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Does Suzuki's new compact runabout have what it takes to succeed, or do established city cars like the VW Up and Hyundai i10 offer a more complete package?

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For a small car made by a bit-part player in the global car market, the Suzuki Celerio received a disproportionately large amount of coverage in Autocar – and that’s not counting the full review you’re about to read.

The Celerio might have justified much of that coverage all on its own and in the usual ways, by virtue of being new, interesting, practical and appealingly well priced. We’ve come to expect nothing less from Suzuki – and we’ll cover those many facets in detail.

From the Celerio's launch, there will be just two trim levels and one petrol engine

Suffice to say for now that this isn’t just another city car but a sign of new-found ambition and imagination from Japan’s maverick supermini and 4x4 specialist.

And yet, it has also had a UK market launch marked by controversy. The Celerio provided a welcome reminder of the need for independent and thorough testing when, six weeks ago during our own performance benchmarking session, it failed a routine emergency braking test.

Two test cars suffered the same brake linkage failure on the same day, leading to a collapsed pedal, when required to execute a maximum-pressure, ABS-assisted stop from 70mph.

It’s a clear example of a safety-critical mechanical defect being flushed out by what we still believe to be the most thorough assessment of a new car carried out by any car magazine anywhere in the world – and, mercifully, before it was allowed to endanger lives on UK roads. Which, in a rarely necessary but important sense, is what we’re here for.

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Acting with laudable speed, Suzuki subsequently investigated the problem, recommissioned the part at fault, retro-fitted it to cars in UK dealer stock and delivered a third Celerio to Autocar HQ that would, Suzuki assured us, handle any abuse that we could throw at it.

It’s the final, right-hand-drive, ‘Autocar-specification’ Celerio with the updated brake linkage about which you’re now reading. So, putting its smartly resolved teething problem to one side, what kind of renewed threat can Suzuki present to the increasingly talented elite in the city car class?

There are just three trim levels (SZ2, SZ3 and SZ4) and one petrol engine – slim pickings when you consider the broader line-ups of its rivals. But the top-specification Celerio – tested here – is cheaper than most rivals’ entry-level options. A good place to start, then.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Suzuki Celerio rear

The Celerio’s key selling points are its greater-than-average size and the added usability that brings.

Suzuki has positioned the car at the larger end of the microcar class, making it longer and taller than almost every direct competitor.

The Celerio is built from a new high-strength steel platform, designed above all else for packaging efficiency

And although it is only averagely wide, the Celerio also provides an extra seatbelt, which makes it a rare five-seater in a segment where space for four is the norm. That’s the theory, at any rate. The reality will be assessed by our tape measure in due course.

The car is built from a new high-strength steel platform designed above all else for packaging efficiency. Its suspension has likewise been configured to free up space in the car, with a class-typical MacPherson strut-type suspension figuring up front but a new torsion beam arrangement at the rear with what Suzuki calls “flattened ends” that make for greater underbody strength as well as a lower boot floor.

The Celerio’s styling is intended to imbue it with a more distinguishing air of quality than is evident in some of Suzuki’s other recent offerings. The conjoined chrome grille and headlights and deeper-sculpted styling features, which cross several panels in some cases, combine to make this a fairly attractive car but not an outstanding one.

Above all else, the Celerio lacks a bit of distinguishing visual charm of the sort that the Toyota Aygo and Renault Twingo trade on, and it’s a conspicuous absence. 

There are only three trim grades – entry-level SZ2, SZ3 and the more generously equipped SZ4, as tested – and one engine option: Suzuki’s ‘K10B’ 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine, driving through a five-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automated 'box. Suzuki also introduced a Dualjet version of the same engine producing the same bhp and a tad more torque in the pursuit of greater efficiency. It sees the 1.0-litre unit equipped with two injectors per cylinder, a higher compression ratio, cooled exhaust gas recirculation and an start-stop technology.

