Australians are increasingly turning up their collective noses at basic, affordable transport. But are we all a bunch of privileged elitists, or is there a good reason?
Segment staples such as the Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan Micra and Suzuki Alto have all dropped markedly in recent years. The segment itself fell 31 per cent in 2014 alone, and is down a further 46 per cent in 2015 so far.
This trend was given a tangible symbol last year when Volkswagen Australia stopped importing the class-leading Up! due to lack of demand.
And yet, given Australia’s economic situation and youth unemployment rate is less stellar now that it was a few years ago, this segment-wide decline seems strange.
But consider the lack of new releases in this novelty-driven segment in recent times, and the relative affordability of larger vehicles with super-keen repayment plans, and it starts to make a bit more sense.
This is the environment in which the recently released Suzuki Celerio — a Thai-made replacement for the tinny Indian-made Alto that reigned for a time as Australia’s cheapest new car — finds itself.
Now we get behind the wheel of the manual version. At this end of the market, price is everything, and if you’re willing to shift your own gears, you can save $1000 over the CVT.
In fact, the car you see here is the cheapest version of one of Australia’s cheapest new cars: flat white paint, manual and option-less. The driveaway price is $12,990. That’s inclusive of all those annoying taxes and charges. Out the door.
At that price, it undercuts said Micra ($13,490 plus on-road costs or about $15,735 driveaway). The Mirage retails for $11,490 plus on-roads, though on a drive-away basis, only matches the Celerio’s deal at best ... unless you shop around.
For comparison, a base Mazda 2 Neo manual will cost you $16,990 driveaway in Melbourne, so about 25 per cent more than the Suzuki.
And let’s not get too carried away comparing the Suzuki exclusively to rivals such as the Mirage or Micra. At $13K out the door, this is a viable alternative to late-model used car, replete with a new-car smell and full-term factory warranty.
Of course, that’s working on the proviso that you aren’t motivated by style. The Celerio is not going to win any beauty pageants — that’s the domain of the overpriced, $17,000 Fiat 500.
Tall, boxy and narrow, the Suzuki is about practicality.
Compared to its Alto predecessor, the Celerio is 100mm longer, 70mm higher and comes with a wheelbase almost identical to the significantly bigger Swift. To give some context, the Celerio’s 3600mm length is 250mm shorter than the Swift.
Rear headroom is up 53mm, shoulder room has grown 60mm and rear legroom is up 55mm. It also has a class-leading 254 litres of cargo space with a space-saver spare wheel under the floor, 50 per cent more than a Holden Barina Spark.
Indeed, the Suzuki is a bit of a Mary Poppins bag. There’s room in the back for a pair of 190cm people, sitting behind two other 190cm front occupants. That’s something that a lot of much larger cars can’t accommodate.
Incidentally, when we say two in the back we mean it — it’s a four-seater, not a five.
And while the looks may not win many admirers, the large all-round electric windows give excellent outward visibility, which is important for inner-urban duties. It lends airiness to what is a generally spacious cabin, while said tallboy design assists entry and egress.
Suzuki claims to have put a big emphasis on improving the quality of the Celerio’s cabin over the Alto, and there’s no question this has been achieved. The plastics are still hard and scratchy, but they’re well put-together and feel durable.
There’s also lots of storage options, including two good cupholders (and three more in the back), various deep nooks for storing things such as phones and wallets, good door pockets and a sizeable glovebox.
Of course, the equipment list is hardly vast. There’s no cruise control, and there are no buttons on the urethane steering wheel. But the Bluetooth system (audio streaming and phone) is easy to pair, fast to re-pair and offers good clarity on the move.
Further, everything is well laid-out and more importantly, looks like the fascia on a more expensive car. The odd splashes of silvery trim around the dash and on the gear knob also add some welcome contrast.
Bugbears inside the cabin are limited: the lack of a reach-adjustable steering column is egregious at any price, we suppose.
Around urban roads, the Celerio’s native habitat, it’s a similarly impressive story. Most notable is the ride, which as one friend and Francophile noted, is somewhat reminiscent of an old, long-legged French car.
