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Zen: The old and new charm
December 02, 2006
The Mark II, III and IV were snubbed by the auto journo clan for "lacking soul". And it isn't now, until the Mark V, that all those detractors are looking at it with unashamed pride.
One might expect the same reaction when the new Zen Estilo hits the road this month. Its predecessor oozed charm from practically every corner, but it took the market nearly three years to realise it. When it was launched in 1993, the Maruti Zen nee Suzuki Alto wasn't taken too seriously.
People wondered as to why would anyone want a hatchback that was twice the price of a Maruti 800? But what they didn't know was that the car was significantly more powerful with a bigger engine, a sorted chassis, good build quality, an AC that chilled and marginally more space.
And then there were those jellybean lines that made it look contemporary on otherwise jaded roads. I remember that day in 1995, when my parents finally decided it was time to upgrade to a Zen from an 800 and I just couldn't control my enthusiastic glee.
Alas, the dealer had bad news in store - it wasn't available for another six months. It felt like reliving the licence raj once again, but it did highlight one fact. The market had accepted the Zen. Finally.
Several iterations of the Zen came along the way. The Passion Yellow Zen that commanded a premium. Then the Zen diesel in 1996 and the bells-and-whistles Zen VX in 1998 to take on the Hyundai Santro.
Maruti then committed harakiri by launching the Zen Classic the following year - imagine going retro at a time when retro cars were in production in India! But the biggest surprise that lay in store was the Zen MPFi. 16 valves and 60 horsepower was enough to propel this baby to a 100 clicks in less than 16 seconds.
It also spawned the modifying scene when souped-up Zens started to gain credence. By 2003, Maruti's luck with the Zen had started to dwindle and mere swapping of grilles didn't help matters.
So they headed back to the drawing board and launched the "all new" Zen with larger headlamps, differently styled tail-lamps and more crevices to store knickknacks in the dashboard. That, and the most expensive TV commercial ever made then wasn't enough to revive the Zen's fortunes. By March 2006, production of the car was set to be discontinued.
After having spent eight years with the car, I still can't help but smile every time I gnash those gears through the gate and be amazed by how quick the little thing still is. Maybe, just maybe, it might enter the hallowed motoring hall of fame. Like the VW Golf GTi Mark 1.