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Suzuki Alto 1.0 SZ4

Click to view picture gallery“Suzukis new Alto city car is perfect
  for drivers who want to be ‘smart

  without having to give up a traditional
  five-door body style and who prefer
  petrol-power but want to be eco-
  friendly without having to recharge
  their car batteries more often than
  their iPhone...

MOST DRIVERS KNOW WHAT A SMART CAR LOOKS LIKE, and appreciate the accompanying financial benefits of these fuel-sipping 'city-friendly' cars. However, most drivers take the view that, while small super-economical cars are fine, unless or until they're mandatory, then they'd rather stick with a more traditional car. One with five doors and four seats. Well, thanks to Suzuki, they now have a chance to do just that while still enjoying low running costs and 'smart' fuel consumption around the 64+mpg mark. All they have to do is buy a new Alto.

With an asphalt 'footprint' hardly much bigger than that of the real Smart, the Alto is one of the smallest city cars on the road. And while it may only be three-and-a-half metres long, it looks and drives like a 'proper' car, has five doors and seats four people.

Not only that, but the all-new seventh generation Alto looks pretty smart in its own right. Probably it's most distinctive visual feature is its cheeky 'face' — pronounced, elongated headlamps flanking a deep single-frame Audi-like grille. The Alto's rising waistline kicks up at the rear into a high, stubby tail with minimal overhangs. The wheel arch edges are cut flat and, on our range-topping SZ4 model, house good-looking alloy wheels. So even before you open a door and sit inside, the Alto looks fun.

Open a front door and you'll find the Alto's cabin to be more spacious than it's pocket-sized exterior leads you to expect. Two large adults can travel in comfort up front — there's generous headroom — and the seats offer good shoulder and under thigh support and remain comfortable even on long journeys.

Helped by the Alto's 'tallish' body, passenger space in the rear is surprisingly good, too: two adults can be accommodated in the back even with near-six-footers sitting up front. Built-in outer armrests, good foot- and knee-room and clear views out make travelling in the back perfectly okay. Note that there are only two rear headrests and two rear seatbelts so, whatever the size of your passengers, the Alto is strictly a four-seater.

That said, it's more than fit for purpose — don't forget that this is a compact city car, not a seven-seat Audi Q7! The Alto's rectangular, boot provides 129 litres of space and the 50:50 split rear seats fold almost completely flat, stretching the load capacity to 774 litres. And being a five-door, the load bay is accessible via the rear doors as well as the high-opening tailgate. The boot, incidentally, can be opened from inside by the release lever near the driver's seat or from outside using the key. A space spacer spare wheel is stored under the lift-up boot floor.

So much for space, what about the fixtures and fittings? Despite the lowish price, equipment levels are perfectly respectable. The top-trim SZ4 gets AirCon (with pollen filter), Electronic Stability Programme (ESP), remote central locking, power steering, 50:50 split folding rear seat, 8-spoke alloy wheels, tinted glass, ABS with EBD and Brake Assist, Isofix child seat fittings, dual front airbags for the driver and passenger, front-seat side side airbags, front and rear curtain airbags and front electric windows.

What this nimble little
  Suzuki does prove
  is that you don’t need
 power and a fancy badge
  to be entertained
behind the wheel
The rear windows are side hinged and adjust manually — not a hardship and a decent stream of fresh air can be enjoyed without any buffeting. About the only sign of cost-cutting is the non-dipping rearview mirror.

From behind the wheel there's more good news. The driver's seat has height adjustment and while the three-spoke steering wheel only adjusts for rake/height it's not a problem and all-round visibility is fine. As well as being easy on the eye (and on the body), it's also a practical cabin with a number of handy storage cubbies including an open pocket where you'd expect to find a glovebox that's large enough to hold six 500ml drink bottles. The radio/CD unit is, of course, MP3/WMA compatible.

