BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Suzuki Alto has a long and undistinguished history in the UK. First seen in the UK in 1986, the Alto only really joined the mainstream in 1997 when the latest model was launched. The earlier three-cylinder cars are best reserved for students and those looking for bargain basement transport. The cars built from 1997, whilst not class leading in any particular respect, at least give a nod towards modernity. Manufactured in India, the Alto is neither outstanding nor embarrassing - it's one of those vehicles that blends into the background. A used Alto makes for cheap and reliable, if unexciting, motoring.
Models Covered: (3/5dr hatchback 1.0 petrol [GL])
The Suzuki Alto has had a rather strange history. Introduced to the UK in 1986, it was on sale for five years before being withdrawn when sales virtually dried up. Between 1991 and 1997, Suzuki concentrated on marketing the Swift model, but in May 1997 the Alto name was revived with the second-generation model. This car aimed at those citycar buyers who found the Ford Ka and Fiat Seicento a little overstyled. Available in one trim level, GL, the little Suzuki was offered with either a three or five-door bodyshell, and a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic gearbox. Whilst it was far more competitive than the early car, sales were correspondingly modest.
What You Get
You'll have to look quite hard to find a used Alto, and a Suzuki franchised dealer may well be your best bet, but once you have tracked one down. What can you expect? Well, whichever version you choose, the level of standard equipment is impressive for a car of this price. The steering wheel comes with a leather covering, there's velour carpeting on the floor and you get those two convenience features that once you've had, you'll never want to be without - internal releases for both the boot and petrol filler. This being a Japanese-designed car, all the controls fall readily to hand and the instruments are clear and uncluttered. There are a few clever touches elsewhere in the Alto's interior too, such as a headlamp levelling control which allows the beam's pitch to be lowered - handy if you're carrying a heavy load. Likewise, the 'walk-in' sliding mechanism on the front seats of the three-door models is natty; at least it shows that the designers of this car thought about making it user-friendly in the 'real world'. Most of the latest safety features are in evidence (with the exception of airbags, as yet "unavailable"). And they're all housed in a neat and sensibly styled shape that could pass for almost any small Japanese car. There's a lot of glass (an essential for any citycar) and the diminutive size makes the Alto a doddle to park, despite the lack of power steering assistance.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The Suzuki Alto is a largely reliable car, the problem being it has sold in such modest numbers that patterns of faults have yet to appear. As with any car that's going to be used extensively in the city, check for parking knocks and scrapes and look at the front tyres for signs of uneven wear. Also have a look for accident damage, as the Alto is sometimes bought as a first car, post-driving test. Otherwise check for a fully stamped up service history.
(approx based on a 1998 Alto 1.0GL) A mixed bag of parts prices here. A clutch assembly retails at around £140, whilst front brake pads are around £45 a pair with rear shoes approximately £35. A new starter motor will set you back around £180, and a new radiator is £280. Pray that you don't need to buy a new alternator, as one of these will cost you £400.
On the Road
The Alto is mechanically pretty simple, with power provided by a 1.0-litre four-cylinder engine with multi-point fuel injection. The output is a respectable 53bhp, whilst maximum torque of 57lbft is also competitive for the size of the unit. Acceleration is best described as leisurely. Still, there's enough urge to get you away from the traffic lights smartly, and you'll find the car able to cruise on the motorway at a comfortable and steady pace. The automatic gearbox takes the edge off some already blunt performance, but is otherwise pretty viceless. Despite only being equipped with three-speeds, it makes city driving far less of a chore. The lack of airbag, and ABS may deter some drivers, and although there aren't too many used Altos about, if you can find one fitted with the optional air conditioning system it's worth paying an extra £100 for. Those big windows can quickly turn the cabin into a mobile greenhouse on a summer's day.
The Alto has quite a lot going for it as a used car. It's cheap, reliable, inconspicuous and practical. Unfortunately it signally fails to spark any desirability. As such it falls between bargain Korean offerings like the Daewoo Matiz and Hyundai Atoz and more upmarket and style-conscious cars such as the Fiat Seicento and Ford Ka. It's a likeable little thing, but there are much better options out there. If you have your heart set on one, it's not a bad car.