Who buys an automatic transmission (AT)?
Since the time I started driving, I haven't thought of anything other than 5-speed manual transmissions. I don't have a lot of driving experience in ATs. My legs are working fine (till now, thankfully) and I'm only 23 years old. I've always felt the ATs were for people who were uncertain about their driving skills or for older people who want a simplified automobile. That's the way I've been thinking all this while until recently when traffic jams, even on back roads near my home were no more a temporary phenomenon. Everyday there's a traffic jam somewhere that we need to put up with. During the rains due to slow moving or stuck vehicles, it gets worse. With increasing number of cars and poorly organized cities, drainage systems, traffic regulation and bad roads, many people have had enough. If they have a small budget, they can't hire a chauffeur. They love personal transportation which offers them extra comfort and safety, so a car like the A-Star AT makes a lot of sense there.
I've heard ATs are no fun. Are they?
The point that I'm trying to make is the AT model is for the person who looks at a car as just another form of transport. The AT buyer isn't out there to have fun. He's looking for the comfort of a back-seat, with the control of the driver's seat. You basically don't have to touch the gear lever. There's no clutch, and only the steering and the brakes need your input.
What is the big advantage of an AT?
If you drive through the same congested roads on the A-Star AT, I'm sure at the end of it you wouldn't break into a sweat. You will be in good shape, you would have negotiated it with less swearing and lower blood pressure than usual.
The A-Star is tiny and cramped. Why would I buy it?
I've always felt the A-Star was a cramped and tight car that was not for well built person. I've sat inside the vehicle once before at a local Maruti dealership and the only thing I could think of then was to get off and walk away. Since then the A-Star has always remained as a vehicle for short and puny people. But that was wiped out as soon as I sat in the driver's seat during this drive. For a 6-footer like me, there is generous room and ample comfort behind the wheel. The A-Star AT has a height adjustment lever too for the seat which helps if more than one person in your family drives.
How would you rate the A-Star's cabin?
As I said, the height adjustment for the seat and the high-mounted steering wheel make for an ergonomic cockpit. There is no confusion in the A-Star's cabin. There aren't too many controls or knobs. In fact, there's just one giant dial that reads out speed. Right next to it is the gear indicator. You won't miss the steering mounted audio controls as the buttons are just centimeters away from your left hand, placed very close to the steering wheel. The blowers are placed higher up, and they cool the little cabin with absolute ease.
Talk to me. Talk about the rear seats
Talking about the rear, and you would find it very hard to digest it - there's absolutely no space for the rear passenger's feet if the front is accommodating two 6-footer. Only kids will fit in there. Despite a fully loaded boot, I was bouncing around the back even when the car was traveling over small pot holes at normal speeds. The height-adjustable head rest found on the A-Star is a feature which we like to see in every other hatchback. The glass area on the A-Star is less, even the front windshield is small. But having said that, I would say due to the small dimensions, you wouldn't feel the need for more light or air. The window, unlike in some other cars, roll down completely at the rear.
Is there a boot? How much can it handle?
The A-Star is a city dweller's automobile. It was never designed to be a mile muncher, the highway is not its home. The car's compact dimensions mean it'll be extremely fuel economical and not very spacious. The front seats are the best place to be in. The space allocation for the rear and the boot is not very generous. You get space for a couple of suitcases, but that's about it.
Is the K-Series engine a marketing gimmick? How does it fare?
The most brilliant thing on the A-Star which made the journey such a good one was the engine. The K-Series engine on the A-Star is a 1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine that manages about 70hp. You start to appreciate the car's compactness as the 70hp engine is more than sufficient for this car. It is rev-happy. It feels very refined and is a lot of fun to drive. It's also very fuel efficient, not necessarily on the AT, but as an engine, it's wallet-friendly, tree-hugging and smile-pasting.
Considering the car needs no shifting or clutch, how do the steering and brakes feel?
Ideally suited for city conditions, the steering feels light and allows you to make U-turns rapidly. This is a necessity if you're in the city. At highway speeds, it gives you some level of feedback, though not as much as I hoped for, it still does the job well. The brakes are spongy but with the assistance of ABS, they help the A-Star slow down quickly. It took me a while to come to terms with the brakes. The brake pedal is larger and size 10 shoes feel at home here.
How effective is the A-Star AT's gearbox?
The A-Star is installed with a 4-speed torque converter. Like any normal AT, you can select D (Drive) and as you drive along, the car shifts the gears for you. But the party trick of this car is it also allows you to change into the gear of your choice. Now this doesn't work like a manual transmission. If you're at the right speed, there's delay in shifting. If you're not at the right speed, the car will ignore your action. Like if you're traveling at 100kph and you shift into low gear (1st gear), the car will ignore you. It's not gear shifting then. It's gear suggestion. And since it has a mind of its own, driving enthusiasts will not like it. It'll end up as an ego-clash and you'll not be happy.
The transmission takes its own sweet time to process your input and translate it into a gear shift. It does this either through the input given at the throttle pedal or at the gear shifter. It also makes the engine work a bit harder than a manual transmission would. This is observed when you try a kick-down maneuver. The manual transmission will deliver higher fuel economy and quicker acceleration, essentials on any highway in India.
So why will I buy one then?
The A-Star AT isn't for the long distance traveler, he will most likely buy the manual transmission model. The A-Star AT is only for the congested metro where bumper-to-bumper traffic is becoming its best definition. Drivers with back problems, knee problems, women who are not certain about driving, beginners and grandparents will find the A-Star the most sensible car in the market today. No, I'm not trying to say this isn't a good or a bad car. The point here is the AT isn't going to be as much fun to drive as the manual transmission.
Can you sum up the A-Star AT in two lines?
The A-Star's engine, seats, steering and handling make it one of the best small cars in the market today. If you're not looking to ferry too many passengers or luggage around and commute in a terribly congested route daily, the A-Star is your car.
Maruti Suzuki A-Star AT Image Gallery
The three day trip I undertook to review the A-Star AT was organized by Maruti Suzuki