Easy to drive, inoffensive to look at, well-equipped, economical
Room for improvement
SUZUKI'S Baleno, launched in Australia in April, 1995, is the largest passenger car produced by the famous motorcycle maker and its first entrant in the small car class.
An unremarkable package, the Pulsar-sized Baleno is almost indistinguishable from most other Japanese front-wheel drive small cars in concept and design.
No wonder new car buyers forget the Baleno. Since the model's launch less than 7000 have found homes in Australia. High prices and some quite outstanding rivals have kept Suzuki's wallflower on the shelf.
So Suzuki recently spruced up the packaging.
Minor changes in appearance, trim and a model realignment herald the series-2 Baleno, released in the second quarter of 1999. The sedan preceded the three-door hatch and station wagon by two months.
The front end hosts most of the changes, including a new grille, relocated Suzuki logo, restyled headlights (made from tougher polycarbonate material) and a more rounded bonnet, front bumper and front wings.
An increase in cooling efficiency results from a new, wider below-bumper opening. Suzuki claims the Baleno now has marginally better aerodynamics.
Inside there are minor revisions to seat fabrics and door trims while Suzuki has rationalised the range.
As usual, the single-specification GL hatch is the price-leader. Imitating the successful Mitsubishi Mirage, Suzuki is offering a small-car vehicle at a light-car price.
Although a base model, the Baleno GL hatch includes air-conditioning, power steering, electric mirrors and a CD player as standard equipment. The sporty GS hatch is now discontinued.
Meanwhile, luxury at a low price is the mid-range GLX sedan and wagon's calling card. It adds two extra doors, electric windows, remote central locking, an immobiliser and an alarm.
The top-of-the-line Baleno GTX is now the manual-only four-door sedan, featuring the same 89kW, single-overhead cam, 16-valve, 1.8-litre engine as before.
Side skirts, a front spoiler, boot-mounted rear wing, height-adjustable sports seats and lower profile tyres are also a GTX specialty.
Most Balenos sold are the GL and GLX models. Both are powered by Suzuki's venerable 70.5kW, single-cam, 16-valve, 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine.
Power is down marginally from before, but the torque band is flatter and wider for spritely step-off acceleration. Torque rises by 7Nm to 134Nm at 3000rpm.
Smooth driveability is the Baleno's forte. The engine revs easily, if a little noisily, when pressing on but it never sounds too strained or harsh.
The engine mates well with the slick five-speed manual gearbox which has a painless - but feel-free - action. High gearing means on the open road the Baleno is a quiet cruiser. Exceptional fuel economy is also a Baleno bonus.
However the Baleno could never be called a driver's car. Every control is light, easy and yet uninvolving. It steers, brakes, handles and rides with competence but nothing more.
The all-strut suspension is an effective smoother of bumps, contributing to its faithful handling and safe roadholding.
There is predictable, vice-free understeer around corners, in the manner of any number of Japanese front-wheel drive economy cars.
Nor is the interior pulse-racing. The crushed velour trim is pleasant, the seats are comfortable, the dashboard nicely presented, the ergonomics faultless and the quality of materials good.
On the other hand, the fiddly audio controls infuriated, while the near useless centre console bin does not help the storage space's cause.
The cabin provides class-competitive accommodation with enough legroom for tall drivers and adequate shoulder room.
Rear-bound passengers may grumble at a slight lack of headroom.
All models maximise space by providing split-fold rear seats. The sedan's boot is reasonably large and uncluttered, and the lid opens right down to bumper level for easy loading. The wagon's load area is cavernous.
The Baleno is a small car worth considering if the promise of reliable, painless motoring appeals. But drivers seeking an inspiring or delightful small car are advised to look elsewhere.
- Automotive NetWorks 17/05/1999