In this issue, we’re bringing you something that to our knowledge has not been tried before by a motoring publication in Sri Lanka. An honest to goodness head to head comparison between two cars that are direct rivals, in the same category and at the same price point, where there WILL be a winner. You’ll be seeing many more of these in the future & for our first one we’ve kept it simple by choosing two contenders that are among the most popular brand new cars in our market at the moment; the Perodua Axia and the Maruti Suzuki Celerio, both of which are compact, four door, five seat hatchbacks with 1.0 Litre engines and automatic gearboxes. The Celerio is made in India while the Axia is put together in Malaysia and both have predecessors which were very popular here (The A-Star and the Viva respectively). Which one will prevail? Read on to find out..
Styling & Looks
In appearance, both cars are completely conventional with no attempts at extreme styling as the aim in this class clearly is to be as inoffensive as possible. So both are tall, fairly narrow, with decent ground clearance and nothing that makes either stand out in any way. In fact, parked next to each other from some angles, it’s easy to mistake one for the other. The Axia as tested looks slightly more upmarket as it has alloy wheels, body coloured door handles and so on but in general both cars come across as pleasant if slightly on the dull side.
External build quality on both seems solid, with even panel gaps, properly fitting bumpers and trim and nothing loose or rattling even after a year and 20,000 plus rental Kilometres. Encouraging signs all round.
RESULT = TIE
The interiors of both cars make it quite clear that their makers’ primary focus was keeping costs down, but in both cases they mark a distinct improvement over their respective predecessors. That said, take a look at the two dashboard pictures and see if you can tell them apart; in this aspect the two cars are practically identical. The only notable difference is the Celerio’s gearlever placement, otherwise they could have come from the same mould, right down to the shape of the air vents and the odd looking diagonal join line in front of the passenger. Move away from the dashboards however and some differences become visible, which tend to be in the Axia’s favour.
The most noticeable one is the seats; the Celerio’s look about the same as what you’d find in a base model Alto, integrated headrests and all. They offer a bit more cushioning than the average Alto seat of course, but compared to the ones fitted to the Axia, they fall short. The Axia’s seats wouldn’t seem out of place in a car the next size up; well padded and contoured, with more prominent side bolsters and good lumbar support also. There are even more aspects in the Axia’s interior that make you feel like more thought was put into it than the Celerio’s; The front door pockets on the Axia are large and have a shaped compartment that can hold a large bottle whereas the Celerio’s would barely fit a few files for example. Also, the Axia comes with a very useful flip down hook on the passenger seat that can be used to hang shopping or other bags.
The better seats & the little touches uplift the Axia’s interior from “cheapest possible way to fill the space” (which is the sense that the Celerio gives out) and secure it a win in this category.
RESULT : AXIA
Build Quality & Materials
Both these cars have endured over a year of relatively hard use as rental cars and we were impressed by the fact that neither of them seem any worse off for it. There were no broken bits inside, nor were there any noticeable rattles, the plastics were all reasonably scuff free and presentable looking. It appears that both these manufacturers put in a good bit of effort making their products durable enough to stand up to rigorous use. Of course it remains to be seen whether they will still seem as fresh 5 years down the line but the initial signs are encouraging.
Both interiors are completely made of hard plastics as you’d expect, that being the best material for long term durablility. They’ve at least made something of an effort in both cases to avoid giving the impression of being stuck in a grey dustbin, with two tone dashboards and bursts of colour in the instrumentation.
RESULT = TIE
Viewed on paper, the specs for the cars are so close that they could be twins. Each is within a couple of mm of the other in length, width and height, both weigh just under 850 KGs, both have 3 Cylinder 1.0 Litre engines with automatic gearboxes and they both have the same suspension set up – Mcpherson struts up front and a torsion beam axle out back. So naturally one could expect that they would provide a basically identical driving experience but to our surprise, that didn’t happen. Despite the on paper similarities these cars end up being wildly differing personalities on the road.
