EXCLUSIVE: Well-travelled Baleno will broaden Suzuki’s consumer appeal
Suzuki is a brand for which Iain Robertson harbours many years of deep respect, and its latest Baleno compact-hatch offering underscores the individuality and resolve of one of the world’s most significant marques
Whenever I think of Suzuki, a warm glow flows over me. This is a brand that possesses a long history, having been formed in 1909, albeit in the loom manufacturing industry. Its first foray into motorcars was in the late 1930s, although something major would halt production for several years.
Importantly, after hostilities ended, it was the innovative car that would take the back seat to the company’s powered bicycle manufacturing. Basic transportation was the perceived need and car production would not recommence until 1955 with the Suzulight model, which featured front-wheel-drive, four-wheel independent suspension and rack-and-pinion steering, all of which would take several years to appear more commonly on other mainstream motorcars.
Ironically, the car division of the company was not formed until 1961 and, today, it is the ninth largest in the world, which means that it can stand on its own feet, without a strategic partner, although several have tried. While the recent VW shares issue (the German company owned a 19.9 per cent non-controlling stake in Suzuki, between 2009 and 2015), which was resolved in September last year, by Suzuki paying $3.8bn to re-acquire its shares, was hardly a shining light, the earlier General Motors partnership could have brought the firm to its knees (it did for Saab and almost for Fiat). For a decade, commencing in 1998, GM elected to use Suzuki as its strategic partner.
Despite these various wranglings, the family-run business has continued to expand its operations worldwide and, although thought of as a Japanese manufacturer, it is actually more of a world player than several other brands. In fact, the Baleno is produced for our market in India, although other Europe destined models are produced in Hungary. What has always made its cars attractive, notably in engineering terms, is the cross-fertilisation that takes place between its important, multi-championship winning bikes division and that of the motorcars. I can still recall the hollow, sodium-filled camshafts (a feature of the 1986-1998 Swift) of the 1.3GTi variant that enabled over-8,000rpm revability and soul-stirring performance levels.
Yet, while other carmakers talk of the Colin Chapman, of Lotus infamy, ethos of ‘adding lightness’, it is an aspect of all models in the Suzuki line-up, the latest of which is the outstanding new Baleno, which I am testing here considerably ahead of any other British car reviews. Tipping the scales at a mere 935kgs, for a five-door, spacious family car, it is not just lightweight, but also exceptionally sturdy. An immediate benefit to high mileage users lies in this important aspect.
That all-pervading light touch can be felt in every dynamic respect. Powered by a mere 1.0-litre BoosterJet ‘triple’, albeit turbocharged to deliver an outstanding 110bhp, with an excellent 125lbs ft of torque that can be dipped into from as low as 1,200rpm, exceptional, class-leading performance is the result. The highly advanced but durable direct-injection petrol unit will propel the Baleno from 0-60mph in around ten seconds, topping out just shy of 120mph. Remember, this is a small capacity engine, although it never feels less than willing and emits a deliciously throaty and most engaging, off-beat grumble from beneath its bonnet.
Rated for CO2 at 105g/km, equates to zero VED charge in year one and £20 annually thereafter, so it is intended to be inexpensive to operate, a factor supported by an impressive 44.4mpg attained on a very fast driving route around the back doubles of Buckinghamshire. I reckon conservatively that most Baleno owners will be able to reach 55+mpg without much hassle, all without a high 6th gear. Yet, the five-speed manual (a 6-speed automatic will be available at launch) is an effortless delight to use, its spindly lever flicking accurately, with little more than forefinger pressure, through successive ratios, like the proverbial ‘knife through butter’, an expressive description we have not heard for several years. Lightness in construction plays its part again.
Of course, being under a tonne at the kerb does place some demands on suspension engineering. The Teutonic route would be overly rigid and un-resilient. Yet, in a very Lotus-like display (even though the Norwich engineering specialist was not involved in the project), long-travel compliance, using medium-weight springing and surprisingly soft damper settings, gifts the Baleno a dynamic balance that is awesomely superb. The ride quality is firm, but never harsh. Bump absorption is well judged and roll resistance is linear, but never enforced. As a result, fast progress is as enjoyable as gentle cruising, supported by surgical accuracy of steering, once more demanding minimal effort.
So far so good but, away from the Baleno’s swoopy, different and fresh body styling, I was very keen to experience its interior packaging. While the driver’s seat could (perhaps) endure a few centimetres further rearward travel without encroaching too much on rear leg space, the upwards tilt of the steering column allows plenty of knee-room for those of longer leg, while the accommodating and comfortable chair provides excellent support (especially for spirited motoring). First-class head and shoulder room allows the Baleno to fall into the satisfying ‘Tardis’ arena, which should please Dr Who fans!
Interestingly, the relatively high position of the dashboard moulding (which is sadly not of the soft-touch variety, although past experience of Suzuki quality means that no questions will be raised about durability) enables a more upright seating position, which is translated into an outstandingly roomy rear to the passenger compartment. Three-abreast seating will be possible. The split-level boot (the false floor can be dropped into a lower space to enable a class-leading luggage area) is good for upwards of 350-litres of load.
Ahead of the driver is an evolution of the blue-illuminated instrument panel already used by other Suzuki models, although the architecture is somewhat different and strangely appealing. The layout of the centre console is not just neat but ergonomically logical, which means that even in the German-registered, left-hand-drive version I sampled, the controls fall to hand safely and in a most familiar manner. There is also plenty of trinket space around the cockpit.
Between the speedo and rev-counter is a graphic display that highlights fuel economy and other performance statistics. If you need to know more, the touch-screen in the dash centre enables access to sat-nav, HVAC (climate control), media (including an excellent stereo system) and the car’s other systems. Aspects such as headlamp delay, door opening and autonomous braking can be accessed at standstill.
Suzuki, in its typically understated way, does not make massive play of its ‘self-braking’ facility. However, a small switch in the lower-right (of RHD models) of the dashboard allows a ‘Near’, or ‘Far’, setting for its operation. A warning buzzer will sound to alert the driver, before the car commences to brake autonomously into closing gaps. While I am not a fan of such devices, believing that I am awake and alert when at the wheel, some drivers of all ages do have difficulty with distance perception. Therefore, while not standard on all models at present, it does act as a precursor for adoption by the EU and subsequent standard fitting on all vehicles in the not too distant future. I can perceive the benefits. Incidentally, the performance of the Baleno’s brakes is superb, another beneficial element of the lightweight construction.
I shall be driving the car and its 1.2-litre and semi-hybrid versions in Ireland over the next few weeks, therefore I shall be able to provide a better overview of the range in due course. In the meantime, this 1.0-litre BoosterJet version of the Baleno, which should be priced at around £14,000 at its on-sale date, does show tremendous promise.
Suzuki stated that its new Baleno would not be a mere range stuffer. It is around Skoda Fabia and Kia Rio in overall dimensions, but roomier than both, while the zesty performance is on a significantly higher plane. Tremendous fun to drive, being both rewarding and frugal, it looks far better in the metal than pictures attempting to do it justice. In one move, Suzuki has redefined the B-segment of the new car scene, and I believe that its 4,000 annual sales expectation is going to fall shy of actual demand, especially once the consumer delves into and appreciate its broader values.
Our man behind the wheel…
Iain P W Robertson has been a fixture of the British and international motoring scene for more than forty years. He is also an exponent of the travel scene and understands driving holidays only too well. Always opinionated but frequently balanced in his views, he is open to receiving enquiries from readers and he will respond. Iain is over 50, likes dogs and drives a Skoda, out of choice.