The New Old
The Alto has always been a bit of a gas. Even the old 800 cc Alto was a joy to drive. Thus swapping in the larger 1,000 cc three-cylinder motor from the Celerio is a no-brainer. But the engine isn’t the only thing that’s different. There’s a revised suspension and gearbox under everything. The nose is slightly longer to accommodate the new engine. The headlights are shapelier and better styled, with height adjustable cut-off. The rear tail-lamps are larger and higher, improving visibility to other road users. There’s a plastic grill block to improve aerodynamics and fuel economy. Cabin plastics are much better than before, though still cheap. The interior is more spacious, but legroom is modest and elbow room is still tight. It’s not quite the style icon that the Celerio and Swift are, but it’ll do.
If you’re expecting the Alto to be anywhere near as good as a Swift (perhaps the best-driving small hatchback on the road today), you’ll be sorely disappointed. It still lacks the sense of style and solidity the Swift possesses. But at 720 kilograms, the Alto is much, much lighter, and it feels it.
On a Diet
In spite of its light weight, it’s not particularly fast. While it has 20 horsepower more than before, 67 hp still isn’t a lot. The Alto struggles to get past 140 km/h, not that you want to drive it that fast, as crosswinds literally toss the car from side to side at over 120 km/h. While there’s more usable midrange torque than it had previously, you still find yourself shifting a lot to keep the engine in its sweet spot. The gearchange is quick but vague, and the pedals are all on the spongy side. The steering is also rather rubbery thanks to the tall, narrow tires.
Despite all that, the Alto is a cracker. Minimal sound insulation makes 100 km/h feel twice as fast. Moderately brisk maneuvers can make you feel like Valentino Rossi threading his bike down the racetrack. Actual hard driving can make you feel like Hercules hurling the tiny thing around corners on willpower alone. On the old Alto, such shenanigans would be accompanied by the melodious snarl of the small 800cc F8D engine. Though the all-new K10 sounds strained in comparison, it still brays like a pint-sized V12 when you’re close to the red line.
The Alto is so light that I’ve mistakenly started off in third gear without stalling. Heck, Suzuki could even offer it with optional bicycle-pedal assist for use in traffic. But even without an electric or human-hybrid system, the Alto drinks very little gas. Even flogging the ever-living daylights out of it returned an economy reading of 13.5 km/l. That’s just 1.5 km/l down on the older car, and 3 to 6 km/l better than any other 1.0 to 1.3 liter car I’ve ever driven.
Driven like an average human being would (air-conditioning on), I got 23.5 km/l in mixed driving with light traffic, where the tricycle-like width allows it to squeeze through gaps in traffic that simply aren’t big enough for regular cars. The last time I got an economy that good was with a Toyota Prius. No other gasoline or even diesel powered vehicle even comes close.
Better than Expected
So the Alto is as practical and economical as a motorcycle built for four - one with a roof, air-conditioning, and a radio. In this respect, it feels much like a regular sedan rendered in miniature. I swear, my razor is bigger than the windshield wipers! But there’s a wash and wear ruggedness to it that’s reassuring. That’s probably why it’s the best-selling car in India, outselling even the much vaunted “cheapest car in the world,” the Tata Nano.
As it is, the Alto is one of the cheapest brand-new cars in the Philippines, starting at P439,000. Sure, that’s similar to a secondhand compact, but the Alto is a whole lot cheaper to run. In today’s economic climate, the Alto helps make downsizing pretty much painless.
And fun, to boot.