So, my first-ever car review. For many youngsters like myself, it’s a dream to drive the newest and coolest cars, then share our thoughts with the masses.
You can imagine then, how excited I was when I was handed the keys to a brand new 2016 Suzuki Baleno as the subject for my first critical write-up. I know what you’re thinking, yawn.
However, while it may seem like an uninspiring way to start a reviewing career, the Indian-made Baleno is a pretty cool little car, and considering the range kicks off at just $16,990 drive-away, it’s not expensive either.
Two engines are offered, a 1.4-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol in this base GL variant, along with a new 1.0-litre ‘Boosterjet’ turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine in the sportier GLX Turbo (read our review here).
It’s somewhat fitting that the Baleno is the first car I’ve written a full review on - the little Suzuki is likely to be bought as a first new car by many people my age. So as a young, adventurous and trendy Gen-Y person, what’s the appeal of the little Japanese hatch?
Value is one of the first words that comes to mind. For $17,990 drive-away you can have this Arctic White (one of only four colours offered) Baleno GL fitted with a four-speed automatic transmission. Key standard features include a 7.0-inch infotainment system with satellite navigation and Apple CarPlay, rear-view camera, LED daytime-running lights, cruise control, bluetooth phone and audio streaming and automatic headlights.
Other inclusions are manual air-conditioning, 15-inch steel wheels, power windows with automatic down function for the driver, front fog lights, along with a safety suite of six airbags, electronic stability control (ESC), anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA). However, no Baleno is available with active safety features like autonomous emergency braking (AEB), even as an option, unlike rivals like the Skoda Fabia.
Based on price and features alone the Baleno GL stacks up well against similarly-priced sales leaders in the light car segment, with the Hyundai Accent Active ($15,990 drive-away), Mazda 2 Neo ($16,990 plus ORCs) and Toyota Yaris Ascent ($16,490 plus ORCs) all missing out on navigation while the Mazda and Hyundai also lack rear-view cameras.
The Baleno looks almost identical to the Suzuki iK-2 concept that previewed it, and that’s no bad thing. Wearing the company’s new ‘liquid flow’ design language, the Baleno is a handsome and well-proportioned little hatch, with a rising beltline that gives it an athletic look.
Wheel covers have never been my thing though, and the Baleno is no exception. The wheels are already fairly small at 15 inches, and the plastic wheel covers remind you that you’re driving a base model - I’d definitely pay extra for a set of alloys to give it some extra street cred.
The design of the cabin is simple and uncluttered, while the large central touchscreen definitely lifts the cabin ambience. Have a closer look and feel, however, and you can see where money has been saved. The hard and cheap-feeling plastics don’t give you anywhere near the same essence of quality offered by rivals such as the Volkswagen Polo or Mazda 2. The only relief from the hard touch points are the padded fabric trims on the inserts and armrests in the doors.
The front seats are comfortable and trimmed in a nice fabric, while the seat base offers good support and there is plenty of adjustment to find a good driving position. The GL, though, misses out on the telescopic steering wheel adjustment on the GLX. There’s also plenty of head and shoulder room up front which makes the Baleno feel bigger than it actually is.
Something worth highlighting is the leather-wrapped steering wheel, which feels great in the hand and has all the necessary cruise, phone and audio controls. The speedo and tacho dials are simple and easy to read, with a small LCD trip computer in the centre which displays information like fuel consumption and driving range.
The centrepiece of the Baleno’s dash is the 7.0-inch touchscreen from the Vitara SUV which features satellite navigation and Apple CarPlay as standard - unheard of at this end of the market. A high-resolution rear-view camera with static guidelines is also standard across the range - props to Suzuki for including all these features on a base-spec light car.
The infotainment system’s quadrant-style menus are reminiscent of Ford’s Sync 2 system, and are easy to navigate and reasonably quick to respond. One gripe, however, is the positioning of the screen, which requires you to take your eyes off the road and is far enough from the driver seat that you need to lean over to punch in destinations. Some colleagues found the on-screen buttons difficult to push on the move.
