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The Suzuki Baleno is a neatly-styled, generally well-built little car that's roomy, easy to drive and one with a good turn of performance for its size.
Normally, that list of attributes would just about guarantee sales success, however life is pretty tough in today's car market and the Baleno faces some stiff hurdles before it can claim to be a winner.
The first is that by being bigger than its Suzuki Swift stablemates, the Baleno is pitched into what is probably the most competitive segment of all. There are around 20 competitors in the small-medium segment, all with their own attractions, and some (like Corolla, Laser, Civic and Pulsar) with very loyal customer bases.
The other problem for Baleno is one of pricing. Though a starting price of $18,850 for the manual three-door GL hatch doesn't seem too daunting, the top-of-the-range GLX2 (as tested) gets into medium and family car territory.
By the time you add the cost of air conditioning and "on-road" charges to the automatic GLX2's price of $28,319, the drive-away figure (barring any dealer incentives) would be around $31,500.
When you compare prices, it's no wonder the Koreans are making such an impact on this market segment. The base Baleno GL manual sedan costs $20,990, against the Daewoo 1.5i sedan priced at $16,600 and the Hyundai Excel LX sedan at $17,577. Though it can be argued that the Baleno beats these two on equipment, a lot of buyers are obviously more concerned with affordability these days.
The Baleno comes in two body styles (3-door hatch and 4-door sedan), with three equipment levels in each. A four-speed automatic transmission is available as an alternative to the five-speed manual transmission in all but the base GL hatch and GL sedan.
All versions have the same engine; a 1.6 litre SOHC 16 valve unit based on the Swift/Vitara engine and equipped with multi point fuel injection. Drive is through the front wheels and suspension is four wheel independent with struts and coils. Brakes are ventilated discs up front, but just drums at the rear.
Power-assisted steering is standard in all versions, as is a tachometer, AM/FM stereo radio/cassette, split-fold rear seat, remote fuel lid and boot openers, full wheel covers and height adjustable front seatbelt anchorages.
The GS and GLX versions add electric windows, central locking, electrically adjustable exterior mirrors, tilt steering wheel, height adjustable driver's seat, a footrest, front and rear mudflaps and body coloured bumpers. The GS2 hatch and GLX2 sedan have all these items plus dual airbags and ABS anti lock brakes.
The Baleno breaks no new ground with its styling, rather it has followed the conservative route, with lines that neither really excite nor offend. My overall impression of the sedan's styling is that it's neat and tidy, and space efficient in its ratio of passenger and load space compared to external dimensions.
The hatch is smaller than the sedan and as such, will probably appeal to the younger generation who don't necessarily need family-type space and who like something that looks a little smarter and sportier.
Generally, the Baleno is well finished, with even panel gaps and an attractive paint finish, however it's let down by cheap-looking interior carpet (with no rubber heel mat for the driver) and sub-standard boot trim.
Also, the way the Baleno sedan's doors and boot lid close doesn't create an impression of high quality and solidity. They sound rather tinny and flimsy. The test car following the Baleno was a BMW 316i (similar size, but of course more expensive) and the reassuring "thud" of its doors and rear hatch made you think - this is a very strong body. Only impressions, but important nevertheless.
Riding on a longer wheelbase than the hatch, the sedan offers better interior space. Whereas the hatch is best suited to two adults plus two or three children, the sedan has enough rear seat leg room to comfortably accommodate adults.
Seat comfort is generally good, though the two outer rear occupants sit low in relation to the upper door beltline, creating a closed-in feeling.
As usual, the centre occupant sits higher than the outer two, and this is one case where they are almost better off, with a better view.
The sedan has a good sized boot for a car in this class and the low lip makes it easy to load and unload. The rear seat is divided in a 60/40 arrangement to provide extra load length when required. The spare wheel well looks like it has been designed for a space-saver (or temporary) spare, as the full size wheel and tyre supplied protrudes, making the floor uneven. Personally, I'd rather put up with this than have a temporary spare.
The control layout is generally good, with most switches, knobs and levers in easy reach and clearly labelled. One minor, but irritating exception was the radio - both the on/off button and the bass and treble buttons are hard to grip, and therefore fiddly to adjust. On the automatic version, the heater controls are a little awkward to reach behind the gear selector.
Major controls, such as brakes, steering and gearshift/clutch in manuals, are light to operate, adding to the ease of driving. Good vision in all directions, and a compact turning circle, make the Baleno easy to park.
The windscreen is large and steeply raked, and though forward vision is very good, the angle and size of the screen let a lot of heat and sun into the cabin. I found that at certain times, you also got annoying reflections of the dashboard in the windscreen.
