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

Our Opinion

We like
Unburstable 1.0L engine, excellent economy, low emissions, direct steering, grippy handling, superb city manoeuvrability, springy ride, distinct design, GL safety gear, Japanese reliability
Room for improvement
No glovebox, rattly driver’s seat, cheap reclining mechanism feel, no exterior hatch release

17 Sep 2009

IS the all-new Suzuki Alto ‘eco’ for ecology or economy?

The Japanese mini-car giant has seized on the word’s interchangeability by heavily promoting its lightweight city runabout’s commendable segment-leading low emissions and fuel consumption.

But as one of Australia’s cheapest new cars, does the Alto – seemingly the billionth version in a never-ending line of Suzuki littlies that started way back with the 1967 Fronte 360 – feel more grim than green?

On (recycled naturally) paper, it lacks the kudos of some other eco warriors such as the Toyota Prius, Fiat Punto 1.3 Multijet or Ford Fiesta Econetic.

Plus the Alto is from India courtesy of long-time Suzuki partner Maruti. Now that’s not a nation renowned for being environmental.

More tellingly, it is also the cheaper of the two most recent Suzuki sub-B models: the costlier Swift-based Splash is considered more appropriate for developed countries while the Alto is especially designed for developing markets. Hmmm … But the cheap and cheerful Suzuki strikes back with a 4.8 litre per 100-kilometre fuel consumption average, just 113 grams per kilometre of carbon dioxide emissions and a starting price of $12,490 – figures which, combined, might make the others green with envy.

We also like the fact that the Alto has so lavishly been modelled on one of our favourite cars we don’t see in Australia – the Czech-built Toyota Aygo/Peugeot 107/Citroen C1 triplets.

Similarities include side-hinged pop-out rear windows (thankfully deemed too cattle class for our – albeit manual – wind-down version), a somewhat goofy face, fat wheel arches, a tiny hatch opening, and a pert rear end.

Aygo/107/C1 designer Donato Coco – former Citroen but now with a brand called Ferrari – ought to feel flattered, although the Aygo – err – Alto lacks the European models’ design flair.

At 3.5 metres long, 1.6m wide and 1.47m high, and riding on a 2360mm wheelbase, the Suzuki is smaller even than the Fiat 500 that’s almost twice the price.

It also feels a whole lot roomier than the Italian fashionista inside too, thanks partly to some more Aygo/107/C1 mimicking that also priorities functionality and minimalism over frippery.

For instance, due to the skinny proportions, the exterior mirrors have an old-fashioned internal adjustment lever that’s not too much of a stretch for the driver, thus eliminating the need for exxy electrical mechanisms.

Instead of a glovebox, Suzuki has integrated a deep vertical shelf that might be handy for storing newspapers and magazines, but not much else really.

Cleverer is the single analogue dial (speedometer, placed directly ahead of the driver and always visible through a surprisingly large steering wheel), that is flanked by warning lights on either side, and containing an LED window for the fuel gauge, two-mode trip meter, odometer and clock. It’s all so simple and elegant.

In the $14,490 GLX tested here, there is also a Smart Fortwo-style tachometer plonked like an afterthought on top of the right-hand corner of the dashboard above the fog light buttons that are also exclusive to this model, along with stability control, driver’s seat height adjuster and painted exterior.

There are a couple of Gerry built issues too.

The ‘carpet’ looks as if it is made from Old Mother Hubbard’s mangy dog’s hair and feels like cardboard. Awful.

On our test car the driver’s seat was sufficiently loose to sink ships, as was the unbelievably flimsy reclining mechanism that had the lasting feel of a Kinder Surprise toy.

There are anomalies too, such as no overhead grab handles, rear seat pockets or vanity mirror for the passenger, but the driver gets one.

Nevertheless, the Alto – with its wide-opening front doors for easy entry and egress – never quite feels nasty despite the ocean of hard plastics.

Suzuki has even put some real thought into how everything fits, with colour coding, metallic look trim and – in the case of the door cards – smart integration with the rest of the interior.

The stereo is a good example, since it fits in beautifully with the upper fascia and does not sound as bad as you might imagine.

The ventilation is excellent, supported by a strong heater and an effective air-conditioner (this car is made in India, after all).

That hard grey steering wheel feels solidly connected to the height-adjustable steering column, so the driver isn’t constantly reminded that he or she is in a low-cost runabout.

There’s nothing wrong with the driving position either, since he or she is perched high with commanding front and side views and a great line of vision out back thanks to the deep rear window line, flush rear headrests (yes!), and those large side mirrors.