Below the screen on the centre stack are manual air-conditioning dials, which look a little dated but are simple to use. Further down there’s a space for your phone or wallet, along with two cupholders separated by a removable partition - which has a habit of popping out if you try to squeeze too many items in.
In the second row there’s plenty of head and legroom for taller passengers like six-foot-two-ish me, and large windows allow for plenty of vision out of the cabin. All Baleno models come fitted with two Isofix anchor points on the outer rear seats, making it a practical option for young families.
Even better is a 12-volt socket for the rear passengers, allowing for phones or laptops to be charged when on the move. Bottle holders in the doors are the sole storage option in the rear pews.
The Baleno’s party trick is its class-leading 355-litre boot - bigger than a Mazda 3 hatch (308L) and only five litres less than a Toyota Corolla hatch, which are both from the segment above. With the rear seats folded the luggage space opens up to 756 litres, though the raised seat bases don't allow for a completely flat loading area. It easily swallowed my team’s tennis gear for our Saturday-afternoon match, and should comfortably fit a pram or luggage for a road trip.
The boot floor is quite a bit lower than the loading lip, however, which could be an issue with heavier items, though it maximises luggage volume so a small compromise. Under the boot floor is a space-saver spare wheel.
At the heart of the Baleno GL is a 1.4-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine that produces 68kW of power at 6000rpm and 130Nm of torque at 4000rpm. Torque is sent to the front wheels via a slightly dated four-speed automatic transmission. For $1000 less you can have a five-cog manual.
It may not have the low-down torque or the rumbly engine note of the 1.0-litre Boosterjet in the GLX Turbo, but the 1.4 is still a willing performer and shifts the Baleno’s featherweight 915-kilogram mass with little hesitation, though it’s no whisperer.
The four-speed auto may be past its prime but gets the job done in urban driving, but it can be indecisive on undulating roads and a little jerky when applying more throttle.
On the freeway the lack of a fifth gear or continuously variable transmission (CVT) can be felt most, with the 1.4 spinning at over 2500rpm at 100km/h. Not only could this impede fuel economy but the droning engine noise can just be plain annoying.
The auto-equipped GL claims 5.4L/100km on the combined cycle, and after around 300 kilometres of mainly urban driving with the occasional freeway stint, the Baleno’s trip computer indicated an average of 6.4L/100km, which isn’t bad at all for real-world economy which, with its 37-litre tank, gives a realistic range of about 578 kilometres.
Suzuki has gone to great lengths to keep the Baleno as light as possible, using weight-saving measures in the car’s new-generation platform, along with the doors, seats, interior parts, suspension, engine and brakes.
This diet has proven successful, with the Baleno feeling light and nippy in the urban jungle, without feeling unstable or delicate at higher speeds. The steering is fairly direct though it lacks feedback about centre, but can almost be too firm as you apply more lock.
A fairly comfortable ride helps to iron out most of the lumps and bumps, though the Baleno can be less accommodating over larger imperfections which can also produce a loud thump. Cabin noise is acceptable when on the move, with noticeable tyre roar and wind noise especially at higher speeds, but it’s not unbearable.
Suzuki offers a three year/100,000km warranty with the Baleno, which can’t match the seven year/unlimited kilometre benchmark of the Kia Rio. Capped-price servicing comes in six-month/10,000km intervals over five years, while no roadside assistance is available.
Overall, the not-so little Baleno is an impressive entrant in the light-car class. It’s spacious, well-equipped and in this GL spec, very good value.
Sure, the powertrain leaves a little to be desired, as do the very ordinary cabin plastics, but for many people who just need a cheap city runabout to carry cargo and multiple passengers in, you’ll be pressed to find a better alternative for the price.
Between the GL and GLX Turbo, it’s hard to go past the value of the entry-level variant. While the Boosterjet-equipped flagship has a characterful engine, and a sportier vibe, the naturally-aspirated GL auto provides just about the same level of kit and a still-adequate powertrain with a handy $5000 (at $17,990 drive-away) of change to spare - which you can splash on a holiday and a set of alloys.
Both the GL and GLX are deserving of their 7.5 scores, but if you're budget-focused and looking for a strong equipment list with a competent driving package, the GL is likewise a great-value buy.
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