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Small Alto-cation. Image by Mark Nichol.

Small Alto-cation
Suzuki has finally got around to replacing the archaic Alto, but can the new Jap ruffle some feathers in today's city car school?


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| First Drive | Rome, Italy | Suzuki Alto |

Suzuki's Alto turns 30 this year, but instead of having a typical early midlife crisis and emerging shaped like a door wedge painted neon green, it's gone all sensible, cutesy and environmentally aware. Even the colours it wears, including the 'slightly feminine' Fortune Rose Pearl Metallic you see here, are 'inspired by nature'. Age is mellowing, it seems; this seventh-generation model is as sensible as a Japanese bus timetable.

But then the anachronistic sixth-generation Alto, which was surreptitiously dropped from Suzuki's roster in 2006, was never exactly a party animal, was it? Thankfully, this one's altogether feistier, but is it good enough to mix with today's smallest and finest? The Swift surprised us with its brilliance, so we expect good things...

In the Metal

The stunning A-Star concept that preceded this Alto - and which Suzuki claims forms the basis of it - is nowhere to be found; production has turned A-Star into also ran. Aside from the bubbly headlamps there's little to distinguish this from any number of small urban boxes.

Inside it's a similar tale, with the added woe of some pretty obvious cost cutting throughout. It's not offensive at all, but included in the roster of fiscal flinching is an absent glove box (replaced by a big pocket); manual adjustment for the wing mirrors; no button for the passenger electric window on the driver's side; pop-out rear windows and no release button on the boot - which is also absolutely tiny, and hamstrung further by a parcel shelf that doesn't rise with the door. There's a distinct lack of cubbyhole action in the cabin, too: a wallet won't even fit properly in the door pockets - and believe us, no Car Enthusiast wallet is particularly fat.

All that said, it's not an awful place to be. The tall roofline means it feels spacious in the front, and four adults under six foot will get along ok over short distances. The driving position's decent too, despite no reach adjustment for the wheel - and there's no seat height adjustment either on lower versions (which weren't available at the launch, unsurprisingly). The problem is, while it's all very inoffensive, it's also devoid of the charm that makes the Swift so compelling.

What you get for your Money

Precious little. The Indian made Alto comes in three trim levels: SZ2, SZ3 and SZ4. Buy the first of those and you'll get four wheels, five doors and shelter from the rain, and that's about it. So, the SZ3 is where you're realistically looking to start, which gets air conditioning but no alloys or split folding rear bench, and it still has black plastic wing mirrors, for goodness sake. You'll probably want to avoid that too, then. And that, of course, means you're staring a top-whack model in the grille.

Lofty SZ4 cars get 14-inch alloys, front fogs and ESP - but they cost £7,960. Frankly, that's too much for an obviously cheap car, particularly when some older rivals - the Fiat Panda and 107/Aygo/C1 triumvirate among them - will probably cost the same or less after an obligatory dealer discount. All Altos are equipped with four airbags and remote central locking, though.

Driving it

The Alto comes with a solitary engine choice: a three-cylinder, 1.0-litre petrol unit with 67bhp and 66lb.ft of tug. Its CO2 rating of 103g/km puts it into VED band B, so you'll pay £35 per year in road tax, and 64.2mpg means your fuel bills will be low as well. The engine dominates the driving experience too, with its distinctive three-pot growl - a brilliantly incongruous noise that's nowhere near matched by the performance on offer: it's slow. Not painfully slow; mild discomfort, perhaps, though it's allergic to hills of any kind.

But when you're not at full throttle, trying to drag the car to a reasonable speed, the Alto proves a quiet and relatively refined little cruiser. Obviously there's a load of wind noise from the upright front pillars at anything above 50mph, but it's perfectly comfortable and unflustered most of the time. On bad surfaces, a combination of firm damping and a tall, slightly wallowy body makes it a bit crashy, but it's more composed than its cheap façade suggests it might be. Bottom line: it's decent, but don't expect a great deal of fun.

Worth Noting

The original Alto was actually a mini pickup truck that Suzuki claims was largely responsible for the proliferation of women drivers in Japan after its 1979 introduction. And if we were in 1950's Britain now, the Alto could quite accomplish the same feat here - it's not the butchest of cars and will probably appeal more to a young female demographic than any other. It was, in actual fact, designed with a keen eye on European tastes (albeit in Japan) and tested outside the Far East extensively - the first Euro-centric Alto, so to speak. We're still annoyed it doesn't look anything like the A-Star, though.


There's a difference between offering good value and just being cheap: the Alto fits predominantly into the latter category, but without actually being that cheap once you add some essentials. Reading back through this review, we've perhaps been a little harsh on Suzuki's city runner because, actually, it's probably better than the sum of its blemishes. Ultimately, though, it lacks the nth degree of character that's absolutely essential in this class; the intangible quality that Fiat's Panda has, for example, or that the Citroen Saxo once had, that makes an inexpensive car a delight to buy and own. And it's light years behind the new Ford Ka, frankly. It's not bad, it's just frustratingly average.

Mark Nichol - 11 Mar 2009    - Suzuki road tests
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- Alto images

2009 Suzuki Alto specifications:
0-62mph: 14.0 seconds
Top speed: 96mph
Combined economy: 64.2mpg
Emissions: 103g/km
Kerb weight: 855kg

2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.

2009 Suzuki Alto. Image by Mark Nichol.


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