BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND – We get behind the wheel of Suzuki's latest addition to the hotly contested B-segment and get a taste of the firm's latest foray into turbopetrol territory.
What is it and where does it fit in?
The Baleno is Suzuki's latest tilt at such B-segment staples as the Volkswagen Polo, Ford Fiesta and Renault Clio, and will initially arrive on our shores featuring the 1,4-litre 70 kW/130 N.m naturally aspirated petrol engine that's currently doing service in such models as the Ciaz. With this particular powerplant offering, the Baleno will filter in to gradually replace the 1,4-litre Swift hatchbacks on the local market.
The 1,0-litre, three-cylinder Boosterjet-engined models that we've sampled here in Ireland should eventually head our way, although local reception to the 1,4-litre model and the caprices of our oscillating rand could yet play a role in that particular development.
Safely styled, smartly packaged
Neat, modern but rather conservative just about covers the essence of the Baleno's styling, with the sportier, more characterful stuff left to the likes of the Swift and Vitara. This may sound like a case of damning the car with faint praise, but the Baleno's packaging favours functionality over frippery. At 3 995 mm long and 1 745 wide, the Baleno is a hair longer and wider than the VW Polo, but its 2 520 mm wheelbase is considerably longer than that of both the German car and such rivals as the Ford Fiesta. Consequently rear legroom is impressive, with the sit-behind-yourself test yielding plenty of space for a six-footer. At a claimed 320 dm3 boot space is similarly generous and the loading aperture both wide and low enough to prove easily accessible.
Cabin and quality
The Indian-built Baleno has the distinction of being the first Suzuki passenger vehicle out of the firm's sub-continent plant that's exported to the Japanese market, so build quality has to be spot-on. And in this respect the Baleno largely succeeds. Its interior doesn't feel that far removed from those of Japanese-built models, sporting hard but solidly screwed-together plastics in the typical Suzuki vein.
Although the centre console ancillaries are somewhat haphazard in their layout, elements such as the range-topping model's crisp TFT information display nestled between the dials and touchscreen infotainment system lift things considerably, the latter being particularly slick. Owing to local homologation requirements (mainly configuring the radio module from the now-popular-in-Europe DAB digital radio system to standard radio) the infotainment system will only reach our market some time after the car's October launch, with a Bluetooth-enabled audio system similar to that in the Vitara filling in the interim. In addition to sat-nav, this system will include both MirrorLink and Apple CarPlay functionality.
Suzuki turning turbo
Long renowned for its adherence to free-revving, naturally aspirated petrol powerplants, Suzuki is now dipping its toe into turbocharged territory with its range of Boosterjet engines. Owing to local homologation issues, among which is our poor fuel quality, the 1,0-litre, three-cylinder unit in the Baleno still sits in the maybe/later bracket of Suzuki SA's plans for its B-segment newcomer. From the time we spent with this lively little unit in Ireland, it has to be said that it would be real shame if it didn't come our way.
Serving up 82 kW, the Boosterjet unit is still a revvy little unit in the traditional Suzuki vein, but its 170 N.m of torque between 2 000-3 000 r/min lends it a satisfying punchiness to accompany the pleasing three-pot soundtrack when planting the accelerator. Suzuki claims that the technology applied in the Boosterjet unit includes an air bypass valve that prevents the turbo from losing too much of its inertia after the throttle has been closed and then quickly re-opened (i.e. during gearshifts via a snappy, short-throw 'box). Usually such statements are purely press release fodder, but the engine doesn't lose too much steam between shifts and other quick throttle inputs. This makes it easy to smoothly keep it in the meat of its peak power band, and the pleasing flexibility it affords lends some credence to the claim.
From behind the wheel
Although the Baleno's interior packaging is well executed, it has to be said that the driving position is a bit too lofty for taller folks, even with the height adjustment cranked right down. While the steering is reasonably responsive and light, and the clutch easy to modulate and lighter still, it's the car's 950 kg kerb weight that really grabs your attention. With little weight to haul around, the 1,0-litre engine never feels overly taxed and the Baleno feels nimble without a hint of fragility about it. The long wheelbase is not only a boon in terms of interior room but combined with the supple suspension to serve up a fluid and composed ride on the patchwork of road surfaces we encountered along our coastal driving route. It's by no means thrilling, but the Baleno is balanced enough to prove mildly engaging to push a bit and benign when trickling along through traffic in town.
It's a tricky one. The Baleno adheres well to the Suzuki tenets of being light, nippy and feeling mechanically unburstable; but its mild-mannered styling may see it fall off the radar of brand-biased buyers who'll be looking at its European rivals. The Boosterjet engine's character and punchiness has the potential to offset those concerns, but with the initial batch of 1,4-litre naturally aspirated cars paving the way it could be a tough sell, still. Hopefully its comfort and practicality will help the 1,4 establish a suitable beachhead until this peppy little engine, and other niceties such as the slick infotainment system, enter the local B-segment fray.
ETA: October 2016 (1,4-litre models)
Original article from Car