SUZUKI IS NO STRANGER to little cars with big hearts. The LJ10 4WD from the late sixties is testament to its belief that good things can and do come in small packages.
This time around, Suzuki is returning to the ‘sub-light’ car category in Australia with its Indian built, three-cylinder Alto.
We’ve seen the Alto on these shores – off and on – since the late ‘80s, but the model name is no less than 30 years old. It is a genuine ‘world car’, with more than 10 million having been sold around the globe over the course of those three decades.
Currently a sales success in India and Europe, the Alto’s combination of European styling and impressive efficiency is ensuring that demand exceeds supply. But how will it fare here with its sharp, but compact, new style and tiny engine?
To find out, we put in some wheel time with both the manual and auto versions of the Alto GLX around Melbourne.
In developing the all-new Alto, Suzuki’s Chief Program Designer Tatsumi Fukunaga said the design team’s key aim was to build a “sporty and European-inspired” small car.
We agree that the Alto’s styling has a European flavour, but we see a more generous dollop of ‘feel good’ rather than 'sporty' in the exterior sheet metal.
There is more than a hint of ‘bewildered puppy dog’ in the wide-eyed and friendly face, thanks to the large headlights and prominent grille.
The rest of the Alto is a case of form successfully meeting function, with a hint of Barina in the squared-off rear end.
Ultimately, the Alto is easy on the eye and just as some hero cars can look fast standing still, the Alto looks light and nimble parked at a city kerb.
Two’s company, four’s a crowd?
Suzuki is expecting the Alto to be especially popular with young singles and empty nesters; those looking for a cheap and efficient commuter for one or two people, occasionally more.
Up front, both driver and passenger are well catered for. There is ample room for two well-built lads without bumping shoulders. The seats are reminiscent of those in the Swift and proved to be just as comfortable.
The back-seat accommodation is less commodious, but easily accessed as the Alto is a genuine five-door. It is possible to seat two adults in the rear if those up front are prepared to shuffle forward for short trips.
The Alto’s dashboard is an attractive two tone design that features a large speedo in front of the driver and a reasonably sized open-top glovebox on the passenger side.
The centre stack houses the audio and air-conditioning controls with a small open storage area located under the audio system.
Two small side-by-side cupholders are built into the centre console. Unless travelling alone, coffee connoisseurs will need to think ‘small’ when ordering their morning caffeine hit as only one medium to large drink will fit at a time.
There are other storage nooks scattered around the cabin, with map holders in the front doors and single cup holders in the rear doors.
With an open glovebox and a narrow centre console, the Alto lacks a covered storage compartment to hide phones or portable navigation systems from prying eyes.
Being a sub-light car, space is the one thing that is in short supply and nowhere does this become more obvious than when lifting the rear hatch.
The boot space (with the seats up) will swallow an overnight bag, two small ones at a push, but it did manage to deal with a week’s grocery shopping for two people.
There is always the option of laying the 50:50 split fold rear seat flat of course, and this significantly increases the available cargo space.
Equipment and features
The Alto is available in two specifications, GL and GLX, with introductory pricing starting at $12,490 for the manual GL and $14,490 for the manual GLX.
An impressively calibrated four-speed auto is available at a $2,000 premium on both variants.
This pricing does not include dealer charges and on-road costs, and the introductory pricing is not expected to continue indefinitely.
Currently, you can drive-away in the manual GL Alto for $14,990; that’s a little more than we were expecting but the Alto comes comprehensively equipped.
In GL guise, it is equipped with air conditioning, a CD stereo system with MP3 auxiliary input, remote central locking, front power windows, tilt adjustable steering wheel and a full-sized spare.
Impressively for a car costing so little, there is a comprehensive suite of standard safety features including, ABS brakes, Brake Assist and six airbags, including head protecting side curtain airbags.
This six-airbag package is unique to Australian-spec Altos and was enough to ensure a 4-Star ANCAP safety rating (up from a 3-Star Euro NCAP rating) for the GL and GLX.
The GLX adds to the GL’s range of standard features with 14-inch alloy wheels, front fog lamps, a six-speaker sound system, tachometer, a remote release lever for the rear hatch and ESP stability control.
Rear windows in both variants are operated manually, as are the rear view mirrors.
With the heaviest Alto weighing in at a scant 920kg, big numbers are not needed for motivation.
The Alto is powered by a slightly lumpy, but ever-willing 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine that produces just a handful of kilowatts and Newton metres: 50kW at 6000rpm and 90Nm at 3400rpm to be precise.
Sceptics may scoff, but the little Alto boasts a keen sense of adventure out on the road and being light on weight and cubic capacity means it is also very efficient and decidedly 'green'.
