Suzuki Baleno — for the sheer love of driving
In spite of some issues and its price tag, the Suzuki Baleno exceeded Mark Smyth’s expectations
Many years ago, before becoming a motoring journo, I attended a training course on customer service. The main message was always to exceed a customer’s expectations. I remember it to this day. Sadly, the mantra is not as common as it should be.
In the car world, we all have expectations. If something is labelled cheap and cheerful, the expectation is usually it will be cheap, but probably not so cheerful. If you buy a standard three-box with four wheels to get you from A to B, then that is probably what you will get.
Occasionally though, something does exceed expectations.
Suzuki has chosen not to bring the turbocharged version of its new Baleno to SA, probably because the price would be too high. It is a pity, but getting the price right is important.
In the Baleno’s case, the price is not right. It is a pity because it is one of my surprises of the year, a car that far exceeded my expectations. At R229,900, it is more expensive than a 1.2 TSI Polo, which is probably the benchmark. Let’s face it, unless you are looking for something which stands out from the crowd for its badge, chances are you are going to stick to the Polo for its superb drive, build quality and style.
And the Baleno does stand out. The styling, provided you stay away from rental car white, is rather good. The front has character, even a bit of attitude about it, enhanced by LED daytime running lights. The side profile is a little bland, but the upward curve to the rear windows gives it a slightly sporty profile. The rear is a bit of a letdown, only one step up from a Chevrolet Cruze hatch when it comes to drabness. Metallic blue improves things dramatically, at least in the pictures.
The interior is good. Yes, the plastics are hard and cheap but the designers have put some effort in. The dash features sweeping curves. The instrument cluster has a central digital display that offers loads of info and you get a Pioneer infotainment system that can stream all your music. There is Bluetooth connectivity but I battled to get my phone to connect. The audio controls on the multifunction steering wheel did not work, but the cruise control buttons did.
Now you are wondering just how this Suzi managed to exceed my expectations. Well, it was all in the drive. It appears that while creating a vehicle aimed at those who run the daily urban gauntlet, someone gave some thought to creating a vehicle that is nice to drive. The driving position is good, the level of seat comfort excellent and the ergonomics perfect.
Push the start button and the engine, in spite of being a normally aspirated unit with 68kW, provides instant response. The gear ratios have been perfectly set to ensure you do not have to play with the gearbox all the time in traffic and the steering is remarkably accurate.
The 1.4 engine also does duty in the Ciaz and the Swift. However the Baleno is lighter and it is surprisingly noticeable, the car being nimble and responsive to your demands. It is no go-faster hatch of course, running out of puff occasionally uphill, but it is a superb unit that overdelivers.
The Baleno is a bit of a driver’s car — that I did not expect.
It is also not bad as a family car either, with decent rear seat space and a boot that can swallow 355l with all the seats in place. A split folding rear seat can increase that to up to 1,085l.
It was surprisingly quiet, with barely a sign of noise intrusion in the cabin.
It has ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and six airbags. Internationally the model is available with a safety package, which includes autonomous emergency braking support, but that package is not available in SA. The package ensured the Baleno received a four-star crash safety rating, but without it, the South African models were given three stars.
The Baleno was superb and definitely exceeded my expectations. It is not a premium product, it is not even the best-looking car in the segment, but in these days of heavy traffic, it still managed to keep a smile on my face and that is impressive. If only it was 15 grand cheaper. Get your haggling face on.