More often than not, our single-car reviews at CarAdvice focus on models that are either freshly updated or entering a new-generation. But not this time. The Suzuki APV is an anachronism in 2015, an uncomplicated throwback to a different time when vans were vans and behaved as such.
That is said with fondness, because if nothing else, driving something free of frills is edifying in a slightly perverse way.
The APV was launched in 2005, and is the successor to the even tinier Suzuki Carry. With a price tag of $18,990 plus on-road costs, the Indonesian-made APV is the cheapest van on sale. Note: the company has been running a campaign selling off MY14 models for $17,990 drive-away.
The APV is also, as we found out when pitting against a trio of contrasting European small vans for a forthcoming comparison test, a van with a very specific purpose in mind.
This is a tool for inner-city load-lugging. Tall, narrow and sporting vast, deep side windows, it schools its nearest price-point rivals in areas such as outward visibility and manoeuvrability. Tight parking spots and small alleyways are the APV’s friends.
And it’s within that specific context that this oddball little cargo carrier makes an intriguing kind of sense. It sure did to the 487 Australian that bought one in 2014, a small number but enough for 15 per cent share of a low-volume segment.
The APV measures 4.15 metres long (on a 2.6m long wheelbase), 1.86m high and just 1.65m wide, though it offers a rather capacious 3.4 cubic-metres of space.
Kerb weight (without driver) is 1140kg and the gross vehicle mass (GVM) is 1950kg, so at the least you could load up 600kg of stuff with two big passengers aboard.
By our measurements, it has a loading floor 2.1 metres deep, 1.13 metres wide between the arches and 1.2 metres high, making it taller and longer in the rear than something like a Volkswagen Caddy or Renault Kangoo.
The rear is accessed by a top-hinged tailgate that is not friendly to forklifts — not that you’d fit a standard pallet through the narrow aperture or between those arches anyway — or a pair of side doors that, unusually, open on hinges rather than slide, a decision contrary to otherwise narrow dimensions.
The loading floor is low though rises up near the seats, making it not quite flat. The rear arches are commendably small, though the absence of tie-down points and the easily rip-able vinyl roof lining grate a bit. We’d shell out for the protective barrier on the accessories list, too (a $1020 option).
Running along both sides are large windows, which on the rear door can be wound down (a vestige of the APV’s availability overseas as a people mover), that give the car outstanding outward visibility next to its aforementioned rivals.
This feature, along with the large (and manually adjustable!) side mirrors, the high driving position via seats vaguely above the engine, and the smallest-in-class 9.8m turning circle make the APV an easy companion in the inner-city.
The cabin is basic in its design and its fit-out — it sports manual winding windows, remember — though the build feels generally tough. The flimsy vinyl sun visors, PVC upholstery and thin floor carpets (and spray painted inner-arches) look and feel low-rent but as we know from older APVs out there, are also hard-wearing.
The standard features list isn’t long, though you get an aftermarket Clarion audio interface with USB/Aux inputs and Bluetooth phone and media streaming that actually worked commendably well through the two tinny speakers, air conditioning and button-operated central locking.
Gripes? The flat seats are bereft of real support, non height-adjustable, and made of vinyl that gets hot on a summer’s day in no time flat, while the urethane steering wheel has no buttons, and neither reach nor rake adjustment (though my driving position was catered for just fine).
Cabin storage is also short, with no door pockets (there are vinyl door cards), centre console, roof-mounted cubbies or cupholders. All you get for your stuff is a pair or small recesses either side of your knees, a walled space on the floor ahead of the gearstick and a closing glovebox.
It’s very basic, then, but also rugged and oddly charming. Or perhaps that’s just nostalgia going into overdrive. That said, given a Renault Kangoo is only $1000 more at list, you’d want to twist your Suzuki dealer’s arm pretty hard.
Underneath the body is a MacPherson strut front suspension layout with a rigid axle and leaf springs at the back. As you’d expect, this setup means the rear end is liable to hop and skip, though a 250kg load will settle it down a shade.
The APV is also rear-wheel-drive where its rivals send power to the front. It’s not about power oversteer and burnouts, though, it just means the driven wheels (shod with skinny 185 R14C tyres) are closer to the load in the back.
Behind these rear wheels are small drum brakes, and Suzuki has disappointingly not yet fitted the APV with electronic stability control (ESC), which becomes mandatory in new-model LCVs from November 1, 2015. There's ABS, but an emergency brake yielded some skidding for us.
There are driver and passenger airbags, though no side protection — enough for a three-star ANCAP safety rating under its 2007 regimen. It’s no one-star Mitsubishi Express, then, though this is another reason why low-speed inner-urban work is more the APV’s wheelhouse.
Powering the APV is a 1.6-litre petrol engine with 68kW of power at 5750rpm and 127Nm of torque at 4500rpm. It’s diminutive in its outputs, but surprisingly tractable at lower speeds. Our 0-60km/h time was almost on par with a petrol Fiat Doblo, so it’s not a massive slug by any stretch.
Suzuki claims combined-cycle fuel use of 8.2 litres per 100km, though our urban loop yielded a figure of 10.6L/100km, and we were driving in the same kind of stop/start, in/out fashion as your average small-parcel courier.
The five-speed manual gearbox has a light clutch and short gearing ideal for urban work. It’s an affable low-speed runabout, though you really clamber over speed bumps. The light hydraulic power-assisted steering actually gives great feedback.
If feels less vastly car-like than the Caddy or Kangoo if you throw it at a corner or a roundabout, with plenty of body roll and those flat seats that force you to brace against centrifugal force, though it darts into bends eagerly enough and is extremely easy to manoeuvre into parking bays. In fact it kills almost anything else in class in that area.
Even the visceral clunks and whines that come from the drivetrain have a strange charm, the lack of refinement denoting the car’s back-to-basics simplicity.
The engine gets very raucous and buzzy as you approach 100km/h. The comfort zone is below 80km/h, because above this is makes far more noise — both engine noise and booming from the rear — and produces more vibrations than the average modern light van.
Highways also amplify that busy rear end, and its tall and narrow dimensions and skinny tyres mean the APV can feel unsettled and prone to wander about, especially unloaded.
From an ownership perspective, Suzuki gives you a three-year/100,000km warranty, plus give years/100,000km of capped-price servicing at $249 per annual visit (or $295 for every fourth visit).
Clearly, if you’re doing lots of highway driving or need a van for heavy hauling, the APV is about the last van you’d buy. Moreover, the lack of safety aids is unfortunate.
That $18,990 list price is also too high, given the more refined Kangoo is $19,990, as is the Citroen Berlingo. Those cars both feel more substantive than the APV, even if they lack the Suzuki’s lo-fi charm and outward visibility.
This doesn’t alter the fact, though, that if ratings were given on something as illusory as ‘fun factor’, the old-school and no-frills APV would punch well beyond its weight division. It’ll make you smile, and the track record of older versions also indicates it won’t let you down.
Furthermore, no van at this price or any other is easier to park and see out of, and its narrow footprint makes it inner-city-friendly like nothing else in the segment.
The Suzuki APV remains an anachronism, but also an ideal runabout provided your brief is specific and confined to the urban jungle. Haggle (very) hard and it might fit your bill.