I’VE BEEN eyeing off Kirby’s long-termer for a while now. Admiring glances in the car park quickly turned to a full-blooded longing to get behind the wheel of his turbo-triple Suzuki Baleno and now, with him out of the state to visit his long-suffering girlfriend and family for a couple of weeks, I finally get my wish. Time to snatch the keys.
Full disclosure: I have a thing for Suzukis. No other manufacturer seems to inject its automotive offerings with as much charm as the little company from Hamamatsu, Japan. Being principally concerned with making motorcycles – perhaps the most emotionally engaging machines of all – probably helps Suzuki give its road cars a similar warmth, even something as prosaic as the grocery-getting Baleno.
You know what else helps? A thrummy three-cylinder engine with a turbo bolted to the side. Chest-thumping, V8-loving types may rail against the downsizing trend, but if the result is an engine as willing and lovely as the Baleno’s 1.0-litre turbo, then the future isn’t looking so grim after all.
It is rev-happy, surprisingly torque-laden in the mid-range, and although it has ‘only’ 82kW and 160Nm to play with, those numbers are plenty considering the Baleno’s ballerina-esque 975kg kerb weight. The mantra “Less is More” must be rendered in wrought iron above the gate to Suzuki’s HQ.
There are some flaws, though. The Baleno’s glossy plastic dash looks like it belongs at the bottom of a Dimmeys bargain bin, and that chrome strip across the hatch is an acquired taste. However it’s the steering’s slackness around dead centre that’s a greater irritation, as is the six-speed auto’s habit of slipping its clutch bands after it upshifts into third. The latter would easily be remedied by selecting the manual transmission option … if it actually existed. I’ll let Kirby rant about that topic further, as that particular spec oversight really gets his temples throbbing. Stay tuned.
There’s also the Baleno’s surprisingly fussy ride over small-amplitude, high-frequency corrugations, which is strange as it’s actually fairly plush over bigger lumps. There was also one peculiar moment where the Baleno went into oversteer … while cruising uphill at 60km/h and driving in a straight line. Tram tracks appeared to be the cause, but it’s literally the only car I’ve ever driven that required an impromptu dab of oppo on a dead straight road.
Despite those niggles, the turbo Baleno got under my skin in a good way. Its chuckable chassis, boosty engine and Tardis-like interior are its most endearing facets, and though the overall package could still use some polish, the core of it is solid.
This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of Wheels magazine.