Comfort is relative for a car as compact as this. The psychedelic front seats do a fine job for short trips and actually provide support through corners, while their matching rear counterparts accommodate two people tolerably if you are up to about 180cm tall.

Taller folk – once they’ve carefully negotiated the rear’s sloping roofline – will feel the flocked ceiling trim touch the top of their noggins, but we suspect the knees-up-against-the-front-seat reality may prove mildly more irritating for all concerned anyway.

At least the bench itself is well padded, the windows wind all the way down, and – thoughtfully – there are receptacles for phones, cans and cups for each occupant.

While the lack of an exterior hatch opening mechanism is annoying, at least Suzuki sticks to Japanese custom by fitting a floor-mounted lever and fuel-door release. We would prefer to access both from outside.

Cargo volume is commensurate with the dinky Alto’s dimensions, but the rear seatbacks split and fold so we managed to fit in a full-sized mountain bike after detaching a wheel (as long as the front passenger doesn’t mind kissing the fascia).

But this is a compact city car with an eco focus, so to expect anything else is nonsensical.

The unexpected driving experience isn’t though.

Far from being a chore, the spirited and well-integrated drivetrain is free of the jerkiness afflicting some other cheapies.

Yes, with the rear parcel shelf off the cabin goes from boomy to raucous on the open road, but the barmy three-pot beat from the 1.0-litre multivalve petrol powerplant soon sounds second nature. Some liken the noise to a diesel’s, but we don’t mind it one bit.

Its energetic 1.0-litre K10B-series fuel-injected twin-cam 12-valve triple delivers a healthy 50kW of power at a heady 6000rpm and just 90Nm of torque from 3400rpm.

Rowing the lightweight five-speed manual gearbox along is the secret to unleashing the spirited soul within, and soon the featherweight 900kg Alto is as accelerative as many larger light cars.

For the record, the official 0-100km/h sprint-time is 14 seconds, but in the real world this feels far sprightlier, if not necessarily faster.

Indeed, on the move, the Suzuki is amply swift and surefooted 110km/h cruising is easily within its curriculum vitae of this 155km/h city slicker.

There is a proviso at work here, however. Hills and air-con take their collective tolls on performance, necessitating some quick downshifting to maintain momentum. Furthermore, you are unlikely to be able to ignore the considerable din emanating from the road, pillars and from beyond the bulkhead ahead.

Of course, the flipside is fabulous fuel economy, with the 35-litre tank taking ages to empty even when we wrung the Alto’s neck.

Post Swift, Suzuki seems to have the cornering caper licked of late, and the Alto is no exception. Not Fiesta-fantastic, mind you. But the light and direct steering is the Alto’s calling card anyway, allowing the driver to read the road surface clearly, for clean, crisp handling – and a brilliant nine-metre turning circle to boot.

Plenty of grip – even on the wet and greasy roads we occasionally experienced – further underlines this car’s dynamic literacy.

And the ride! The Alto is appreciably suppler over the inner urban nasties than you might be expecting, backed up by long wheel travel (to traverse those pesky speed humps) that seems to do much to filter road irregularities.

An effective set of brakes – discs on the front and drums in the back – round off a fun driving experience.

New vehicles this cheap have no right to drive this well, we thought. Inferior-driving rivals include the Holden Barina, Hyundai Accent and Getz, Citroen C3, and Kia Rio.

Finally, the Alto scores a four-star ANCAP rating, thanks mainly to its standard six airbags – including full-length side curtain items – anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.

They join the entry-level GL’s air-conditioning with pollen filter, CD/AM/FM sound system with MP3 auxiliary input, remote central locking, power front windows, fuel consumption meter, digital clock and height-adjustable three-spoke steering wheel.

All up then, our expectations were not high, yet the Alto exceeded them in pretty much every area anyway.

But … the price is simply too high.

The fact is that this car’s true station in life is one you most probably departed from many years ago. And for the GLX money you can have a more refined, 18-month-old Swift, Fiesta Zetec, Yaris YR or Mazda2.

And although only the latter might come with stability control, all score the same crash rating.

So it needs to be cheaper to make sense in Australia.

Sadly, Suzuki is kidding itself if it thinks that choosing the Alto is choosing to take a green stand. Smart aside, we do not have the sub-B city car culture in Australia, and consequently the only eco statement others will think you are making is the euphemistic “economic readjustment.”

We still came away mightily impressed anyway.

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