Made slightly lighter and lower on friction than the version in the Alto and Splash, the motor produces 67bhp and 66lb ft and emits 99g/km of CO2 – competitive stats, but no great shakes. While the Dualjet version produces 67bhp and 68lb ft and emits a mere 84g/km of CO2.

INTERIOR

Suzuki Celerio dashboard

Suzuki dashboards, no matter where they are encountered, all tend to feel about the same.

The Celerio’s well-ordered collage of cut-rate black plastic is par for the course – as is the kind of hard-boiled durability that you’d expect from a toddler’s play set.

Good news: a digital radio as standard in a car of this price. More of this please, budget car makers.

Handsomeness, of the upmarket sort striven for by European designers, appears to be of peripheral concern. Instead, Suzuki seeks merely to put everything in its proper place and then ensure that whatever it is functions correctly for the next 10,000 or so clicks and twirls.

At the Celerio’s price bracket, we’re inclined to favour such simplicity. Better that, for example, than a PSA Peugeot Citroën designer’s idea of quirkiness. Of course, it’s practicality that defines how the Celerio looks from the outset. That apple-box squareness is the result of keeping the roofline from slanting at the rear.

As promised, the resulting head room is plentiful. However, the number of potential occupants implied by the middle seatbelt is less credible. With two man-sized road testers in the back row, even a Lilliputian would struggle to fit in the modicum of daylight left in between.

In fact, with the opposing seatbelt buckles less than 25mm apart, it’s tough to imagine the person – one presumably too large for a child’s seat – Suzuki envisages filling such a perch. Assuming it’s left empty, the remaining passengers are well catered for. Taking for granted the usual city car limitations, adults won’t have cause to complain during journeys of a modest duration.

If it rivals the best with its back row, beyond it Suzuki claims to have exceeded them. Thanks to a low boot floor (aided by the absence of even a spacesaver spare wheel), the firm claims a class-leading 254-litre capacity with the seats up.

That’s only a fraction more than the Volkswagen Up’s figure (and, at 726 litres with the seats down, well shy of its rival’s 959-litre total capacity) but any advantage over the segment’s consummate all-rounder is probably worth shouting about.

On the equipment front, there are three trims to choose from - SZ2, SZ3 and SZ4. The entry-level trim comes with 14in steel wheels, a CD player, DAB radio, central locking and a tyre pressure monitoring system as standard, while upgrading to SZ3 adds 14in alloy wheels, air conditioning, remote central locking, Bluetooth and USB connectivity to the Celerio package.

The range-topping SZ4 models come with all-round electric windows, front foglights, electrically adjustable wing mirrors and rear seat pockets.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Suzuki Celerio cornering

It stops just fine. That’s the most important thing to know about the Celerio’s performance, but you wouldn’t have expected it any other way after it received the remedial work that it was due.

Taking a touch over three seconds to come to a standstill from 60mph is above average, as is wanting 52.6m to come to a halt from 70mph, but in brake pedal feel and outright retardation, we’ve really no qualms about the way the Celerio stops.

The Celerio is remarkably thrifty at the fuel pumps. Overall, the True MPG testers registered 53.5mpg

In fact, it stops rather more quickly than it goes, although, given the market it’s in, this shouldn’t be taken as a criticism. Although the 67bhp 1.0-litre triple that powers the Celerio is incapable of punting it to 60mph any faster than 12.9sec or, more relevantly, from 30-70mph in anything less than 14.3sec (31.6sec in fourth gear), it is a willing and relatively responsive companion.

It’s quiet and smooth and revs extremely cleanly to its 6000rpm rev limiter. That it will still pull 60mph in second gear, despite this relatively low rev limit, means that it has sensible gearing for longer journeys.

It spins at a shade over 3000rpm at 70mph in fifth gear and, being a triple, sounds lazier than a four-pot would at the same revs, so it’s actually a respectable motorway companion. It even resists the need to be dropped into fourth on long motorway inclines.

The Celerio is also remarkably thrifty at the fuel pumps. Overall, the True MPG testers registered 53.5mpg, which is a very decent result indeed.