Among the major reasons for this contrast are the gearboxes fitted to each car; the Axia has a very conventional four speed automatic while the Celerio has a five speed automated manual gearbox courtesy of the Italian firm Magnetti Marelli (yeah the same people who make Ferrari gearboxes, but the Indian branch of course.). This is basically a manual gearbox that is controlled by a computer box which handles all clutch and shifting related work. Apparently this extra complicated setup was chosen over a conventional automatic because it “combines efficiency with low cost, which is perfect for the Indian market” according to the higher ups at Maruti India. Notice how they haven’t mentioned smoothness or seamless gearchanges there? There’s a reason for that…
The Celerio is burdened with one of the most infuriating gearboxes currently on the market, full stop. When driving it basically feels like you have an inexperienced learner driver operating your gearbox, keeping the clutch in too long, taking too long to shift, jerking on take off and all. This makes stop and go traffic a truly novel experience, especially if you come to a stop on a hill, because while the rest of traffic is honking it’s head off behind you, the learner driver inside your gearbox is sitting down and wondering “now what am I supposed to do here? Clutch? Declutch? Shift? Hmmmmmmmm..” before finally banging in first gear and letting you get moving. Thankfully, you have the option of full manual control of the shifting and that works much better; there’s still a bit of a delay between gears but it behaves like a proper manual, allowing you to rev to the redline if you so choose and handling downshifts smoothly as well. Oh and it doesn’t have a “park” position so when switching off you have to leave it in neutral.
In comparison the Axia’s old school auto is a godsend in traffic, going about it’s business with no fuss or complaints , shifting up imperceptibly and down when needed with an overall sense of competence. On the downside however, it will absolutely not let you anywhere near the little three pot’s redline even if you have your foot absolutely flat. So if you like to work your car hard and make quicker than average progress, the Celerio even with the irritating box is a more willing companion. It’s engine also proves to be willing, spinning upto the redline time and again without any complaints and without getting harsh or buzzy.
If you’re among the tiny minority of buyers in this class who drive their cars hard & actually care about handling prowess, it’s surprisingly the Celerio that proves to be the more capable car. It has less body roll, a much more communicative and progressive steering and better controlled body motions by far than the Axia, which just feels out of it’s depth when hustled. Under braking both cars suffer for lack of ABS but the Axia only needs a fraction of a press on the pedal before it locks all four wheels and makes the tyres squeal while the Celerio is again much more progressive and resists lock up for longer.
In terms of ride comfort, the general expectations for short wheelbase, tall cars on skinny tires is a choppy, skittish ride that never really settles down or handles uneven roads properly. That proved true for one of our contenders and it wasn’t the Indian one. Yet again the Celerio surprised us and delivered a well damped, loping and very comfortable ride at all speeds over all kinds of roads, be they gravel, potholed, cement or perfectly carpeted. Well they do claim that the Celerio was “designed with India’s roads in mind”!.
RESULT = CELERIO
Here is where the Celerio’s thus far stellar run comes to an abrupt halt. As tested, our Celerio lacked ABS or even a single airbag, compared to the Axia’s dual airbags (but no ABS as tested, though newer models now have it as standard). More worryingly, the Celerio was tested by the Global NCAP program and it scored Zero stars for occupant safety with testers noting the lack of airbags and an “unstable structure”. Rather than admit the mistake and fix it Maruti have decided to go the usual Indian way & instead criticize the test methodology, which doesn’t really help their case very much. The Axia on the other hand scored a decent 4 stars at ASEAN NCAP testing. Safety is an aspect that is too often overlooked in our market, something that needs to change immediately and only enough consumer pressure will be able to change it. At T and T we take safety very seriously, which is why this category counts for 2 points.
It must be noted that the top spec Celerio is fitted with Dual Airbags and ABS but our decision is based on the spec that we tested here & independent crash test ratings for that spec of Celerio are not available.
RESULT = AXIA
If we’re honest, we went into this comparison expecting the Axia to absolutely dominate, since that’s what the previous Viva did with the A-star, but surprisingly that is nowhere near how it actually went down. Maruti Suzuki have certainly upped their game significantly and the Celerio is a very strong contender. The Axia has simply not improved enough to keep up the previous Viva’s dominance of its category, especially since the competition has improved so significantly.
In the end though, once all the points are tallied, the Axia still manages to win by a single point because it has the safety aspect better covered. If the Indians finally start taking safety seriously (not criticizing an independent safety body’s testing methods when your car fails would be a great start, as would be submitting the airbag equipped version for re-testing), this would be their contest to win.
WINNER = AXIA
Words: Sajiv Weerakoon
Images: Sam Smith