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Baleno unfairly underrated

It's a car that deserved more interest than it had during its relatively brief visit to our shores between 1995 and 2001. Below that under-inspiring exterior there's a good car selling at a pretty reasonable price on the used-car market.

Interestingly, some of the components used in the Baleno are adapted from the Suzuki Vitara 4WD, making the little Baleno pretty tough.

It is an unusual size, larger than most small cars and smaller than the medium-size ones. It comes as a three-door hatchback, four-door sedan and five-door station wagon, all with the build quality of a Japanese factory.

Baleno is easy to drive and park, with good visibility in all directions and steering that is well weighted, even in the everyday variants.

There's a sporting variant called the Baleno GTX, not a full-blooded sports machine but one with extra punch in the engine and chassis that will appeal to those wanting something more than mere transport.

Under the bonnet

Engine size in most Balenos is 1.6 litres; the GTX uses a 1.8-litre unit. The smaller engine has a single overhead camshaft, the bigger one a twin-cam setup. However, both have four valves per cylinder for good breathing at mid to high revs.

It's necessary to keep the engines spinning well to get the most from them so this isn't the ideal car for the driver who wants to slog around in top gear all the time. Most come with a five-speed manual gearbox but an optional four-speed automatic transmission is offered on upmarket variants of the standard car. As befits its sporting nature, the GTX comes only with the manual gearbox.

Ride comfort is good, though some may find the seats don't support particularly well in the standard model. Handling is typically Japanese-safe — the steering tends to be slightly vague in the straight-ahead position and to understeer fairly markedly if the car is pushed.

Naturally, the Baleno GTX is better than the others in its road feel; investing in a better set of tyres and perhaps some suspension tweaks can make it a real joy to drive.

Sales of the Suzuki Baleno were slow for the first couple of years, so the importer took the interesting step of selling many of the initial imports to a car-rental company. That could mean some cars have been driven hard by uncaring hirers, so try to find out the history of “your” car right back to day one.

The Baleno is reasonably easy to work on but as always with a small car there can be awkward areas that are frustratingly hard to reach.

Spare parts are generally reasonably priced, though we have had a couple of complaints about the cost of less-common bits.

The number of Suzuki car dealers in Australia is rather limited, though the network is well established and we hear of no real complaints. If you are living in an out-of-the-way area, it might be an idea to check on the whereabouts of your local Suzuki dealer before committing to a Baleno.

Insurance premiums are generally the same moderate amount for all variants of the car, but some companies may ask extra for the GTX.

Suzuki Baleno is well worth a look if you want a quality car capable of being used by families with pre-teen children, and which is easy and enjoyable to drive. In particular, the semi-sports Baleno GTX is a real bargain and offers plenty of driving enjoyment.

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