The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension setup has a damper tune that really eats up things such as tram tracks and potholes. The soft-ish tune allows the Suzuki to almost glide over the sort of corrugations that would bring out the ‘busy-ness’ in some rivals.
The short overhangs and good approach angle also make sense the more time you spend behind the wheel. The exit to my apartment complex has nasty drop-off that will catch a sump guard if you aren’t careful with your speed. But not in the Celerio, which bounded across without a scrape.
The addition of more sound-deadening means droning from the skinny 165/65 tyres on 14-inch steel wheels with (pretty naff) plastic hubcaps is kept to a minimum.
At highway speeds, we recorded a rating of 79 decibels, which would be borderline acceptable for a $20,000 small car. Additionally, at 110km/h, the Suzuki belies its proportions to feel pretty planted and solid, and more than happy to change lanes abruptly, even in the wet.
Despite being larger all around, the Celerio is also 50 kilograms lighter than the Alto. At 830kg, it is the definition of a featherweight (a Micra weighs 100-odd kilos more).
It means that the Celerio feels particularly chuck-able at low speeds, through things such as roundabouts. Moreover, the electro-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is exceedingly light, and the turning circle a miniscule 9.4 metres. You’ll never three-point turn again in one of these.
Pick up the pace on a twisty road, and those skinny tyres with small contact patches, the soft suspension and the tall, narrow body, conspire to make the little Suzuki feel a bit like a fish out of water. But in the conditions for which it is designed, the Celerio is pretty impressive.
The weight loss also makes the buzzy little engine, largely familiar from the Alto, feel punchier than it should.
It’s a 1.0-litre three-cylinder unit with only 50kW at 6000rpm and 90Nm at 3500rpm. That’s bugger all, even in a class where ‘bugger all’ is de rigeur.
The important bit, though, is handled well. The five-speed manual is geared short in the first few ratios, meaning your left hand will be kept busy, but it also means you get access to the sweet spot in the rev range.
Some of our testers found the clutch pedal to be disconcertingly light, with nary any evidence of spring loading.
It feels plenty nippy buzzing around town, make no mistake, and makes a charming thrummy racket while it’s at it. This latter point is a side-effect of what is a fundamentally unbalanced engine design.
At the same time, you’ll sit at 110km/h ticking over a little above 3000rpm. Pickup from 60km/h to 80km/h is also perfectly acceptable.
Suzuki claims you’ll use 4.7 litres per 100km of 91 RON fuel on the combined cycle, though we hovered in the high 5s. The 35 litres tank is tiny, limiting range, but it’s hard to see one of these driving across a desert.
As some of you may recall, Suzuki had a big problem with the Celerio before it even launched. The UK version failed a brake test rather spectacularly, prompting the brand’s engineers to go into overdrive. They isolated and fixed the issue before the car’s rollout here.
And yes, the brakes worked fine. The pedal feel is negligible, and the bite not brilliant, but they worked. Still, there is potentially a vestige of this PR nightmare hanging over the car. All we can say is — Suzuki appears to have sorted any physical problems.
On the subject of safety, the Suzuki gets six airbags, though only a four-star ANCAP rating. The Mirage gets five stars, but that's under a superseded and therefore simpler testing regimen.
From an ownership perspective, the Celero comes with a three-year/100,000km warranty, and five-year or 100,000km of capped-price servicing — albeit with short intervals of six-months/10,000km.
In the past, Suzuki held the mantle of having Australia’s most affordable car to own and operate, with the Alto. “It is our intention to maintain that lead with Celerio,” the company states.
You might have guessed by now that we rather enjoyed the little Celerio. It’s an honest toiler in the best Suzuki tradition, but moreover, offers markedly better refinement, practicality and urban manners than we might have envisaged.
It’s as dull as a dishcloth to look at, but there’s little but praise there for what Suzuki has done under the skin — in spite of its humble, Alto-based origins. It might have grabbed the dearly departed Up!'s mantle as the segment-leader.
Click the Photos tab to see the gallery by Tom Fraser.