The Suzuki Alto proves that cheap motoring can still be fun, but the hotly contested supermini class is filled with better equipped rivals

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Originally the Suzuki Alto was a ‘kei’ car, narrow and powered by a sub-660cc engine so you could have one in Tokyo without your own parking space. That was 30 years and seven Alto generations ago.

A 796cc version was sold in the UK from 1981, with a two-speed auto option from 1983, and it also became the first Maruti, India’s best-selling car. UK Alto sales stopped in 2002, but restarted with the sixth generation a year later. That model was dropped in 2006.

The Alto’s sister-under-the-skin is the Nissan Pixo, which is cheaper and even more basic

Suzuki also has a fit-for-purpose sub-supermini called the Splash (also sold as part of a dual venture with Vauxhall as the Agila), which can be had with a highly frugal 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine. So to have a second car in the range, powered by the same engine, seems merely to be filling another tiny niche with another tiny car. Odder still, this is the biggest Alto yet, making the gap between it and the Splash even narrower.

So what’s the point? The Alto is cheaper to buy, and cheaper to build because it comes from the factory of Suzuki’s Indian associate Maruti (of which Suzuki owns 54.2 percent). So it’s a profitable product. Also, being a little smaller and lighter than the Splash, the Alto returns a very tempting CO2 figure.

Once again, Suzuki has chosen to partner with someone else for a supermini project, this time the Alto’s sister-under-the-skin is the Nissan Pixo, which retails for considerably less cash than the Suzuki, but comes with an even more miserly standard of equipment.

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The Alto is a proper five-door A-segment car in the mould of the C1/107/Aygo. It’s clearly built down to a price although, unlike the Pixo, there are two trim levels: SX3 and SX4.


Suzuki Alto front grille

Very small cars like the Suzuki Alto should look cheeky and fun without descending too far into cartoonishness. The Alto was styled in Japan but its designers researched the look in Paris and Milan, and it meets the brief. It has an open, talkative-looking mouth below a pair of big eyes containing round headlights with indicators above. A rising waistline flows into a high chopped-off tail, and strongly swaged wheelarches frame wheels which, at 14in diameter, are small by today’s standards.

As is the whole car; at 3500mm long it’s a hefty half a metre shorter than a typical modern supermini, and it’s usefully narrow for optimum urban threadability. Even better is its weight, which at 890kg (as tested) is the sort of minimal mass that every small car should have.

Very small cars like the Suzuki Alto should look cheeky and fun without descending too far into cartoonishness

The big round headlights give the face character, even though they’re set in long teardrop enclosures to make the nose seem shorter. The front grille just needs a chrome frame and four rings to be a dead-ringer for Audi. But the big ‘S’ badge gives the game away.

The paintwork has a lustrous metallic finish outside, but it fades to a nondescript matt under the bonnet because it’s cheaper.

At the back the rear loading lip is unusually high, as is the boot floor behind it. It doesn’t help the load space, which is tiny. Thick rear quarters improve rear impact protection, but they make the rear window smaller than it looks and encroach on boot opening.

All Altos have five doors, but the rear doors have hinge-out windows like a 
three-door car’s, they don’t wind down.


Suzuki Alto dashboard

There are no frills in the Suzuki Alto at all, apart from the three desirables that have become today’s near-essentials: remote central locking, manual air-con and electric front windows. The latter set-up lacks a driver-operable switch for the passenger door.

Other obvious cost-saving is revealed by the absence of reach adjustment for the steering wheel, the lack of lids for any of the storage areas, a thin boot floor made of hardboard and only approximately located by Velcro strips, a flimsy rear shelf which falls off its hinges every time you raise it, and a non-dippable interior mirror. 

There are no frills in the Suzuki Alto at all

All the door and dashboard surfaces are hard, as you would expect, but there’s panache in the utilitarianism, with light and dark greys breaking up what would otherwise be arid expanses of grained polypropylene. The wavy fascia has a big binnacle directly in front of the driver containing a large speedometer with an LCD display beneath it including a coarsely calibrated fuel gauge; the top SZ4 model gets a tacho in a separate dash-top pod but the SZ3 demands that you estimate engine speed by ear. A deep, downwardly angled slot deputises for a regular glovebox on the dashboard’s left side.

Rear-seat space is surprisingly generous, helped by the Alto’s tall build; three adults would be a squeeze, but two will have room to breathe. There’s not much space for their luggage, though; the boot has a high floor and not much depth, and the opening is restricted by the intrusive rear quarters.

The rear seat backrest folds down in one piece in the SZ3, a 50:50 split appearing only in the SZ4. Tailgate opening is via a release lever by the driver’s seat; if you want to open the boot from outside you’ll need the key, which is a mild irritation that we’ll put up with if it saves a few quid. The properly designed-in stereo sounds better than you might expect, and its basic graphics suit the Alto’s aura well.


Suzuki Alto rear quarter

One characteristic of three-cylinder four-stroke engines like that in the Suzuki Alto is that they sound as if their crankshafts are spinning more slowly than they really are. The Alto’s is true to type, with a smooth, deep exhaust note and an air of surprising relaxation. Tallish gearing for a small car heightens the impression, with fifth gear giving nearly 22mph per 1000rpm.

