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Suzuki brings back its 1990s family hatchback in modern, downsized form

Suzuki must by now be well used to the idea that it isn’t fated to be like other car makers.

It has made two concerted attempts to sell what we might consider to be a typical family-use, full-sized hatchback in both Europe and the US.

I’m all in favour of sub-one-tonne superminis, but I’m not convinced they can be all at once cheap, light, refined and upmarket. The one thing the Baleno does do is make me feel good about the next Swift

The most recent of them, you may remember, was the Liana.

Read our review of the Suzuki Baleno 1.0 Boosterjet here

But before the Liana came the original Baleno, a decent but typically unadventurous model, available in hatch, saloon and estate bodies, that was launched in 1995. Built on a stretched Swift platform, it was the car intended to propel Suzuki into the car-making mainstream, which, as you may have noticed, it spectacularly failed to do.

But should we regret that failure, when Suzuki has instead grown to be one of the global car industry’s true specialists?

It is famously independent, having bought back only last year the shares formerly sold as part of an unsuccessful joint venture with Volkswagen.

It is a renowned expert in making superminis and small 4x4s, and it’s a roaring success in some of the world’s most important developing markets. Suzuki wouldn’t trade what it has today for what it evidently desired two decades ago even if it could.

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This road test subject is highly symbolic of that change in outlook and new-found maturity. It’s an all-new Baleno but, rather than another Volkswagen Golf-sized hatchback, this one’s a supermini through and through.

Built at Maruti Suzuki in India for global export markets and on an all-new platform that’ll be used across the maker’s full range of small cars, the Baleno is intended as a more rational, practical choice than the smaller Swift.

It’s big on space, big on equipment and equally big on value – and still a recognisable Suzuki. It also comes to market with two interesting new engines: a 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol mild hybrid with sub-100g/km CO2 emissions and a turbocharged 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol unit that Suzuki expects most buyers to plump for.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Suzuki Baleno rear

Most of us would agree that there are things we’d like Suzuki to continue doing in its own particular way and other areas in which it could afford to converge a bit more with accepted European convention.

Knowing how and where it must continue to be different will be key to expanding its foothold in the European market.

Bodywork looks prone to car park dings, but Suzuki offers plastic bumper corner and side body protectors as affordable dealer-fit options

We expect Suzuki superminis to be light, for example. It’s something that has contributed to the dynamism, efficiency and all-round appeal of the current Suzuki Swift and could do so again with the Baleno.

Because, built on a new platform made of higher-grade steels than its sister cars and requiring fewer reinforcements, this new five-door hatchback weighed just 920kg on our scales. And it didso in spite of dimensions that make it large by class standards: longer and wider than a Skoda Fabia, Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo and beaten for outward size only by the very biggest cars in the class.

But we don’t expect Suzuki to aim for styling allure inspired by the fashionable premium supermini set.

The Baleno’s appearance is a clear attempt at European design sophistication – and, at least in places, a misguided one.

With less decoration, the car might have conjured the modern, smart, understated impression that most of its styling seems to be working towards. But there’s too much chrome-effect plastic to make it able to pass muster in the context of European tastes.

The extra-wide chrome bar running the full width of the tailgate is simply too flashy, and the chrome door handles (a feature of SZ5 trim only, should you want to avoid them) are equally overdone.

Suspension is via struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear, while power comes from a choice of 89bhp 1.2-litre four-cylinder Dualjet and 110bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder Boosterjet petrol engines.

The former is partnered with the starter-generator and extra-large-capacity lithium ion battery of an economy-boosting mild hybrid set-up, christened ‘SHVS’, while the latter uses a turbo and direct fuel injection.

A five-speed manual gearbox is standard with both engines, while a six-speed automatic transmission is an option on the three-cylinder turbo engine only. 

INTERIOR

Suzuki Baleno interior

Surprise and contradiction continue to dominate your impressions of the Baleno as you swing the lightweight, hollow-sounding driver’s door shut, settle into the cloth seat and take in the strange mix of materials.

In bargain shopping car territory, you don’t expect the soft-touch mouldings and solid, expensive-feeling switchgear that you find in an Audi or Mini costing 50% more. With a few notable exceptions, most of the Baleno’s fixtures and fittings look and feel just about pleasant and robust enough, given its pricing.

Front seats are comfortable and the controls well placed. Profusion of shiny dashboard plastics is notable, though

Striking a contrived and jarring note are the silvery trims around each air vent, along each interior doorcard and surrounding the air-con controls; they’re as out of place as a micro-salad garnish and a smudge of pomegranate jus on a plate of beans on toast.

There’s more chrome accenting along the length of the centre console: a piece of trim with exposed screw heads that flexes like a toddler’s plaything when subjected to a bit of tactile scrutiny.

