Twinkle twinkle little Starlet
Toyota’s budget hatch has plenty to offer for the price, and buyers don’t seem to mind that it’s a Suzuki in drag
Cross-brand partnerships help keep car prices down through shared R&D costs and improved economies of scale, but motoring marriages can be controversial and they’ve had varied levels of success.
Exhibit A is Toyota’s Supra sports car, which has failed to ignite the market partly because it’s a BMW Z4 in drag. As good as the Supra is (and it really is), the two brands appeal to different buyers and don’t necessarily splice together well.
Now, Toyota’s recent alliance with Suzuki is testing brand loyalties in the high-volume budget car segment. The Starlet, that Toyota has just launched in SA is a clone of the Suzuki Baleno small hatchback that has been on sale here since 2016 — a “fake Toyota” as a certain orange-tinted world leader might uncharitably term it.
Built in the same Indian factory as the Baleno, the Starlet replaces the Toyota Etios and has big shoes to fill. The strong-selling Etios captured a hefty 22% slice of the sub-B segment over its lifespan.
Except for a slight change to the grille, the Starlet is identical to the Baleno and is powered by the same 1.4l petrol engine mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox driving the front wheels.
The Starlet offers five different variants, compared with the Baleno’s three. Ranging from R204,900 to R272,500 the Starlet slightly undercuts the Suzuki in pricing.
Having previously driven the likable little Baleno I didn’t expect any surprises in the Toyota version. Whatever Toyota loyalists might feel, this isn’t a case of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, because the donor Suzuki is a good vehicle.
Thus it was no surprise to find that the Starlet’s a very accomplished commuter with good refinement, a solid feel and tidy road manners. An undemanding car to drive in the bustle of suburbia, it has a light clutch and steering, and an engine that doesn’t require hard revving.
The 1.4 feels livelier than its modest outputs suggest, and because the car tips the scales at a flyweight 995kg it results in a decent power to weight ratio. It has sprightly midrange torque and enough verve to escape the city limits and comfortably maintain the national speed limit. It’s a smooth runner that doesn’t drone away on long drives, and our test car sipped an economical 5.9l per 100km.
The ride is comfortable for a compact car and it doesn’t fidget restlessly over bumpy roads. It corners neatly too, tackling turns without excessive body roll or tyre squeal.
The cabin is a pleasant place to be, with a modern vibe and plenty of mod cons in the top-of-the-range Starlet Xr model I drove.
At this price point you’re not getting a fancy soft-touch dashboard but the plastic trimmings, hard as they may be, are all neatly fitted. The monochromatic monotony is livened up by subtle splashes of colour on the seats and not-so-subtle black-and-white-striped floor mats.
Large colourful icons on the infotainment touchscreen also help bring the interior to life. It’s a user-friendly system with all the requisite smartphone connectivity, plus a reversing camera.
The Xr’s well-stocked spec sheet includes cruise control and keyless operation, and like all Toyotas it has a Toyota Connect telematics in-car Wi-Fi hotspot with a complimentary 15GB data.
The flagship Xr livens up the external visuals with chrome door handles and side mouldings, rear privacy glass, front fog lamps, LED + Projector headlamps with daytime running lights, and a roof spoiler.
All Starlet models have dual front airbags, ABS brakes and stability control, while the Xr adds side and curtain airbags to the safety deal. The car hasn’t been crash tested but its donor vehicle, the Baleno, achieved a three-star safety rating in the EuroNCAP test.
The Starlet is larger than the Etios it replaces and is impressively spacious for a car that’s just 3,995mm long, comfortably fitting four adults on its cloth-covered seats. The compact boot accommodates a reasonable amount of shopping (there’s a spacesaver spare), and with the seats flopped down it was spacious enough to fit a mountain bike.
Overall the Starlet’s a likable little car with a barrage of features, honest performance and a decent price. It stands up well in a very competitive market segment, and early signs are that it’s resonating with local buyers who don’t seem to mind that it’s not a real Toyota.
In October 2020, its first full month on sale, the Starlet lit up the local sales charts with an impressive 1,102 units finding new owners. This is far more than the Baleno’s ever sold in a single month and underlines consumer trust in Toyota’s gold-plated reputation and extensive dealer network.
Type: Four-cylinder petrol
Type: Five-speed manual
Type: Front-wheel drive
Top speed: 180km/h
0-100km/h: 10.9 seconds
Fuel consumption: 5.1l/100km (claimed); 5.9l /100km (as tested)
ABS brakes, stability control, six airbags, electric mirrors, electric windows, climate control, touchscreen infotainment, multifunction steering wheel, cruise control, remote central locking, alloy wheels, LED + Projector headlamps with daytime running lights, digital speedometer, height and reach adjustable steering, park distance control with reverse camera
Warranty: Three years/100,000km
Service plan: Three services/45,000km
Lease*: R5,587 per month
* at 10% interest over 60 months no deposit
Suzuki Baleno 1.4 GLX, 68kW/130Nm - R259,900
Ford Figo hatch 1.5 Titanium, 88kW/150Nm - R250,700
Hyundai i20 1.4 Fluid, 74kW/133Nm - R299,900
Nissan Micra 0.9 turbo Visia, 66kW/140Nm - R278,700
Peugeot 208 1.2 Active, 60kW/118Nm - R259,900
VW Polo Vivo hatch 1.4 Comfortline, 63kW/132Nm - R230,900
Toyota Starlet 1.4 Xr
Plenty features, solid build, price
It’s not a real Toyota
Compact hatch with good value
****Value For Money
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