The dash is pleasingly uncluttered and attractively laid out, with a single circular dial directly ahead of the driver containing the speedometer. All instruments are clear and easy to read at a glance. The speedo features an integrated LCD display and digital fuel gauge, and a small stand-alone rev-counter sits atop the right-hand side of the dash in an individual pod.

It's an arrangement we like; it keeps the core information simple and uncluttered and right in front of the driver, but you can check on the revs should you need to. However — and let's be honest here — most of today's drivers never look at a tachometer; and a competent press-on driver doesn't need a rev-counter to get the best from their engine.

And talking of engines, the Alto's power comes from a 997cc three-cylinder powerplant that's good for 67bhp and 66lb ft of torque. Top speed is a more-than-able 96mph with zero to 62mph taking 13.5 seconds. Drivers accustomed to bigger engines might think that a single litre isn't all that much but thanks to its low kerbweight the Alto doesn't need a big, thirsty engine. Besides, the 67bhp ensures that, while it's obviously not a go-faster hot-hatch, the peppy Alto is nonetheless more than able to hold its head up when it comes to making progress. It's keen to rev and if you rev it hard you'll find that its deep exhaust note sounds good, too.

What the 'paper' 0-62mph figure doesn't tell you is that the Alto is still fun to drive and can be driven with enthusiasm. The light and accurate steering is well matched to the rest of the car's dynamics and if you make full use of the gearbox — easy thanks to the five-speed gearbox's light, precise change action — it really is surprisingly zestful. Second and third, incidentally, are nice broad ratios and make for good flexibility; even fifth offers lively pick-up on motorways, particularly if there's just two aboard. The brakes, by the way — ventilated discs up front — are progressive with a strong bite and well up to the job of reining-in the gutsy and game Alto without fuss.

Road manners are predictable and combined with the Alto's compact dimensions, make it near-perfect for the practical chores of everyday motoring: it's easy to park; and fits the parking spaces other cars can't take. Furthermore, combined with its zippy character, it's easy to thread through traffic. So while it may not be first off the mark at the traffic lights, you can often leave the bigger cars behind by taking advantage of the gaps they can't.

Motorway trips and country driving are pleasant and relaxing. Cabin refinement is good — actually impressively so for a city car — which helps, as too does the stable, well-composed ride and well-mannered chassis that ensures the Alto puts in a decent performance over rougher road surfaces. What this nimble little Suzuki does prove is that you don't need power and a fancy badge to be entertained behind the wheel.

Without doubt it will be the excellent the fuel economy that will have headline appeal for potential Alto customers. A week of hard driving on a broad mix of town and country roads saw an impressive average consumption of 58.4mpg — a figure very close to the 57.1mpg recorded by David Miles during an earlier first drive review of the same model.
The official figures are 64.2mpg on the combined cycle, 51.4 urban and 74.3mpg extra-urban. For the record, only two of its rivals come close and most are a long way short of the Alto's near 65mpg: Citroen C1 1.0 VVT (62.8), Toyota Aygo 1.0 VVT-I (62.8), Hyundai i10 1.2 Classic (56.5), Ford Ka 1.2 Style (55.4), Kia Picanto 2 1.1 (53.3) and VW Fox 1.2 Urban (46.3).

Add in low insurance costs (1E for the SZ2 and SZ3 spec models and 2E for the SZ4 as tested here), low CO2 emissions (103g/km) and annual road tax of just 35 and it's obvious why the Alto is one of the cheapest cars to run you can buy today.

The Alto is also one of the most environmentally-friendly petrol-powered family cars on the market and with prices starting at 6,795 it certainly offers excellent value for money. But don't make the mistake of thinking that its eco qualifications make it uninteresting to drive: trips in the Alto can be a lot more entertaining than you might ever guess. Cheap and 'cheerful' yes, but in the nicest possible way! —

Suzuki Alto 1.0 SZ4
| 7,960
Maximum speed: 96mph | 0-62mph: 13.5 seconds | Overall test MPG: 58.4mpg
Power: 67bhp | Torque: 66lb ft | CO2 103g/km | Insurance group: 2E