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Driven: Suzuki Baleno. Image by Suzuki.

Driven: Suzuki Baleno
A budget supermini the Baleno might be, but it could be a hidden gem...

 



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Suzuki Baleno

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

Good points: Boosterjet engine, ride quality, standard level of equipment, price, space, third gear

Not so good: Exterior styling, perfunctory interior, tyre noise

Key Facts

Model tested: Suzuki Baleno SZ5 1.0 Boosterjet manual
Price: Baleno range starts from 12,999; SZ5 1.0 manual from 13,999
Engine: 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol
Transmission: front-wheel drive, five-speed manual
Body style: five-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 105/km (140 road tax)
Combined economy: 62.7mpg
Top speed: 124mph
0-62mph: 11.4 seconds
Power: 111hp at 5,500rpm
Torque: 170Nm at 2,000- to 3,500rpm

Our view:

When considering the supermini marketplace, it's obvious that while it might seem fair to lump every car into one pot, there are some subtle 'sub-sectors' that are worth analysing and differentiating. For instance, this Suzuki Baleno is ostensibly at the budget end of the spectrum, designed to take on the value players in the field, such as newcomers like the Vauxhall Viva and Ford Ka+. Comparing it to, say, a Volkswagen Polo seems grossly unfair. And yet, the Suzuki's starting price of 13,000 (save a quid, and we're driving the 13,999 SZ5 here, anyway) makes it more expensive than the cheapest Polo, Vauxhall Corsa or Skoda Fabia.

So does Suzuki have ideas above its station? Or is there more to this than first meets the eye? Well, in a brief verdict that should perhaps be prefaced with 'SPOILER ALERT!', we're blown away by the Baleno. It's an excellent small hatchback and one that deserves the most serious of consideration on the part of buyers of anything else in the class, no matter how prestigious the rival's badge might be. However, before we get onto the Suzuki eulogy, let's assess the drawbacks.

There are three things we don't like about the Baleno. They are the exterior styling, the functional yet dull interior and the tyre noise that seeps into the cabin at speeds of more than 40mph. And that's about it. Even on the first two points, we'll cite some mitigating factors. For the bodywork, we accept it's not the most visually daring piece of car design, but after a week in its company, we found ourselves looking on the Baleno more favourably at the end.

No-cost Fire Red solid paint helps liven it up, but there are some interesting details here and there - the silver chrome trim under the rear windscreen, the line of the grille that is carried through the headlights and into the wings, the sweeping swage lines along its flanks - that keep you just about interested. Indeed, as many rivals in the class are now going for the edgy look, the Suzuki's rounded appearance is somewhat distinctive.

And the interior? Yes, the plastics are, erm... durable. There's no squishy top to the dashboard, nor particularly smooth surface trim panels to run your fingers along. What there is, though (and this is far more useful than brushed aluminium inserts in the dash), is acres of space for a car of this class. At nearly four-metres long, the Baleno seems to make far more of its physical presence than the similarly big Ford Ka+, with loads of room for passengers in the back and a boot that starts off at a giant 320 litres. The driving position is good, if a little high, and it's a comfortable place to spend time. Plus, the major controls are laid out in a thoughtful fashion, at the very least, and the 4.2-inch Multi-Information Display in the instrument cluster is a nice touch.

That just leaves the tyre roar, which we can't really justify considering the SZ5 grade runs on 16-inch alloys with mere 185-section rubber all round - blame the fact they're Bridgestone Ecopia fuel-saving items for the ruckus.

That's it, though; that's our sole major dynamic complaint. The Suzuki is a lot more fun to drive than its plain exterior might suggest. The steering is light and not the most communicative rack in the world, but it is reasonably precise and it flows enough information about the front wheels' grip levels back to the driver. There is lean in corners, but not so much as to have you backing off the throttle in possible-hedge-spearing terror.

