Suzuki Baleno -

First Drive

Suzuki Baleno, full front
Suzuki Baleno, side action
Suzuki Baleno, front action
Suzuki Baleno, rear action
Suzuki Baleno, dashboard
Suzuki Baleno, boot 2
Suzuki Baleno, rear seats
Suzuki Baleno, hybrid dash
Suzuki Baleno, boot

SIMPLY reading these words sets you apart from a big chunk of potential new car buyers - who hardly care what their next set of wheels will be.

For around a third of people ready to sign on the dotted line are much more concerned that their dealer is friendly and honest - and then buy the car he recommends.

So says Suzuki (they've done the research) as it invites us to drive the new Baleno hatchback and pass judgment.

But then Suzuki knows buyers love its dealers, putting them behind only Mercedes and Lexus in the battle to win hearts and sales. So imagine the Baleno sales chart if the car turns out half as good as a Suzuki dealership. We'll see.

In fact, the company has modest ambitions for the car, with 3,500 sales anticipated in the first year, most of them to private buyers - this is very much not a car for the company fleet.

Rather, the new Indian-built Baleno is aimed at someone with a 'sensible' budget who rather likes the prospect of a car dripping with kit - and a dealer who will make them feel warm and respected as they enter the showroom. Where they will find the Baleno impresses with its neat, compact lines.

More impressive still is what you get for your money. The cheapest version, the £12,999 SZ-T comes with the sort of standard equipment that makes you wonder why you'd ever pay for the posher SZ5 version.

Most Baleno buyers won't, being more than happy with the air conditioning, alloy wheels, DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity that comes as standard. Oh, and sat nav too. Yes, and all for less than thirteen grand, or £199 a month and no deposit.

At which point you may wonder - if you're a modest petrol head - why Suzuki is launching a car that on paper seems a rival for the Swift it already sells in generously large numbers.

The company has a ready answer, of course: the Swift appeals to buyers who want a bit of emotion in their car, the new Baleno aims to lure those after a more rational choice.

So the Baleno has a bigger boot and lots more leg stretching room in the rear than the Swift.

It also comes with the first application of a new engine for Suzuki, in the compact shape of a three-cylinder, 1.0 litre Boosterjet petrol unit that is expected to take the majority of sales, leaving the rest to a larger 1.2 litre four-cylinder petrol that has modest help from a small extra battery hidden under the front passenger seat.

That Baleno SHVS is described as a 'mild hybrid', costs £13,499 and comes in top SZ5 trim with adaptive cruise control, automatic air con and radar brake control (applying the brakes if you don't when it senses danger).

The extra battery helps an electric motor do some of the propulsion work and cuts emissions to a tax friendly 94g/km and fuel consumption to an official (and theoretical) 70.6mpg. The little new 1.0 litre doesn't do quite so well (105g/km and 62.7mpg) but is still competitive enough to impress.

This smaller engine produces 109bhp thanks to turbo assistance (the non-turbo 1.2 manages just 89bhp) and will surge to 62mph in 11.4 seconds and on to a top speed of 124mph.

The 1.2 manages 111mph and 12.3 seconds, while an automatic transmission version of the 1.0 litre car is good for 118mph, 11.0 seconds and 57.6mpg.

On the roads outside Belfast, where Suzuki took us to try its new baby, the Baleno set off with the willing thrum characteristic of all three-cylinder petrol engines.

It also felt on the enthusiastic side of lively from the off. Some initial vibrations (a common feature of the breed) quickly gives way to a creamy urgency.

This may be a 'logical' choice of car but it feels every inch a mini warm hatch in everyday clothes.

Then you hit a patch of poorly repaired road and the ride turns jittery. Smoother surfaces are tackled with some composure, but the Baleno would rather you took it easier when the going gets rough.

The steering never quite matches the direct and lively feel of the engine, the gear change is forgettably decent. And never forget, this is not a car aimed at the enthusiastic driver, who might look instead to a Swift Sport.

A clear set of instruments includes some - g-meter, acceleration and braking force indicators among them - that seem out of place in this humble family transporter and might usefully have been replaced by a digital speedometer.

Perhaps best news of all was saved to the end of the drive, when the trip computer showed 61.6mpg. Allowing for a bit of in-built flattery, that remains an outstanding figure. A case of having your Suzuki cake and eating it.

A brief drive in the mild hybrid 1.2 recorded an almost identical economy figure on a more demanding route, so showed extra promise for the future. It pulled well enough too, with a little less of the sparkle that comes as standard with the smaller engine and makes this newest Suzuki such a surprisingly good steer.

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