Add to the mix a keen, clean throttle response, a torque curve which peaks at a sedate 3400rpm and the Alto’s low weight, and you have an engine able to deliver a lot more amusement than you might expect. The overall gearing overwhelms that peak torque output when you’re in the higher gears, especially if there’s a hill involved, but you simply change down – the shift is quick and light – and let the engine rev. Even past 6000rpm or so, it doesn’t sound or feel strained.

The Alto can bowl along at high-ish speeds with seemingly little effort

The best way to make progress is to keep the engine in its sweet spot, between 4000 and 5000rpm. Once stoked up in this way, the Alto will bowl along at high-ish speeds with seemingly little effort. Overtaking becomes an exercise in momentum conservation, a technique as satisfying in its own way as experiencing the Alto’s 11.5second 0-60mph time is not. That said, even though that test figure is leisurely, given it is taken two-up and with a full tank of fuel, it was a pleasant surprise and a full two seconds faster than Suzuki thought. Top speed is a claimed 96mph, so the Alto joins the dwindling band of cars unable to reach the ton.


Suzuki Alto rear cornering

It’s small, light and tautly damped, so the Suzuki Alto should feel very nimble. And so it proves, helped by quick and accurate steering which hides its electric assistance well – possibly because there isn’t much assisting to do once on the move. Electric systems can sometimes feel over-light at low speeds while resisting quick movements, but the Alto’s arrangement manages to avoid this unnatural response.

Taut suspension can compromise a front-wheel-drive car’s traction out of a corner, but it’s not a problem in the Alto, thanks partly to the engine’s modest torque. There’s plenty of grip, little body roll and just enough adjustability on the throttle to bring some interaction to the dynamic mix. You can have fun in this car, flicking through corners or urban gaps, and there’s something reassuring about the predictable responses that come with this simple rear suspension design.

There’s plenty of grip, little body roll and just enough adjustability on the throttle

So where does this leave the ride comfort? Around town it copes pretty well with sunken drains and speed bumps, but higher speeds on poor roads can bring on a vertical agitation. This feels worse in the back than in the front, but at least the motion is checked as soon as the bump has passed. More ability to ‘breathe’ over poor roads, in the way of past small French cars, would be welcome but it’s an acceptable price to pay given the Alto’s amusing handling. You’ll certainly derive more pleasure from driving the Alto than you would from the slightly bigger (and more inert) Splash.

The SZ4 gets an ESP system, but with its decent grip and benign balance the SZ3 manages fine without it; you don’t miss a traction control system, either. Braking is firm, progressive and confident, and the stopping distances that we recorded were reassuringly short.


Suzuki Alto

Suzuki has eschewed the real budget end of the market with the Suzuki Alto, leaving that to Nissan with the Pixo. But the Alto SZ3 gets air-con as standard for not a lot of money. Both of the Altos have side airbags for the front occupants – while the SZ4 adds curtain airbags as well as alloy wheels.

Residual values are predicted to be strong, which is no surprise given how the Alto neatly matches the parsimonious mood of the moment. Insurance is super-cheap, and of course it has the potential to be very economical. We averaged 49.8mpg, which is some way from the ‘official’ figure of 64.2mpg but  still respectable. Drive carefully and 70mpg (as we nearly recorded on our gentle touring route) is within reach. Unfortunately the carbon dioxide emission figure, good though it is for a petrol-powered car, isn’t quite low enough for free road tax.

Insurance is super-cheap, and of course it has the potential to be very economical

A four-speed automatic gearbox is offered as an alternative to the five-speed manual on the SX4, but it sabotages the CO2 figure. The penalty in acceleration is even worse, with the claimed 0-62mph time rising to a sleepy 17sec. Then there’s the price hike – taking the combined total worryingly close to mainstream supermini fare. The Alto is a car that's best served in its rawest state.

Low weight can often lead to poor deadening of sound, but the Alto is tranquil at speed for a small car. Engine resonances and road roar are kept at bay and wind rush is low. All the better, then, to hear rather more creaks and chatters from the trim than there ought to be.


4 star Suzuki Alto

Here is a car which proves you don’t need power and prestige to have a good time. The Suzuki Alto is a small car which does all the things very small cars used to do simply, honestly, without frills and with a lot of interactivity. 

Suzuki’s primary intention at the design stage was probably not to engage the driver; rather the idea was to provide decent, convenient, reasonably stylish transport at a low price. But the Alto’s straightforward nature means that its driver quickly bonds with it, making a journey a lot more fun than it would be in many an insulated, oversize executive car, as well as considerably cheaper.

Here is a car which proves you don’t need power and prestige to have a good time

That’s where the Alto scores for us, just like its Hyundai i10 arch-rival

The Alto also does some of the sensible supermini things rather well – there’s okay space for four people inside, even if luggage space seems something of an afterthought, while the cabin design is as funky as the exterior looks. 

Don’t go expecting high quality here – you won’t get it. The rear-view mirror doesn’t even dip, the rear windows don’t wind down and the badly-fitting parcel shelf feels like it’s made of cardboard. The plastics inside are hard to the touch, but at least Suzuki has made them look interesting.

The Suzuki has all the equipment you’ll ever really need, it’s cheap to run, it looks good and it’s fairly well made. The Alto isn’t that cheap though – it’s left that trick to the Nissan Pixo – but it still makes a charming and cost-effective supermini choice.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Suzuki Alto 2009-2014 First drives