Suzuki's boxy newsupermini provesgood things comein small packages

Gone is the slinky aerodynamic of techno-styling, in is the cuboid cool of the new Suzuki Wagon-R mini-MPV. John Simister squares up to a new look

Price: from £8,000. On sale in March
Engine: 1,242cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 86bhp at 5,500rpm, 84lb ft at 4,400rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox (four-speed auto optional), front-wheel drive
Performance: 103mph, 0-62mph in 13.9sec, 50.4mpg official average
CO2: 136g/km

Are you square? Years ago, this was a term applied to people who were not "with it", who nowadays would be uncool or worse. Those square people of the past have grown into the "older" people of today. And guess what: they like square cars.

They're the people who've bought the Suzuki Wagon-R and its twin, the Vauxhall Agila, two mini-MPVs with as many right-angles as a car can feasibly have. This was not meant to happen. In both Japan and the US, square-cut compacts are the height of techno-cool; the Nissan Cube, the Honda Element and some US-only, Toyota-made Scions are as trendy as a VW Beetle used to be.

It doesn't work in Europe, though. Here, younger buyers want their small cars to be shapely, designed to look like they're meant to be driven, leaving the wheeled cuboids for the squares. As a result Suzuki, so thoroughly wedded to the notion of building cars for Europe that it set up a factory in Hungary in 1991, has binned the Euro version of the Wagon-R and instead has made a Splash.

Here is a proper supermini: a car bigger than the original, long-gone Mini, still properly small on the outside but big on the inside. Most of today's so-called superminis are as big, or bigger, than the VW Golf of a decade ago, and weigh over a ton, which isn't very mini at all. But the Splash joins that growing group of cars properly small not just in size but in attitude. It's a roomier alternative to a Toyota Aygo/Citroen C1/Peugeot 107, a shapelier rival to a Fiat Panda, a more modern competitor to a Ford Ka.

The Splash looks like it should be agile and fun to drive. It has a snub nose, wheels set far apart, the ready-to-jump look that comes from the rising waistline and non-existent rear overhang, and an almost-vertical tail that should make it easy to park. And there's an honesty about its interior, born of simple shapes and utilitarian materials, that's again like the original Mini.

Nearly everything in the Splash's remarkably roomy cabin is hard apart from the seats, the carpets and the steering-wheel rim. But in a car like this it doesn't really matter, as long as it looks good and it's well made, which it is. Instead of finding tactile subtlety, your senses are instead hit by the lurid colours, assuming you've gone for the turquoise or blue interior options instead of the grey or black. Top models have similarly coloured fabric inserts in the front doors, but the rear doors have plastic mouldings which merely look a bit like that same fabric weave. The lower-spec Splash has the plastic fake-fabric front and rear, while all have a kind of mock-carbonfibre finish for the facia's top half.

Even the cheaper Splashes have air-conditioning, remote central locking, front electric windows, six airbags, an ESP system and a CD player, thus fulfiling today's basic needs, beyond which anything else is pure indulgence. But if you go for a top model you also get alloy wheels, electric mirrors, painted door handles and a very cute rev-counter in a pod on top of the dashboard to complement the big speedometer that sits straight ahead of the driver. It would be good if top Splashes could also have non-slip inserts in the various storage spaces, too; the map-slot ahead of the front passenger looks useful but anything stored in it slides around as soon as you move the steering wheel.

Right, time for a drive. You sit high, with the gear lever raised accordingly. There's an excellent view, an attribute enjoyed also by the rear occupants who sit higher than the driver. What happens next depends on the engine ahead of you. If your Splash emits a smooth, quiet, deep-toned sound but shows little interest in overtaking, it has the smallest of the three engines offered. It's an all-new 1.0-litre, three-cylinder unit that's very light and produces 65bhp; it feels less. Suzuki's UK importer thinks it won't bring this version to Britain because it's too slow, although a case could be made if it were cheap enough.

Maybe, instead, your Splash sounds as if it has a typical four-cylinder petrol engine, in which case it's powered by a 1.2-litre unit with 86bhp on tap. This is another all-new, Suzuki-designed engine, effectively four-thirds of the three-cylinder one, and again is both smooth and lightweight, although the high-trim-spec 1.2 unfortunately breaks the one-ton barrier.

This engine is the mainstream motor, and on paper the fastest, with a potential 109mph and a 12.3-second 0-62mph time. It feels quite vigorous when driven gently, and again is very smooth, but more spirited use shows its limitations. You need the 1.3-litre, Fiat-designed turbodiesel for the liveliest drive, the Splash version of this versatile engine being made under licence in Suzuki's Indian engine factory. It produces 75bhp but a lot of low-speed pulling power (140lb ft at just 1,750rpm), so even though the performance claims are lower than for the 1.2, at 103mph and 13.9 seconds to 62mph, it feels much more energetic on the road, and you can overtake with confidence.

The downside is that this heavier engine calls for firmer front suspension and higher tyre pressures, so the diesel Splash thuds into sharp bumps that the petrol-engined cars soak up. The diesel's tougher gearbox has a stiffer shift, too.

The tall build would make the Splash lean over in corners unless the suspension is made quite taut, which it is, so the ride at speed can feel unsettled in all the Splashes. Nor is the Splash a keen driver's plaything at corners in the way a Ford Ka is, despite this underlying firmness, but the Splash never feels precarious. The extra weight and road feel of the diesel's steering is welcome. Dynamically, the Splash does a better job of swallowing four or five people, even if the meagre boot (with a hidden underfloor compartment) can't do the same with their luggage. The rear seats fold flat, of course, the cushions cranking downwards while the backrests move into their vacated space.

With prices starting at a likely £8,000 for a base-model 1.2, the Splash is priced on a level with a similarly-equipped Panda and slightly higher than its other, smaller rivals. That seems like good value to me. But there remains the question of what to call the trim levels in the UK. The importer is thinking along the lines of GL and GLS, old-school designations that exude staid squareness. After a conversation, I may have convinced them to change to something like Splash and Splash 2, or Splash and Splash+. The invoice is in the post.

The rivals

Ford Ka 1.3 Style £7,985 with air-con

Now a decade old and far more successful than Ford ever expected, the Ka remains the sportiest drive in the category. Only three doors, though. New model is on the way.

Fiat Panda 1.2 Dynamic £7,905 with air-con

Square-cut, but in a flair-filled Fiat way, the Panda is spacious and practical. It's also surprisingly entertaining to drive and live with. Recommended.

Citroen C1 Vibe 1.0 5dr £7,855 with air-con

Tiny, three-cylinder Toyota engine gives adequate pace, and Czech-built mini-car carries four and is fun to drive. Small boot, though. Aygo and 107 are the same car.

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