Car reviews - Suzuki - Baleno - Cavaliero 3-dr hatch
Willing engine, quality, easy to live with
Room for improvement
Numb steering, bland presentation
27 Jun 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
THE Suzuki Baleno has been a somewhat invisible contender in the small car category since its launch in 1995.
This would appear to have less to do with its intrinsic qualities than the fact it exists in a viciously competitive area of the market where buyer motivations are focused on three things: price, price and price.
The Baleno is seen more as a competitor for the likes of Hyundai Excel, Proton Satria or Daewoo Lanos, rather than a contender in the Holden Astra/Toyota Corolla class. Cars such as the now discontinued Swift have established Suzuki's image as a strong entrant at the new car entry level. The Baleno's sights were more ambitious but the cheap car stigma has proven hard to shake off.
So the Baleno, in a way, straddles the light car and small car category with a range that comprises a keenly priced three-door, a more expensive four-door sedan and a wagon. The three-door, at base level, is priced right in South Korean territory while the sedans and wagons are right up there with cars like Nissan's Pulsar, although still short of Astra/Corolla.
The sporty Cavaliero version of the Baleno is aimed at the South Koreans too, targeting the likes of Hyundai's Excel GX Sportz and Daewoo's Lanos Sport on both price and equipment.
The Cavaliero uses the 1.6-litre engine used in all Balenos except the top of the line, 1.8-litre GTX sedan and picks up "sports" front seats, 14-inch alloy wheels (other Balenos use 13-inch wheels) and an almost full complement of standard gear.
With air-conditioning, power windows and mirrors, remote central locking, engine immobiliser and alarm, plus a single-disc CD player, the Cavaliero is slightly better equipped than most other Balenos, but a driver's side airbag remains optional.
As it turns out, the Cavaliero is not entirely undeserving of its sporty classification.
The single camshaft, 16-valve engine is relatively flexible, keen to rev if asked and not unpleasant to listen to. With 71kW at its disposal and a handy 134Nm of torque coming in at 3000rpm, the Baleno feels quite responsive.
The gearshift for the five-speed manual gearbox is quite user-friendly, if not outstanding in its action, and the clutch is smooth and progressive. High gearing means the Baleno cruises quietly and returns excellent fuel economy. The brakes - power-assisted with discs front and drums rear - work well too.
This leaves the steering as the only downside.
The Baleno's power-assisted rack and pinion system is light and easy to use, but conveys virtually no feel to the driver.
The system numbs the driving experience with not much evidence of what is going on down at the road surface and a tendency to lose its self-centering action when lock is applied on a corner. The wheel size and position is fine (the column is adjustable up and down) but the overall impression the steering makes on the driver is a little weird.
That said, the all-strut independent suspension works well, giving a smooth ride and allowing the car to track as faithfully as the non-communicative steering will allow. Naturally, mild understeer is the prevailing characteristic.
In terms of space, there is no problem up front, even for tall drivers, although the back seat should not be taken too seriously if an all-adult up-country trip is being planned. The hatchback (aided by the split-fold backrest if you wish) allows a fair swag of luggage to be swallowed.
The driver's environment lacks surprises with a clean but generic Japanese instrument and control layout and the usual run of equipment. Slightly disappointing is the use of sliding controls for the heating/cooling system, rather than more user-friendly rotary knobs.
But the Baleno is one of those cars that feels familiar from the moment the door is opened and this has unquestioned value for many people.
You might not be excited by a Baleno, but you are likely to always feel comfortably at home.
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