The Suzuki Alto

Small, frugal, easy on the environment – and fun to drive. The Suzuki Alto is the future of the mini-car

Too many fast, expensive cars in the past few weeks' road tests? Here's the antidote: a car to soothe any troubled car conscience because it has the lowest officially measured carbon dioxide output of any proper four-seater car that's powered purely by a petrol engine.

To clarify, a Toyota iQ has a lower footprint (99g/km) but lacks space for four adults and meaningful luggage room. A Honda Insight (101g/ km) is a hybrid. So the Suzuki Alto, at 103g/km, is a bit of an eco-star.

We've had Suzuki Altos before, and they have been both very small and on the lower fringes of being a proper, usable car. An earlier version was adopted by Indian carmaker Maruti, now part-owned by Suzuki, and became a best-seller in the subcontinent. Several generations on, this new one is also made in India, joining the Hyundai i10 and i20 as small, modern cars designed and made to genuine first-world standards.

This new Alto, costing from £6,795 to £8,560, fits a well-tried template for a small and frugal car in the spirit of the original Mini. It has a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine, a truncated tail and a necessarily abbreviated boot, and it doesn't cost much. The baffling part, though, is that Suzuki already has another smaller than supermini five-door hatchback in the shape of the Hungarian-built Splash, making two cars below the Suzuki Swift which is a standard (and good) modern supermini. This is a product plan in which left hands and right hands aren't recognisably connected.

But that's Suzuki's problem, not ours. And the Alto looks an appealing little car with its big, round eyes and its open-mouthed radiator grille. There's a perky, small-wheeled sense of fun about the way the Alto looks, and a refreshing simplicity about its fittings. Our test car is the top SZ4 version with alloy wheels and a rev counter as well as ESP, extra airbags and a two-piece backrest for the rear seat, but it still has hard plastics everywhere, no glovebox lid and rear side windows which pivot open instead of winding down. Air-conditioning is standard, though, as it is on the cheaper SZ3, and all three models get remote central locking and electric front windows.

Simple, straightforward, accessible. All the essentials and no more. I like this car already. So I set off on a drive which will take me on nearly every type of British road, a drive to Sussex and the press day for the Goodwood Festival of Speed. You might not think the Alto an appropriate machine for such a destination, but you'd be wrong.

That tiny engine generates up to 68bhp, yet it never feels frantic. Three-cylinder engines are usually like this, their deep, sonorous note making them sound as if their crankshafts are spinning more slowly than they really are. The Alto turns out to be a relaxed and capable cruiser, although if the engine speeds drops too low it loses the ability to accelerate. There's a sweet spot of energy between 4,000 and 5,000rpm, within which it overtakes surprisingly deftly. Momentum and anticipation are your allies here, the better to keep the engine stoked up.

There's more. Here is an electric power steering system which feels precise and natural. Combine this with firm but properly damped suspension and you have the recipe for true mini-car deftness. The suspension can get a bit bouncy on poor roads but it's a price worth paying for the sheer entertainment on offer. Lightness helps, of course; at 885kg the Alto weighs what a modern small car should weigh. No wonder it's so frugal.

I arrive at Goodwood House elated. If this were my everyday car I'd be entirely happy. Still bathing in the glow of minimalist virtue, and contrasting it with the fire-breathing pieces of motor-sport history that would shortly be taking to the Goodwood hill, I have a fantastic piece of luck. Toyota has brought its Aygo Crazy, a one-off special, built at Toyota GB. An Aygo, too, normally has a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine, but not this one. Instead it has a 1.8-litre, 200bhp, Toyota MR2 turbo engine where the back seat used to be, so it's like a tiny racing car.

It's mine for two runs up the hill, tyres smoking, tail beginning to drift, devoid of all power assistance for steering and brakes. And this micro-mutant is also hugely entertaining. One common strand remains, however. Small cars are the best way of enjoying your drive in the most socially acceptable way. If cars such as this Alto are the future of affordable, ethical transport, then that's fine by me.



The Goodwood Festival of Speed runs 3-5 July. Go to www.goodwood.co.uk

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