Boosterjet Baleno rockets Suzuki to the front of the small car space race
SUZUKI'S admirable range gets a new addition next month when another hatchback joins the line-up, writes William Scholes.
The five-door-only Baleno is essentially Suzuki's answer to owners of its dinky Swift hatchback who feel they want something a bit bigger but aren't swayed by the charms of the company's Vitara junior SUV or the S-Cross crossover.
It answers criticisms levelled at the Swift 's Lilliputian back seat and boot by simple virtue of being substantially bigger in both areas - a seats-up load volume of 320 litres plays 211 litres - but there is more to the Baleno than generous space.
This is an all-new car, debuting the platform that will be adapted to see service in the next Swift.
Using the latest clever-clogs high strength steels helps every Baleno to tip the scales at under a tonne.
For example, the car's shell structure weighs 196kg, making it the lightest in its class and below the 200kg mark which Suzuki says was "long seen in the industry as impossible to attain".
As anyone who has ever puffed their way to the summit of Slieve Donard knows, low mass is a virtuous circle, and so it is with cars.
Helping the Baleno make best use of its lightweight construction is a fabulous new engine. It's 1.0-litre three-cylinder version of the 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo 'Boosterjet' unit that so impresses in the Vitara.
These downsized three-cylinder engines are becoming more and more common but the Suzuki effort is easily one of the best because it manages to actually produce strong fuel economy.
We've struggled to break the mid-30mpg mark with Ford's equivalent EcoBoost engine, for example, but the Baleno easily bests 50mpg, even with some quite vigorous driving.
It's a smooth little thing, too, with a characterful engine note and a surprisingly strong shove when you apply full throttle.
When Suzuki says this little 1.0-litre engine is equivalent to an old-school 1.8-litre petrol, it's not wrong, and if anything it feels far quicker than the official quoted figures suggest.
The Boosterjet is such a brilliant engine that it would be easy to overlook the other option.
It's a conventional 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol with added interest coming from what Suzuki dubs a 'mild hybrid' system
It basically harvest energy under braking, sending it to a little high-tech lithium ion battery tucked under the passenger seat; the battery energy is then deployed to assist acceleration.
It's clever stuff. It seems to me to be a more sensible solution for a small car than a full hybrid system with all the heavy batteries and motors that entails. At just 6.2kg, it is also super-light and in keeping with Suzuki's cut-excess-weight ethos.
Suzuki calls the system SHVS - 'Smart Hybrid Vehicle System' - and thus equipped it helps the Baleno score CO2 emission of 94g/km and more than 70mpg on the EU combined cycle.
The standard gearbox is a sweet-shifting five-speed manual, with a six-speed automatic optional only with the Boosterjet engine.
There is no diesel option, but honestly, they don't seem to make too much sense to me in small cars so this is not the gaping omission it might be if we were discussing a crossover or executive saloon.
The Baleno doesn't have quite the same verve or sense of fun in its handling as the Swift.
This reflects Suzuki's positioning of the car as "a more rational choice" than the Swift, which could be interpreted as code for "better suited to older customers".
However, it's still better to drive than most other small, light cars, with Suzuki's trademark skill at setting up its cars' suspension for our roads shining through.
Suzuki develops the suspension and steering of its cars on UK roads, and it shows, even if the Baleno is on the softer, more rolly end of handling spectrum than the Swift and rivals like the Mazda 2.
It's something of a novelty for a car launch to be held in Northern Ireland, but this is where the lovely people in Suzuki's press operation chose to unveil the Baleno, basing the event at the Culloden Hotel earlier this month.
The test route took in the Ards Peninsula from Holywood to Portaferry, followed by the ferry trip to Strangford and a run back to base.
From a local point of view, it was a relief that the sun was shining and the countryside looked so well for journalists and Suzuki top-brass visiting from South Africa to Scotland, and everywhere in between.
In addition to being very pleasant to drive and spacious, the Baleno is a strong value-for-money proposition.
Suzuki has decided to laden down the Baleno with kit rather than offer poverty-spec models.
For now, there are two trim levels: SZ-T and SZ5. Standard kit includes six airbags, satnav, Bluetooth and air conditioning. You can use Apple's CarPlay thingummy too, if your iPhone is so equipped.
The SZ-5 cars get some truly big car equipment, like keyless entry and starting, automatic climate control, LED rear lights, radar brake support and adaptive cruise control.
The dashboard layout is very good. The touchscreen for the satnav, stereo and phone is excellent and the digital display between the rev counter and speedometer is uncommonly slick for a small car.
The driving position is good and the pedals and gearchange operate with Suzuki's customary attention to detail in their weighing and consistency.
Criticisms include interior plastics that some will find hard and shiny, compared to the soft-feel stuff you will find in a Skoda Fabia or Hyundai i20, and exterior styling that is blander than the distinctive Swift and Vitara.
But these black marks tend to fade when you consider the car as a package and, perhaps more importantly, the price.
There will no doubt be attractive finance options but we tend to focus on list prices in these pages.
At £12,999 for the SZ-T Boosterjet, £13,499 for the mild hybrid in SZ5 trim and £13,999 for the loaded-with-the-kitchen-sink SZ5 Boosterjet, the Baleno is another Suzuki that is hard to ignore.
:: AT A GLANCE
Suzuki Baleno 1.0 Boosterjet SZ5
Price: £13,999. As tested £13,999
Engine and transmission: 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol turbo, five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 110bhp, 125lb/ft
Performance: Top speed 124mph, 0-62mph in 11.4 seconds
Fuel consumption: 62.7mpg (EU combined); 50.4mpg (real world)
CO2, road tax, benefit in kind: 105g/km - not liable in first year, then £20 annually - 18 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Four stars (85/73/65/43)