For such a wee car, the Suzuki Alto packs a musical punch.
Belgian, Adolfe Sax patented the saxophone back in 1864. A lifelong inventor, any influence upon the nascent motor industry he may have had is doubtful, shuffling off this mortal coil, penniless in 1894. Fast forward to 1909, when Michio Suzuki founded his Loom Manufacturing Works – another 28 years passing before becoming a motor manufacturer. Again, it’s somewhat unlikely that he himself (then aged 92) had any input in the naming or gestation of what became his eponymous company’s smash hit selling vehicle in 1979. But this little car was destined to prove a game changer – welcome to the four decade (and counting) life of the Suzuki Alto.
Higher than a tenor, lower than soprano; in saxophonist terms, alto was a key instigator in the field of jazz. Where that latter name was eventually taken by rival, Honda, the principles Suzuki latched onto were playful, frugal and cheap. The Alto name was originally given to homeland commercial van iterations of the Fronte model from the early 1960s – so named due to its front-wheel drive set up. In fact early European market cars (SS40) wore Fronte badges before switching to Alto, the musical term taking over completely by 1990. The sit up and beg (politely) styling charmed many, although an austere interior might not have swayed those who wanted more than just mere transportation.
Pricing too was an important factor. In the 1970s, Japanese car prices increased with distance from factory to market – pity the poor Sapporo-based Suzuki customer – around 500 miles from Hamamatsu. Astute thinking saw a single price of ¥470,000, regardless of customer location, causing a few dropped octaves amongst rivals, especially as the three door car was technically a commercial vehicle, which lay in a lower tax band along and was subject to less stringent emission regulations.
Initial suggested monthly targets of 5,000 saw Suzuki taking years to catch up with demand. This led to build locations other than Japan being established. South Pacific Assemblers, New Zealand managed six cars per day, whereas the Indian Maruti connection and Karachi based Pak Motors ramped production figures up considerably; by the Alto’s thirtieth birthday, an aggregate ten million had been made, selling in 130 countries.
European exports warranted upgrades; Japanese 10” wheels grew to a foot in diameter. JDM engines began as a two-stroke SS30 but emissions legislation put the oil blender out to pasture within two years and was never offered for export – the three cylinder 796cc SS80 tipped the scales around 550Kgs, managing an output of 40bhp and 46 foot pounds of effort. Four manual or two-speed automatic gears were Europe’s options, with the UK receiving their first Alto’s in 1981. Modest sales figures allowed Suzuki a British foothold allowing them to alter the symphony’s pitch by the second generation’s instalment.
The original Alto measured one hundred and twenty six inches long (3,195mm) was fifty five inches wide (1,395mm) standing fifty two and half inches tall (1,335mm). The wheelbase lay at eighty four and a half inches (2,150mm). For that difficult second album (CA71) in 1984, the original’s cuteness had become somewhat angular; a b sharp opposed to the initial b flat arrangement whilst measurement changes were, at best, marginal.
Length and width remained but wheelbase shot up to 2,175mm, height topped 1.4 metres with weight now nudging 600Kgs. This generation’s rear carried resonances of larger rival, Austin’s Metro. Production now expanded into China whereas many European-sold models were manufactured in India by Maruti Udyog. The Guragon facility ramped up numbers to around 100,000 per annum and would continue producing similar numbers until as recently as 2014. Chinese examples had the delightful monikers of City Baby along with Little and Happy Prince.
1988’s third generation Alto became even more angular, and in the case of the five door variants, obtaining a rear window and D-pillar that appeared to have been dropped in from above. The car’s length remained the same until 1990 when changes to kei-car regulations allowed a longer overall vehicle, now 130” (3,295mm) coinciding with a wheelbase change to 92” (2,335mm) and, with the unusual looking but delightfully named Hustle, a roofline over 66 inches (1,685mm). Engines also altered; now a 657cc unit could be in six or twelve valve flavours, with turbocharging and single or double overhead camshafts. Weights sneaked up as a fluid saxophonist’s fingers, to a maximum of 730Kgs.
Season four involved a homegrown affair in 1994 – European sales continued with barely altered Maruti’s. Four years later, a more gently rounded, though hardly Charlie Parker-resembling fifth generation Alto extended its length to 93 inches (3,395mm) and gained a little girth, now at 56” (1,440mm) along with a facelift for the incoming 21st century.
This melody lasted until 2004 when the Cannonball Adderley sixth generation came into being. Dimensionally remaining kei, Alto had moulded into something of a more rounded square, the headlights in particular quite drooping in slant. Such is the way with Japanese chassis borrowing, Nissan had the Pino whereas Mazda gave Japan the Carol – jazzy names, at least.
Sixty months later, series seven arrived alongside a return to a more sit up and beg demeanour. Dimensions sneaked up a little more as the wholly Indian produced car also was sold as the Celerio. Still wedded to the thesis of cheap, frugal and practical motoring, this iteration suffers from Kenny G syndrome; perfectly fine and useable but also rather bland. These were the last versions British customers could buy new – the Ignis taking up Suzuki’s small car banner.
Bland is not a label to pin on the eighth and current version which became available to the Japanese market in 2014. Retro looks, serious C-pillar kick, Fiat Panda circa 1984 reminiscent grill along with almost Angry Bird eyes, this version of the Alto is the definitive John Coltrane. A chamfered edge to the rear screen may not float everyone’s boat but this car’s details make it. The Alto’s looks may have abundantly altered within its lifetime but the tune has prevailed; remarkably roomy, parsimonious with petrol, unequivocally urbane.
For those requiring an Alto with a more aggressive edge, performance versions have been available since 1985 with added everything. The title Works was introduced from early 1987, the current aspect leaning heavily in the direction of Napalm Death’s Everyday Pox. Yes, a screaming saxophone used in heavy metal. Poor Adolfe might turn in his grave.