How Baleno served up a pleasant surprise
Suzuki provides a good blend, writes our Motoring Editor
This time of the year, you often hear stories from returning holidaymakers about little gems of cafés and restaurants they discovered in remote rural Continental towns and villages.
In most cases, the discoveries lay behind unremarkable exteriors - as if they were keeping a secret.
The new Suzuki Baleno is a little like that.
It is not a car you'd pass that much remarks on if you saw it parked on the street.
Certainly, the darkish blue colour of my test car did it few favours (red is much, much better).
But like the secretive culinaries, regardless of hue or prominence, it had hidden talents behind and beneath that modest exterior.
It's not a Michelin star by any means - it's more tasty three-course than gastro delight. Yet there was more than enough to warrant recommendation to anyone on the trail of a new small car.
The Baleno is a cross between a supermini and a larger family motor such as a Ford Focus.
It isn't as big as the latter but larger than most of its supermini rivals. We'll call it a segment buster.
Now Suzuki have made some decent cars over the years but the introduction of our tax-based emissions system, the recession, a small range of models and tidy dealer network have ensured low-range recognition for some time. I'd expect the Baleno to be a foretaste of better things to come.
I wasn't 10 minutes in it before it felt like one of the best little cars I'd driven all year.
In saying that, I am acknowledging there is nothing remarkably innovative about it in terms of design, cabin or overall dynamics as such.
My (top-of-range model) seats were decked in decent materials, the plastics around the side and across the dash were hard-wearing and easy to clean, etc. In other words it was a perfectly normal, unpretentious, pleasant enough, functional place to spend my driving time.
However, for a relatively small car, they certainly packed in a lot of spec and tech (which explains a higher starting price than many supermini rivals) and made a surprisingly spacious cabin (2.64 metres long).
The more I drove, the more I reckoned how easy I'd find this to live with.
It was like that casual café where you order the same course for lunch every day, knowing exactly what you're going to get.
This made no fuss; it toddled along in heavy city traffic and skipped surprisingly easily on motorways.
It would have been easy to forget that under the bonnet was the main course: a little 1-litre, 3-cylinder petrol engine that is at least as good as any of those developed by other manufacturers in the past few years.
Not alone was it extraordinarily quiet, its real-world fuel economy was mighty impressive.
Sometimes these small engines have to rev like hell to keep up the momentum at motorway (120kmh) speeds. They are more suited to lower-rev, slower, town driving.
So this should have been poor on fuel at M50/M4 speeds. It wasn't. The revs were respectably low even with the 5spd manual transmission.
I ended up, after one fast-paced 210km round-trip, using just one litre of petrol every 17.9 kilometres. That is 5.58l/100km or just over 50MPG. I was not sparing the horses so I'd say there's at least another 10pc (55mpg) to be got there.
I've driven it a fair bit overall and I couldn't get below that in short or long drives.
It's one of those cars you'd drive every day to work, shops, classes, gym and largely take for granted. I love that: just get in and go.
Those in the back seats had plenty of room and I had loads up front.
But I would have liked a larger boot - it really was tiny with a few groceries and the gym bag lobbed in.
The one area I was most unhappy about was the little seat-side handle for adjusting height and the surrounding flange of plastic. It had sharp edges and was terribly badly finished. That was a big let-down - a sour spoonful if you like.
Other, but smaller negatives, included the inclination of the steering wheel to reverberate just a little when the tyres crossed rough surfaces and my need to up the audio volume when road noise obtrusively intruded.
Overall, though, I'd have to say the Baleno was, like one of those out-of-the-way restaurants, a pleasant, and practical, surprise.
I think it would be well worth a visit.
Facts & figures
Suzuki Baleno 5dr, 1-litre, 3cyl petrol engine (111bhp), 5spd gearbox, 105g/km, road tax €190.
Prices from €17,995 for entry-level 1-litre. Top-spec: €19,495. Remember that delivery and related charges are extra.
Standard spec includes satnav, Bluetooth, air con, MirrorLink, ApplePlay, DAB, reversing camera, 16ins alloys, front fogs and several airbags. Top-level spec (tested) has auto climate control, adaptive cruise control, Collision Avoidance system.