Suzuki quotes 5.5 l/100km fuel economy and 130g/km CO2 emissions for the automatic and 4.8 l/100km and 113g/km for the manual.
The Alto's engine is Euro IV and V compliant. Some fuss has been made about its requirement for 95 RON unleaded but it is largely the press looking for a negative angle where there isn't one.
The reality is that the Alto runs more efficiently and produces less emissions running on 95 RON unleaded. Expect other manufacturers to follow Suzuki's lead as they bring Euro 5 compliant engines into the Australian market.
If you travel 20,000kms per year at an average of 5.5 l/100km then it would barely cost you $100 more to run the Alto on 95RON as opposed to 92RON unleaded. More to the point, higher octane produces better fuel economy (and hence savings) as well as less emissions.
Two gearbox choices are on offer with the Alto; the standard five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic (but add the $2,000 premium).
Brakes are disc up front with drums in the rear and they have no trouble hauling up the pint-sized Alto 'on a dime'.
The Alto might be light on for cubic inches, but its willing little heart has a ton of personality.
The 1.0-litre three-cylinder has an interesting boxer-like beat, most noticeable in the manual at low revs. Far from being annoying, it adds a layer of character to the drive.
Accelerating hard from standstill, the Alto is not going to set any records, but its three-cylinders enjoy a rev and will give their all on the way to the redline. It copes surprisingly well with the cut and thrust of fast-moving city traffic.
The clutch has a good feel and progressive action, and the gearbox, like the well-weighted and direct steering, is reminiscent of the Swift (which is a good thing).
High tensile steel used throughout the Alto's structure not only ensures a 4-Star ANCAP rating, it also pays dividends out on the road. This is no flimsy-feeling budget priced car.
Highway driving, surprisingly, is also a cinch, with the little three-cylinder proving its ability on test to readily motor along at the legal limit, though hills knock the edge off things.
Once you've adjusted to the little hatch’s power characteristics, mixing it with trucks on the daily commute is not an issue. Getting past simply requires a firm prod on the accelerator.
It's quiet on the inside as well. The engine isn't buzzy at highway speed (yes, we confess to expecting lots of buzz), and tyre roar from the skinny rubber is minimal.
The ride is ‘firm-ish’ but compliant; coping easily with the lumps and bumps of Melbourne's inner city streets and not uncomfortable on the road.
It’s the Alto's remarkable manoeuvrability though that is the ace in its deck. With a tiny turning circle of 9.0 metres, it feels as though it could turn itself inside out.
City street u-turns, picking the gap in traffic and parking in tight spots is where the Alto is most at home. (In the traffic crush, you feel a sense of freedom in a car this size that drivers of larger cars will never experience.)
Surprisingly, it is the well calibrated four-speed auto that is the nicer drive. It's smoother, quieter at idle and quick to respond to throttle inputs - ensuring it’s rarely caught out in the wrong gear.
The auto isn't as fuel-efficient as the manual though, with Suzuki claiming it will use 5.5 l/100km (0.7 more than the manual).
In our own 'real world' testing over a 117km round trip that included a mix of city driving and highway miles, we couldn't match Suzuki's claim. With two people on board and no luggage we achieved 6.1 l/100km.
To be fair, the press car was barely run in and this was a real world test, not an economy run.
For the moment, the Alto has the sub-light small car segment to itself, but that won't be the case for terribly long. Hyundai's i10 and i20 are expected to hit Australian showrooms in 2010 and other manufacturers will follow.
Until then, the Hyundai Getz and Holden Barina undercut the Alto on price ($13,990 driveaway compared to the manual GL Alto at $14,990 driveaway), but the Alto is better equipped. You get a genuine five-door car with six airbags and ABS brakes.
The Alto is more frugal as well, the manual versions of the Getz and Barina returning 6.1 l/100km and 7.0 l/100km respectively, compared to a claimed 4.8 l/100km for the manual Alto.
If styling matters, then again the Alto has a clear edge; its more modern Euro lines making the other two look dated in comparison.
The fact that the Alto is manufactured in India might be an issue for some. In reality, it shouldn't be - the Alto looks and feels as well-built as any Suzuki.
It was the drive that really surprised us most. At the wheel, the little Alto has character and a rarin’-to-go attitude that is really quite endearing.
If you are a daily commuter, a city dweller or just someone looking for cheap efficient transport, then the Alto deserves a very close look.
We liked it a lot.
- Fun to drive
- Well built
- Comfortable (for front seat passengers)
- Highly maneuverable
- Plenty of safety equipment
- Has genuine character
- The Auto is a peach
- Boot is very small
- Rear seat not really suited to adults
- More expensive than we thought it would be
- Lack of covered storage areas in the cabin