Understeer is there in small doses, again down to the not-so-grippy eco-rubber, but when the nose starts to slide wide, it then quickly reaffirms purchase; in actual fact, fast cornering almost feels like the car is four-wheel drifting at times. It's a proper lark to punt the Suzuki along; admittedly, the Baleno's chassis isn't suddenly going to get Ford's engineers hitting the Lower Dunton Road in panicky earnest, but it's a lot better than it has any real need to be. And, at the other end of the speed scale, it has a comically small turning circle, making the Baleno a doddle to manoeuvre in tight spaces.However, it doesn't lack for comfort, as the ride quality is fabulous and suppression of wind/engine noise is decent enough.

Ah, the engine. What a pearl this is. Of the many superb three-cylinder units in the automotive world, the Boosterjet is surely one of the best of its type. It makes a superb, throaty little roar and has no trouble propelling the 950kg Baleno around in an expedient manner. Indeed, it's one of those motors that feels a lot quicker in reality than the moderate on-paper figures suggest. It also sounds really good and stays largely vibration free, even when pinged right round to 6,000rpm (where a 'soft' limiter stops you pushing any further towards the 6,250rpm redline). We even got 46.4mpg from it, never once taking it out of rural country lanes for 202 miles in its company; that's a very good return.

And then we come to third gear. Wow. This is the Swiss Army knife of ratios. Few cars with any size of engine we've tried have reach like this. It'll chug you around town at 20-30mph. It will enact short, punchy overtakes on A-roads with disarming ease in the 50mph ballpark. And, should you so choose and you're somewhere that this is legal, you can slot into third at about 1,500rpm, or 20mph, and watch with utter disbelief as the Suzuki just pulls, pulls and pulls some more, all the way to 90mph without you having to touch the lever. Third gear in the Baleno Boosterjet is a proper weapon, and no mistake.

All this, and we've not even mentioned the kit. Fully loaded? Maybe not, but a great specification for 14 grand. You get Adaptive Cruise Control - yes, adaptive. You get a reversing camera. You get satnav, Bluetooth, DAB, USB connectivity and an infotainment system presented on a neat, appealing, seven-inch touchscreen in the dash. You get Radar Brake Support, to mitigate any potential rear-end accidents with the car in front. You get climate control and electric windows all round, HID headlights, LED rear lights and six airbags. In short, you get much more fitted here than you would do on comparatively powerful and equally-priced rivals.

Suzuki has always been something of a fringe player, a nameplate that's known more for motorcycles than decent cars. Yet, over the years, it has turned out some intriguing vehicles from time to time, just to keep itself at the edge of frame in people's consciousness. But the current signs are that it is fed up of being considered the fifth-choice Japanese manufacturer - because its products are becoming uniformly excellent. There's the funky, tiny crossover Ignis. There's the angular and entertaining Vitara (pick the S model, it's a cracker). We all know the Swift is an often unfairly-overlooked hatchback, especially the Sport. And the S-Cross provides a cheaper alternative to the ubiquitous Qashqai.

However, this Baleno is our favourite machine of them all. It looks unassuming, and it has an interior that's built to meet a cost rather than customers' soft-touch expectations. But the overall car is a wonderfully beguiling runaround that actually proves great fun to drive - courtesy of one of the best three-cylinder turbocharged engines you could wish to find. Overlook this Suzuki in favour of some of a conventional supermini choice, and you'll be missing out on an unheralded hero, as it would seem exciting things can come in somewhat bland packages.

Alternatives:

Ford Ka+: Spacious for a starting price of 8,995, but the 10,295 85hp Ka+ Zetec won't give you as many toys as the Baleno SZ5 and the Ford also doesn't drive half a nicely as the Suzuki.

Skoda Fabia: Once the value brand of the sector, now one of the premium marques. Sharp-edged Fabia is a nice car to drive, as it's very refined, although the chassis lacks sparkle.

Vauxhall Viva: Viva doesn't come with a turbo, for reasons of cost, so it's cheap but feels lethargic compared to the blown Baleno. The Vauxhall also has a much more, um, intimate cabin.


Matt Robinson - 22 Feb 2017









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