Less superfluous is the car’s 7.0in colour touchscreen infotainment system, whose presence as standard on any £13,000 car is quite a coup. Its screen has a slightly low-rent, orange peel look to it and its menus aren’t the last word in easy navigability, but it’s a system of many functions and it’ll exceed the expectations of a great many owners.

It includes sat-nav, CarPlay and MirrorLink smartphone connectivity and DAB radio all as standard. If it isn’t the most usable, responsive or sharpest-looking system you’ve ever used, you might remember that this is all on a sub-£13k car, because it’s certainly offering a lot for the money.

The system shuns buttons and knobs, using instead touch-sensitive pads for volume control and for ‘home’, ‘voice control’ and ‘settings’ functions.

We prefer buttons for oft-pressed primary menus like these, because capacitive substitutes don’t have haptic feel and can be flaky.

But the touchscreen interface works well enough. There are four major control zones (nav, phone, MirrorLink, radio), while pressing the star in the centre of the screen brings up extra shortcuts pertinent to each zone (track skip, ‘take me home’ destination for navigation and so on).

The system’s rendering of graphics is fairly basic, but its mapping is detailed and easy to follow and the voice control seems to work well.

Ahead of the driver is another gadget sideshow: a trip computer with a number of wholly unnecessary modes for a budget supermini (a lateral g-meter and power and torque dials among them), but modes you may only uncover by mistake, as one tester did, when attempting to adjust the brightness of the instrumentation backlighting.

The meat of the Baleno’s interior meal is its practicality. Using the averagely practical Mazda 2 as a marker of the space that a typical supermini provides, the Baleno exceeds its standards by a distance: by almost 100mm on typical rear leg room, 40mm on front-seat head room, 50mm on seats-up boot length and 100mm on usable loading width.

This is a car you could easily use as occasional short-range transport for a small family and comfortably sit in the back of as an average-sized adult. And to that we doff our caps.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.0-litre Boosterjet Suzuki Baleno engine

In opting for a small-capacity, three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine for the relative advantages on performance, driveability, fuel economy and zestiness of character that it provides over a larger, atmospheric four-cylinder unit, the Baleno joins a long list of rivals that have already made the switch.

Suzuki’s new turbocharged 1.0-litre Boosterjet engine is hardly a trend-setter, then, but it is every bit as good as most of the ultra-modern in-line triples we must compare it with, at least in terms of its gutsiness and response, its willingness to rev and its fuel economy.

The incongruity of a lateral g-meter on a £13k supermini with economy tyres isn’t lost on me. Worse still, there’s no scale on the meter to say how much lateral load you’re pulling. Bizarre

That’s less true in terms of overall refinement, perhaps, but when you weigh up that list and consider that it’s delivered on a car available for the Baleno’s price, you have to admire Suzuki’s achievement.

The firm is notoriously pessimistic with its performance claims, so the fact that we beat the Baleno’s official 0-62mph claim of 11.4sec shouldn’t come as a surprise, but in repeatedly recording a sub-10.0sec 0-60mph time and averaging 9.8sec in two directions, the Baleno proves it’s no slouch.

It took just 9.7sec to go from 30-70mph through the gears; that’s closer to the pace of a Mini Cooper than the 89bhp Mazda 2 we tested last year – a car that ought to be the closer rival, based on price.

The Baleno’s engine is a little rough and chuggy at idle, just as all transversely mounted three-cylinder motors tend to be as a result of the rocking motion that their firing order imparts. But it spins into a fairly reserved but industrious thrum which, although not as well isolated as in some of its rivals, is perfectly tolerable.

It has throttle response as crisp as that of the better examples of the breed, and it’s efficient, returning better than 55mpg for our economy testers where plenty of less powerful small cars struggle to pass 50mpg.

We had hoped for slick and assured control weights, because the Swift gives them to you. But the shift quality of the Baleno’s five-speed manual gearbox is light and springy, and the keener you are to move the lever through the gate, the less satisfactory it feels.

Braking performance is respectable, although the 185/55 R16 Bridgestone Ecopia tyres on which the Baleno comes don’t exactly maul the road surface. In the dry, the car stopped from 70mph in 49.8 metres – a poorer result than the two-tonne Ford Edge we figured on the same day. From a sub-one-tonne car, you might well expect better.

RIDE & HANDLING

The need to differentiate the Baleno – to give it a dynamic brief unique among its range mates and allow those who promote and sell it an easy shorthand in defining and describing it in contrast to what’s parked next to it in the showroom – seems rather to have removed the jam from the donut of its driving experience.

