CAPE TOWN, Western Cape – It’s been a while since South Africa has seen such a stark example of so-called “badge engineering”. Put bluntly, Toyota’s new Starlet is nothing more than a rebranded Suzuki Baleno.

We could end this driving impression right here (and link you to a Baleno road test for further reading) but it’s worth noting the whole arrangement is a little more interesting than you might at first suspect, particularly when it comes to market positioning. Let us explain.

While automotive alliances are clearly back in vogue as manufacturers seek to slash research and development costs, the products of modern platform sharing are very often distinctly styled (think supposed “twins” such as the Aygo and Peugeot 108, the Supra and BMW Z4 and the latest-generation Isuzu D-Max and Mazda BT-50). While they’re near-identical under the skin, they’re set apart by styling, each featuring a unique (brand-specific) upper body.

That’s simply not the case with the Starlet – which, to muddy the waters further, is known as the Glanza in its country of manufacture, India, and revives a respected moniker that dates back as far as 1973. Park it alongside the facelifted Baleno and the only exterior differences you’ll be able to pick out are the tweaked grille design and the application of Toyota badging (plus slight distinctions between paint colours, if you’ve had your morning coffee). It’s a similar case inside, though Toyota at least dropped a set of Starlet-branded carpets into our test unit.

So, despite being billed as a “product” of the alliance between the two Japanese automakers, it would seem Toyota had no hand in the development of this model (a safe assumption, seeing as the original Baleno debuted as long ago as 2015, well before the alliance became official in 2019). That said, we can expect more differentiation between upcoming joint products, as previewed by the Toyota Urban Cruiser (based on Maruti Suzuki’s Vitara Brezza), the Suzuki Across (which is actually a Toyota RAV4 in light disguise) and the Suzuki Swace (a faintly revised Corolla Touring Sports) offered in other markets.

Still, the long-in-the-tooth Etios hatchback – a particularly strong seller on local shores since its arrival back in 2012 – needed replacing and the Starlet fit the bill. In fact, it’s more spacious, better equipped, more efficient and arguably easier to look at than the Etios, and even comes dangerously close to treading on the toes of the XP150-generation Yaris soldering on in the segment above. And while Starlet pricing starts a shade higher (at R204 900) than that of the model it replaces (R191 800), Toyota South Africa Motors has hinted plans are afoot to plug that small entry-level gap.

As you’d expect, there’s virtually nothing to set the two apart mechanically, either. The Starlet employs Suzuki’s familiar K14B engine, with the naturally aspirated 1,4-litre petrol unit sending 68 kW and 130 N.m to the front axle via either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. It’s a peppy little powerplant, with its performance and efficiency amplified by the vehicle’s impressive lack of lard (Toyota lists a kerb weight of just 915 kg, precisely the same as Suzuki’s figure).

It rides comfortably and handles tidily, while the manual model’s feather-light clutch, gear-shift action and steering lend themselves to fuss-free low-speed manoeuvres. Rear legroom is particularly impressive, while the luggage compartment measures a claimed 345 litres, almost 100 litres more than that of the Etios hatch.

While the entry-level Xi trim keeps the starting price very respectable (and will likely appeal most to fleet buyers, with the mid-tier Xs adding only alloys), the flagship Xr seen here offers all sorts of equipment. The standard features list includes items such as a touchscreen infotainment system (Suzuki’s but with a Toyota graphic on start-up), rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, cruise control and climate control. This variant furthermore upgrades from two airbags to six.

So, why would anyone buy the Toyota version over the Suzuki original? Well, considering specification levels appear pretty much equal on comparable variants (Toyota offers five derivatives compared with Suzuki’s three), the Starlet is quite clearly the cheaper car at launch – by as much as R17 000 in the case of the base model, though by a mere R1 400 when it comes to the manual-equipped flagship.

In addition, Toyota SA Motors rightly points out it has the “largest dealer footprint in the country” and suggests models wearing its badge benefit from superior resale values, too. Finally, the Starlet ships standard with the Toyota Connect telematics service, as well as an in-car WiFi module with 15 GB of data.

In the Baleno’s favour, however, are Suzuki’s five-year/200 000 km warranty and four-year/60 000 km service plan. Toyota’s versions aren’t quite as generous, with the Starlet featuring a three-year/100 000 km warranty and three-service/45 000 km service plan.

Regardless of that latter point, it seems the buying public is already leaning heavily towards the Toyota, with the 178 units registered across South Africa in the final 10 days of September 2020 trouncing the Baleno’s effort of 55 units for the entire month (Suzuki customers prefer the Swift, which managed a strong 533 units, it seems).

As much as Suzuki Auto SA might feel a little (well, very) hard done by under this global arrangement, there’s no getting away from the fact the typical, pragmatically minded South African buyer in this segment will favour the Toyota for the reasons outlined above. It certainly helps that the Starlet’s a markedly more polished product than the Etios, too. In short, Toyota’s gained plenty here.

As a result, the rebadged model will surely – and rather unusually, it must be said – easily outsell the original, any cynicism around badge engineering notwithstanding.



FAST FACTS

Model: Toyota Starlet 1,4 Xr
Price: R258 500
Engine: 1,4-litre, four-cylinder, petrol
Power: 68 kW at 6 000 r/min
Torque: 130 N.m at 4 200 r/min
0-100 km/h: 10,9 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 180 km/h
Fuel consumption: 5,1 L/100 km (claimed)
CO2: 120 g/km
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Service plan: Three-service/45 000 km