Motoring: Onwards and upwards with Suzuki

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Indy Lifestyle Online
As in buildings, so in cars. If horizontal space is tight, grow upwards instead. This is not to say that the Suzuki Wagon R+, conceived for Japanese cities but now available here, is a mobile skyscraper. As John Simister writes, it is merely a small car which feels much bigger, thanks to its lofty build.

Space is a psychological thing. The Wagon R's height is not particularly useful unless you are wearing a witch's hat, but it makes you feel surprisingly uncramped when you consider that your car is but a foot and two inches longer than a Mini. Into that space it fits four side doors, and a big tailgate which opens to reveal a boot worthy of the name. The nose is short, but it's long enough to contain a proper working model of an engine. And the door mirrors would do for a small truck.

So, what's it all about? You might already have seen a Daihatsu Move, a tiny cube on wheels with four full-size seats and sufficient versatility to give it some claim to the mantle of Citroen 2CV reinvented. Well, conceptually, the Wagon R is the same idea made bigger. Instead of tiny, it's merely small.

The jokey but ultra-functional squareness, all the rage in Japan, should encourage a light-hearted approach to driving. That my particular test car was bright purple helped in this quest, causing heads to turn from all quarters (schoolchildren, mainly). My daughter, aged 11, described the lurid Wagon R, all big headlights, tiny wheels and neo-Mexican upholstery, as "funky". Whatever that means nowadays.

As you might expect, there's considerable cleverness inside. The rear seats fold forward to make a flat load bay, or you can manipulate them in conjunction with the front seats to create a double bed of sorts. Under the driver's seat you'll find a pull-out storage drawer, while the same area under the passenger seat houses a plastic shopping basket-cum-bucket. It's all very all-activity and multi-purpose, right in tune with the late 1990s.

But there is some surprising lack of forethought. You get storage nets in the front doors, but no proper pockets. The switchgear spread about the desperately dull dashboard is an ergonomic disgrace, with none of it lit at night and the rear wiper actuated by a button down near your right knee. The wiper is either continuously on or switched off, but what you really need given the Suzuki's vertical, spray-attracting tail is an intermittent setting. Then there's the tailgate, which lacks that otherwise near-universal modern convenience, a hand-grip on the inside with which to pull the tailgate down and shut.

Ignore these irritations, and you'll find the Wagon R surprisingly entertaining. Its engine is but one litre big, but with twin overhead camshafts and 16 valves it delivers a healthy 64bhp. Up to the motorway speed limit the Suzuki is surprisingly lively, very low gearing helping the engine to rev its little heart out, but the fire soon fades if you venture into forbidden speed territory. Even when worked hard, though, which is most of the time, there's surprisingly little mechanical commotion.

The high sides act like a sail, so the Wagon R gets blown around in a wind, but it's not really a problem because the steering is quick-acting (with the posher GL version's power assistance, anyway) and, despite being taller than it is wide, the Suzuki feels quite stable. Try to round a corner quickly, and the skimpy front wheels just start to slither gently outwards. There's no threat of falling over. It rides the bumps surprisingly smoothly, too.

You sit quite high, your feet working more downwards than forwards on the pedals; this and the vastness of the mirrors heighten the impression that you're driving a truly mini minibus. But you can't necessarily customise a minibus with a huge catalogue of accessories as you can the Suzuki. Chrome grilles, alloy wheels, wood external trim (like a Morris Minor Traveller's), spoilers, graphics, roof boxes, bike carriers, it's all there if you want it. Air conditioning and anti-lock brakes are optional, too, while the GL gets electric front windows.

But would you want one? The Wagon R scores high on the Tardis factor, it's a good conversation piece and it's not at all expensive. If you want a mobile phone box, which personally I don't, then this might well be the car for you.

Specifications

Price: pounds 7,250 (GA), pounds 8,250 (GL). Engine: 996cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 65 bhp at 6,500rpm. Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 87mph, 0-60 in 17sec approx, 42-47mpg.

Rivals

Citroen Berlingo Multispace: pounds to be announced. Version of lively, comfortable Berlingo van, with windows and proper folding seats. Available soon, but bigger and costlier than Suzuki.

Daihatsu Move: pounds 7,200. Looks like shrunken Wagon R, has tiny three-cylinder engine. Lots of fun, but only pounds 50 cheaper than Suzuki.

Renault Megane Scenic 1.6e RN: pounds 12,995. Much more expensive than Wagon R, but a full-size car with a full-size engine. Five seats, true MPV versatility, excellent value.

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