Even if you thrash the living daylights out of it, like you would only if it were a hire car, it’s unlikely ever to drop below 40mpg.

RIDE & HANDLING

The 67bhp Suzuki Celerio

It’s not uncommon for city cars to do one of these things well at the expense of the other, but the Celerio has a surprising and very welcome array of abilities beneath its skin.

Surprise number one is the ride, which is firmer than you might expect around town but never approaches harshness.

The Celerio isn't just a dependable companion, with decent poise and the agility offered by its light kerb weight. It's also a genuinely good fun car

Instead, it has the kind of supple yet controlled body movement that you might expect of, say, a small Ford - such as the Ka+

It’s composed and secure, although a Ford would back that up with steering that was more positive, secure around the straight-ahead and faster off it than the Suzuki’s, which does require you to wind some lock off at low speeds, rather than self-centring of its own accord.

Raise the speed, however, and the Celerio still impresses, with good straight-line stability making it a decent long-distance car and one that retains good body control should you turn away from the motorway and onto a decent back road.

That its body doesn’t weigh a great deal – the claimed kerb weight is only 835kg – is an obvious help with that, but light bodies don’t always make for smooth-riding bodies, so the Celerio is a fine blend.

In fact, it’s really respectably engaging to row along on good roads. The gearshift, which doesn’t have a great deal of torque to deal with, is one of the best on any production car – it’s so slick and precise – and control weights are all positive and largely well judged.

If it were a car designed for the likes of us, we’d have preferred a steering system that’s a touch weightier and certainly faster, but for the market at which it’s aimed, it’s not far wrong.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Suzuki Celerio

The low cost of ownership will be the clincher for most Celerio owners, who’ll be private individuals spending their own cash and sensitive to retained value, cost of insurance and fuel economy.

In isolation, the news on residual fortitude doesn’t look good, with our sources suggesting that the Celerio will retain a smaller proportion of its showroom price than most rivals.

Whichever Celerio you buy, it'll qualify for a free band A tax disc, with all models emitting less than 100g/km of CO2.

However, in actuality, just under 40 percent retained value after three years on a car as well equipped as a Celerio SZ4 that costs between £1500 and £2000 less than its like-for-like competition isn’t something to complain about.

The Celerio’s UK insurance group rating may be, though. With plenty of city cars rated in groups one and two, the Suzuki suffers with a punitive group-seven classification.

For a typical 35-year-old UK driver, that’d be the difference between an annual renewal premium of £280 and £350. Younger and higher-risk drivers who may very well take the Celerio for the perfect insurable car could well pay dearly for their mistake.

There’s better news in that, whichever Celerio you buy, it’ll qualify for a free band A tax disc, with all models emitting less than 100g/km of CO2. Plenty of rival city cars still miss that mark, and although the walk up to bands B and C is hardly significant, it is an additional running cost nevertheless.

Given that only a masochist would buy the Celerio for the way it looks, the modest styling enhancements of the SZ4 probably don't justify its premium.

We would stick with the cheap and no less cheerful SZ3. In hearteningly honest fashion, it remains the Suzuki way.

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VERDICT

3.5 star Suzuki Celerio

The pity of the Celerio’s earlier braking troubles is that we knew there was a decent car waiting to be given a positive verdict. Now that the braking is sorted, it’s a pleasure to deliver it.

The little Suzuki is a pleasing car to drive, cheap to buy and decent to sit in, and it sips fuel prudently. Against its rivals, the Celerio’s overall position is hard to call, because these things do depend on your priorities.

Practical, cheap to buy, inexpensive to run and fun, the Celerio is our kind of city car

The Volkswagen Up is difficult to unseat at the top of the class because it mixes so many things well, not least style and a sense that it’s a joy to be around, but any other position from then on is up for grabs.

A Hyundai i10 counters with a classier interior and a Fiat Panda with some neat, fun touches, while the Ford Ka+ offers the fun factor and the practicality than the Celerio prides itself on.

However, in many ways the Celerio is the equal of both, and more pleasing to drive than either.

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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 Celerio 2015-2019 First drives