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Car reviews - Suzuki - Alto - 5-dr hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Interior packaging, fuel consumption, performance, ride/handling, styling, standard safety features and equipment, value
Room for improvement
Runs on premium unleaded, uncommunicative steering, some hard interior plastics, tight rear passenger and cargo space

20 Jul 2009

SMALL cars have come a long way in the past decade in terms of safety, equipment, quality, ergonomics and driveability, so we’re pleasantly surprised to find the Alto doesn’t lower the standard in any of these areas – despite setting a new price benchmark.

Even compared with larger, more expensive and more powerful light-cars, the lightweight Alto fares well in performance, handling, ride, equipment and, especially, safety. It is a far cry from some of the evil-handling, awkwardly packaged B-segment cars available not so long ago.

Combining a stylishly rounded front-end with a squared-off rear-end that firmly stamps it as one of the new breed of in-vogue Japanese kei-cars, the Alto looks much bigger it is in the metal – until you see it with a couple of passengers on board.

That said, there’s plenty of stretching room up front even for two big boofy Australian males, and although rear shoulder room for occupants in the twin rear seats is generous, the Alto gives away its station as a sub-light segment vehicle when it comes to rear head and legroom.

Though it’s tighter out back than many (five-seater) light-cars, front-occupant ergonomics are well thought-out, with the well-bolstered front seats offering plenty of side support and an integrated head restraint adding a racy touch.

Despite the lack of steering wheel reach adjustment, a driver’s seat height adjuster (in the premium GLX version) and well-placed gearshifter make the Alto comfortable for a range of body shapes. Vision is good in all directions too, but power mirrors are not available and there's no engine temperature gauge.

At just 110 litres, luggage space is minimal behind the 50/50-split twin rear seats, which fold down almost fully flat to reveal a decent 754 litres of cargo space, under which resides a full-size spare.

Unfortunately the rear loading aperture is high and narrow, and only the GLX offers a remote boot release. The cardboard-like parcel tray is easily dislodged and the car we drove had some ill-fitting boot carpet, but otherwise the fit and finish was faultless.

Yes, there are some hard plastic surfaces inside the Alto, but they’re no worse than those found in most light and even small cars – including Toyota’s new $40,000-plus Prius – and a fresh, contemporary design breaks them up well.

An auxiliary MP3 and iPod input for the standard integrated CD audio system, which distorts only at full volume even in the two-speaker GL model, will be welcomed by buyers at this level. Like the instrument cluster’s digital odometer and fuel gauge functions, it has a digital display including a clock and, save for a large power/volume rotary dial, is operated entirely by classy, flush-finish push-buttons.

There’s plenty of storage space inside the Alto, including a large, deep (but unlidded) glovebox, centre console compartment and generous door pockets. Those in the rear are large enough to accommodate bottles, in addition to two cup-holders up front.

Only the lack of a tacho in the GL smacks of cost-cutting, although the base model also misses out on a remote tailgate release, rear power windows, body-coloured side mirrors and door-handles. An auto up or down function for the driver’s window in any Alto would be nice too.

The GLX appears to be far more upmarket than its $14,490 pricetag suggests, offering standard ESC, alloy wheels, foglights, body-colour door-handles and mirrors, a tacho, four extra speakers, a remote boot release and driver’s seat height adjustment.

Start up Australia’s first Indian-built passenger car and you’re met with a characteristic three-cylinder burble that feels a little rough, but is not unlike an air-cooled Volkswagen flat four or, dare we say it, a Porsche flat six at idle.

Many buyers might also be surprised to find the Alto also requires 95 RON premium unleaded, which can cost up to 10 cents more than regular unleaded.

That’s where the sportscar similarities end, however. Useful power from the all-new engine is not on hand until about 2000rpm, although the somewhat notchy manual’s five widely spaced ratios see 100km/h come up at 2750rpm – right in the middle of the sub-1000kg Alto’s torque zone.

It never feels all that enthusiastic about it, but the 1.0-litre triple will rev well beyond its 6250rpm redline, offering a wide spread of useable torque along the way – even if it doesn’t spin up all that quickly and sounds a little gruff and loud in the process.

A light-action, short-throw clutch and solid off-idle response makes starting off in the manual Alto a cinch. The optional four-speed auto, which costs an extra $2000, is just as well matched to the super-frugal Alto engine.

The electric power steering system feels a little wooden on-centre and somewhat heavy at carpark speeds, but lightens up to offer just enough precision and response at higher speeds – and stability is not a problem on the highway.

Some might describe the Alto’s ride as harsh, and the ride/handling balance certainly errs on the firm side, but the upside of that is refreshingly crisp handling with little bodyroll.

The Alto won’t win any handling contests, but is vice-free, well-suited to the city with a super-tight turning circle and as agile as any of the most accomplished small cars – with a surprising lack of the fore-aft pitching that blights many short-wheelbase cars.

Just as the Japanese-designed Alto’s exterior design was workshopped in Europe, it is clear Suzuki ensured its chassis was sufficiently sorted for European tastes.

No, the Alto’s micro-sized body is not as funky as a Mazda2 or Ford Fiesta’s and, no, it doesn’t stand out on the road like a Fiat 500, Smart ForTwo or Nissan Micra, but throw on a set of bigger alloy wheels and it will match the street cred of any Holden Barina or Kia Rio.

Nor does its bodyshell feel as vault-like as the Fiesta’s, 500’s or VW Polo’s, but the Alto makes up for that with six-airbag and ABS safety as standard and a chassis that many decade-old light-car buyers could only dream of – for what is currently the lowest recommended retail price for a new car in Australia.

Others might offer limited-time driveaway prices and new-car warranties that beat the Alto’s, but none can match the newest Suzuki’s standard safety kit, pint-sized fuel consumption and emissions, and diminutive stature.

As the first in a wave of new sub-light models that could be headed our way, there’s no reason Australians won’t warm to the Alto in the same way they have for the Swift.

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