Suzuki Alto

Price: £6,795
Top speed: 96 mph 0-60mph 13.5 seconds
Consumption: 64.2 mpg
CO2 emissions: 103g/km
Best for:
tight budgets
Also worth considering? Citroën C1; Fiat Panda; Kia Picanto

If I were Suzuki I would be a bit worried about what this little car is liable to do to my reputation, at least in Western markets. We should all impose a high tolerance threshold for the shortcomings of cheap budget cars such as the new Alto, simply because of their price and unpretentiousness. In the big sweep of history, a car like this is a remarkable accomplishment.

About half the price, in real terms of the original 1959 Mini, say, it offers a family so much more – space, versatility, performance, creature comforts. So it's all the more disappointing that this 2009 car's engine idles less smoothly than its 1959 antecedent (I know this because I used to have a Mini). The car engineers call this roughness "NVH" (noise vibration and harshness). I call it unbearable. Maybe it is inherent to a three-cylinder engine, or maybe my example wasn't set up properly. But it was a put-off.

Nor do the let-downs end there. Whenever the Alto went over a pot hole, there was a sort of groan from the door, as if something were flexing around somewhere inside the cavity. Again, an unnecessary distraction, and a bit of an indictment on the car's build quality.

The Alto is made in India and is sold with the badges of two Japanese brands on its snout – there is a Nissan version as well – and that ought to be a winning combination; economical manufacturing coupled with engineering excellence, but the magic formula doesn't seem to have worked out in this case. The Alto certainly needs to be a lot cheaper to tempt anyone away from a Citroën C1, say, or a Fiat Panda. And even if the base Alto is a very cheap package indeed, its dash is borderline ugly, to my eyes.

Still, balance is the key to a happy life, they say, so I ought to add that the Suzuki has some things going for it. First is the quality of the exterior finish. Some of the features – such as the pop-up windows at the back – seem to have been inspired by the Citroë*C1, but that is certainly no bad thing. The bug-eyed styling is modish and attractive, though you do wonder quite how far up the wing a car stylist can place a headlamp and keep his car road-legal.

Then there's that engine. Once in motion, things are fine. Like a Honda, you need to keep the revs up to get the most out of it. But that does make for less relaxed city driving – which is the central puzzle of the Alto: something that has been designed as a city car seems least at home in an urban environment. Odd.

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