Had this car handled like a larger, more practical and better-engined Swift, it might have been one of the best additions to the supermini set we’ve seen so far this year.

Faster corners bring sudden roll out of the car but don’t undermine stability

Instead, it’s a more softly sprung car with lighter and calmer steering and an easier-going low-speed ride but very little of the directional eagerness of its smaller sibling.

As a result, not only is it a damp squib as a car for keener drivers, but it’s also questionable if the way that the Baleno is tuned really makes it any more refined or easy to drive.

As Suzuki will have discovered here, refinement is a difficult and expensive trait to engineer into any car – particularly a small, lightweight one – and it takes a great deal more than retuned suspension to produce it.

As a result, while the Baleno’s primary ride is quite gentle, the car doesn’t feel particularly supple or compliant, because it has poorer than average shock absorption and wheel control and its rolling chassis doesn’t seem very carefully bushed.

Hit a reasonable-sized sharp edge and the suspension thumps and fidgets about excitedly beneath you. The Baleno’s body isn’t very well tied down, either, tending to heave and pitch somewhat after being disturbed.

Roll control is, however, respectable and grip levels, while far from good, at least remain predictable as your speed rises.

But the Baleno’s electromechanical power steering set-up is another part of the driving experience that feels either poorly judged or simply unfinished, being inconsistently weighted as you steer off-centre, overly keen to return to centre as you steer straight again and always failing to communicate how much of the available grip at the front wheels you’re actually using.

Although a decent ESP system keeps it from becoming a threat to your safety, the Baleno’s grip levels are fairly slight. The car will tolerate being driven quickly on the road, and while you can see the tell-tale stability control light flickering occasionally (usually when the car’s body is disturbed mid-corner), you won’t feel it intervening to keep things neat and tidy. But the bottom line is that the handling remains neat and tidy enough, one way or another.

Deactivating the ESP doesn’t switch the system off completely, but it will allow you to feed in enough power to break traction at the driving wheels —something that doesn’t take very much extra right foot to do.

When the Baleno does run out of grip, it’s almost always at the front end first. The ESP’s braking interventions remain active at all times, though, ensuring the car stays both on line and secure.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Baleno pricing starts at less than £13,000 for the 1.0-litre Boosterjet SZ-T model, and for that you get a good-sized hatchback with six airbags, 16in alloy wheels, HID headlights, sat-nav, DAB radio, air conditioning, electric front windows, privacy glass and cruise control.

You also get a car that performs better than the class average, as we’ve established, returns better than 55mpg and retains its value as well as plenty of more expensive options.

CAP’s predicted residual value showing for the Baleno rivals a like-for-like Fabia and beats the i20. Not bad

You can see why, for private motorists with funding in place, the car would appeal. Suzuki is also offering some attractive PCP deals that bring monthly payments down to less than £160 over four years, provided you can find a modest deposit.

The company will have hoped for a better crash test result than it was awarded by Euro NCAP. Top-level cars come with a radar-based crash avoidance and mitigation system as standard, but entry-level SZ-Ts only include it as an option. As a result, Euro NCAP awarded four stars out of five for the car equipped with Radar Brake Support and only three stars for the entry-level version.

A group 11 insurance rating isn’t as low as some (an MG 3 is group 4), but it beats most of the Baleno’s rivals of a similar performance level.

We suggest buying the SZ5 spec Baleno as it comes with reach adjustment for the steering column, rear electric windows and adaptive cruise control thrown into the package. Choosing metallic paint for an additional £430 well pay dividends when you come to sell it on.

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VERDICT

3 star Suzuki Baleno SZ5

Those chrome door handles say it all.

On one hand, they’re a statement of Suzuki’s ambition to expand into new territory with the new Baleno, which is desperately trying to be more mature, rounded, usable and sophisticated than any supermini we’ve seen before from the Japanese manufacturer.

Spacious, nippy and well-priced Suzuki lacks usual dynamic flair

And yet they’re also symbolic of a model that’s been over-decorated and undercooked – one that has so many of the trimmings of a classy European equivalent but lacks much of the material quality and vital engineering substance.

A fine engine, a practical cabin and boot, a high equipment level and a low price may be all the Baleno needs to convince the modest required number of British buyers each year to get their money out – but we suspect they won’t be queuing to do so for long.

To us, the fact that the car misses out on the poised and agile ride and handling to match its peppy performance makes it feel somewhat unworthy of its maker’s efforts, as does the fact that it’s also largely unsuccessful as a more refined and mature small car.

Hence why the Baleno doesn’t make our top five falling behind the MG 3, Vauxhall Corsa, Hyundai i20, Skoda Fabia and Ford Fiesta three-cylinder equivalents.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Suzuki Baleno 2016-2019 First drives