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Unlike in Japan, micro city cars are a relatively rare sight on Australian roads. They populate the Japanese cities, where parking is impossible and insurance and taxes favour what they call ‘Kei’ micro cars.
Locally smaller Japanese importers lead the way in the 1990s with the boxy Suzuki Wagon R and various 1.0-litre Daihatsus but sales were never strong for these budget econo-boxes.
Today the quirky two-seater Smart ForTwo plays around the fringes of the light car pack but buyers have until now, have had little reason to bother with a three-cylinder city hatch. Australians, it seems, could never get their heads or hearts around a small engine unless astride a motorcycle.
But roll forward to 2009 and micro cars like the new Suzuki Alto could soon enjoy their day in the sun. As budget buyers put their hip-pockets before horsepower, Suzuki's newest hatch could become a more common sight as fuel prices inevitably go up.
Variants and pricing
The two-model Alto GL and GLX range is expected to lead a baby car charge that will see the arrival of several new contenders over the next 18 months from China and Korea.
Technically, Suzuki's five-door 1.0-litre enters the heavily populated ‘light car’ class and goes up against more powerful four-cylinder rivals from Korea and Japan. But the importer has a convincing pitch up its sleeve - price. The five-speed manual GL opener is $12,490, rising to $14,490 for the GLX manual. A four-speed automatic adds $2000.
For that you get a well-equipped alternative to a second-hand car with safety features rarely seen as standard in this segment. The GL boasts six airbags, including head protecting side curtain airbags and anti-skid brakes as part of its standard safety package.
Throw in airconditioning, single-in-dash CD stereo with MP3 auxiliary input, remote central locking, electric windows and the wee Alto becomes quite compelling. Move up to the GLX and you get electronic stability control thrown into the mix, as well as 14-inch alloys, front foglights, six-speaker stereo and tachometer.
Suzuki Australia managing director, Tony Devers, says there is a growing awareness and expectation even among budget buyers that small cars should have curtain airbags, brake assist and stability control. "It is particularly relevant for parents buying their children's first car," he says.
With that in mind, Suzuki wants to grow niche for the Alto ahead of new arrivals like the Hyundai i10, Proton Saga and budget entrants from China. It is doing a hard-sell on the car's safety and engineering, as well as low fuel economy and C02 emissions. Devers is hoping it will be as popular as it is in Europe and India, where demand is exceeding supply.
Despite its tiny size and light weight, the hatch makes extensive use of high-strength steels that help deliver a four-star crash rating. The smallest Suzuki tips the scales under 1000kg. It is 3500mm long and 1600mm wide and has a wheelbase of 2360mm and has a compact turning circle of 9m. To put that into perspective, the Alto is 255mm shorter and 90mm narrower than a Swift hatch.
Drivetrain and fuel economy
The Euro IV-compliant three-cylinder engine produces a modest 50kW at 6000 revs and 90Nm at 3400 revs and delivers a hybrid-like fuel economy figure of 4.8 litres/100km and CO2 emissions of 113g/km.
The downside is that the engine must run on more expensive premium unleaded but it will also run on E85 fuel without complaint. However, according to Suzuki's calculations filling with premium adds an extra $1.20 a week for someone driving 15,00km a year.
Although designed in-house, Suzuki turned to Europe for the car's contemporary look and driving experience.
Interior and fit-out
Inside there are no surprises. The cabin is contemporary with an integrated single in-dash CD/stereo, serviceable cloth upholstery and height-adjustable steering wheel. The motorcycle-inspired single speedo has an integrated digital fuel gauge and clock, while the tachometer on the GLX sits in its own pod to the right of the speedo.
The front seats resemble those in the SX4 and Swift and are height-adjustable on the GLX. The back seats split-fold 50/50 with a small amount of boot space and there is a reasonable amount of storage space. The Alto is the first Australian Suzuki to be sourced from Suzuki's hi-tech Manesar plant in India.
To full appreciate the Alto's size, just pull up next to a Jazz at the traffic lights - the Honda looks enormous by comparison. The Alto is 400mm shorter and 95mm narrower than the smallest Honda and the 14-inch alloys look dinky on the car's grippy Goodyear rubber.
But do not think for one minute that a three-cylinder Suzuki does not have the credentials to tackle bigger, more powerful rivals. Fire up the tiny engine and you get that distinct "heartbeat" throb at idle that identifies it as a three-cylinder. Once under way though that throb turns into a muted buzz that has a pleasant, if raucous, urgency as the revs rise.
It may have a 988cc three-cylinder under the bonnet but combined with the car's low weight, the Alto is no shy, retiring type. It is quite capable of embarrassing some larger cars away from traffic lights and performs well when faced with the every day nip and tuck of city driving.
The rorty engine has more than enough performance around town and for the occasional highway trip. The four-speed auto does sap some power, but the changes are slick and smooth. The surprise is that it will also cruise at 110km/h (3000 revs) in relative quiet and composure. Occupants are well insulated from wind and road noise.
When we first drove the Alto we were surprised by its big-car ride and levels of refinement on some bumpy back roads. Now we've spent a week in a GLX commuting to and from work, our view has not changed. The ride is composed and handling composed. We've also grown to love the size and the fact that it will slide into small parking spaces that beggar belief.
Another surprise is how the McPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension soaks up the bumps of rougher undulating roads with composure that would not be out of place in much larger car.
Thanks to the strong body, the Alto feels more substantial than it really is and the six standard airbags and stability control are welcome. The full-size spare tyre is also welcome in the segment. The added safety features are welcome but in reality, most drivers will never exceed the car's handling limits.
Visually the car benefits from its European design input, with a cohesive tall-body look within its compact dimensions, set off with oversized headlights.
In profile the car has a wedge shape courtesy of a rising shoulder line along the rear door. At the back, the truncated rear has a wide opening hatch with large tail-lights set high into the C-pillar.
Inside, the cabin is sturdy and modern, despite the extensive use of hard plastics. This is Suzuki's first car out of India and it is a good effort. Despite reasonable storage space some of the creature comforts we have come to expect are missing.
Suzuki has fixed the lack of a proper glovebox lid, but there's no a manually dipping interior rear view mirror. The exterior mirrors are also manually adjustable only and the car's horn sounds like the frantic cry of a budgie.
A grippier steering wheel would be a nice touch too as the plastic tiller on the test car was a bit slippery. At least both the driver and front seat passenger do well in the comfort stakes. Occupants sit high and there is plenty of leg and headroom even if you sit shoulder to shoulder with your passenger.
The SX4-sourced seats are supportive and comfy but when you jump into the back seat, legroom is modest. The boot too is tiny. We suspect many owners will just flip the 50/50 split back seats down and use it as a comfortable two-seater and occasional four-seater.
We love the Alto's cheeky looks and thrifty economy. Being a Suzuki, the running costs should also be low. But its biggest advantage also remains its biggest challenge.
Buyers will obviously compare the car's size and on-road price to dominate players like the Hyundai Getz, Toyota Yaris and Mazda2. Prospective Alto shoppers may also be wooed away by the slightly larger Swift.
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