Usually, I wouldn't be too enthusiastic about the combination of a 1.6 litre engine and automatic transmission but the test Baleno performed better than expected.
It got off the mark quite well and proved responsive and reasonably lively in the cut and thrust of city and suburban traffic. Out on the open road, the automatic readily kicked down when required to for overtaking, or it was a simple matter to activate the overdrive on/off button on the gear lever.
About the only disappointment was the amount of noise and harshness that occurs when higher revs are used. Interior noise levels recorded in my testing were more consistent with small cars like Festivas and Barinas than small-medium competitors such as Laser and Corolla.
Fuel consumption for the automatic test Baleno was pretty much average for the class at 7.5 litres/100 km on highway running and 10.6 litres/100 km around town.
I didn't detect any vices with the Baleno's handling; it's predictable and sure-footed, with well-weighted steering to retain a good feel for what's happening, but a light enough effort for easy parking.
On the other hand, the suspension isn't so capable as far as ride quality is concerned. Around town, the ride is a bit choppy and over the pot-holed dirt sections of my road test course, the car thumped and jarred uncomfortably at times.
Being the GLX2 model, the test Baleno was equipped with four-sensor, four-channel anti-lock brakes and these proved their effectiveness in emergency braking tests, even though the pedal lacked a solid feel. The car pulled up in short distances with moderate pulsation through the pedal as the ABS system operated.
But the brakes didn't perform so well in fade tests. After ten stops from 80 km/h, the front brakes became hot and smelly, while the rear drums remained relatively cool. During this exercise, the pedal effort required to maintain the same retardation rate more than doubled.
With four-wheel discs, the braking effort can be more evenly distributed between front and rear, thus reducing the tendency to overheat during repeated moderate-to-heavy braking.
Suzuki's reputation for reliability is very good, with the company quoting one of the lowest warranty costs per annum per vehicle of any make, so it's reasonable to expect the Baleno should provide trouble-free service.
The first service is due at 1000 km and thereafter at the usual intervals of 10,000 km or six months. An engine oil and filter change is recommended every 5,000 km for vehicles operating under severe conditions such as stop/start running, short trips, sustained high speed driving, or operating in unusually dusty conditions.
Suzuki frowns on the Baleno being used for towing, with the following statement taken from the owner's handbook - "Your Suzuki (Baleno) was originally designed to carry people and a normal amount of cargo, not to tow a trailer. Suzuki does not recommend you use your vehicle to tow a trailer. Towing a trailer can adversely affect handling, durability and fuel economy".
Suzuki's step up with the Baleno, to compete with Corollas, Lasers, Pulsars and such, is a fairly brave move, given the fierce competition in this market segment and the problems Japanese manufacturers are having to keep their cars affordable in export markets.
But it will be a pity if the Baleno does get lost in the crowd, because apart from a few faults as noted, it's generally a pleasant and competent package that is capable of satisfying the requirements of many buyers who either don't want, or don't need, a larger vehicle.
An "on-road" price of over $30,000 for the airconditioned automatic GLX2 test Baleno sort of takes your breath away a bit, but the range does at least have a starting price of under $20,0000, which is something Corolla, Laser or Pulsar can no longer claim.
Test vehicle supplied by Suzuki.
By NRMA Motoring, June 1995.
Good performance for a 1.6 litre engine with auto transmission
Ride choppy and harsh over potholes
|Country of manufacture||Korea|
|Warranty||Three years, 60,000 km|
$18,850 - GL
|Number of cylinders||4|
|Engine size||1.590 L|
|Induction||Electronic multi-point fuel injection|
|Claimed max power (kW)||72.5 kW @ 6000 rpm|
|Claimed max torque (Nm)||127 Nm @ 3000 rpm|
|Wheel size||13 "|
|Type||Dunlop SP Sport|
|Type||Power-assisted rack and pinion|
|Turns to lock||3.3 m|
|Turning circle (measured)||10.1 m|
|Length||(sedan) 4195 mm / (hatch) 3870 mm|
|Width (including mirrors)||1690 mm|
|Height||(sedan) 1390 mm / (hatch) 1395 mm|
|Fuel capacity||51 litres|
NRMA Theft Rating
|Points on scale 0 - 120 (high score is best)||22|
Acceleration - Test results
|50 - 80km/h||6.3 secs|
|60 - 100km/h||8.6 secs|
|0 - 80km/h||8.2 secs|
|0 - 100km/h||12.4 secs|
|Best recorded during testing||7.5 L/100km|
|Worst recorded during testing||10.6 L/100km|
|Average on test||9.1 L/100km|
|Distance to stop (from 80km/h)||28.8 metres|
|Interior noise at constant 80km/h||69 dB(A)|