. Another disappointment is that while road noise is contained, rough roads send vibrations off the pedals and on to your feet.

The VW Polo GT TDI comes with disc brakes at the front and drum brakes at the rear that are identical to those of the standard Polo and I’ am sorry to report that they simply can’t contain the power of the big engine. You really have to kick the centre pedal in to slow the car down at high speeds. Still, atleast there is ABS to prevent any drama.

Round 5: Safety

The Maruti Suzuki Zen’s age begins to show here as there are hardly any safety features aboard while the more modern Polo packs in front airbags, anti-lock brakes and multiple crumple zones. Although, in a recent Global NCAP crash test, it was only the airbag equipped Polo that was deemed crash worthy.

Another safety concern with the two cars is visibility in the dark. Both cars need brighter headlamps for better illumination at night.


Both the Maruti Suzuki Zen and the Volkswagen Polo GT TDI are fast cars. While the Zen offers a more feel some and exciting drive experience with a meaty top end, the Polo GT TDI is a faster car full stop. The Zen is more refined with its petrol engine and its compact dimensions make it a breeze to drive in urban environs while the Polo is a more modern, better built and safer car.

One is India’s original hot hatchback while the other is India’s fastest hot hatchback. They are a triumph over monotonous motoring, over average hatchbacks, over equipment and style focused cars of which we have many. They are driver’s cars that appeal to motoring enthusiasts who understand and appreciate performance machines and most of all, love to drive. They are both winners, albeit a decade apart.

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