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Updated for improved performance and efficiency, the Toyota Yaris faces a fresh challenge from a high-flying compatriot...

Like a pop star toiling to repeat the success of a breakthrough first album, the second-generation Toyota Yaris to arrive in South Africa has, since its 2012 introduction, struggled to replicate chart successes achieved by its debut offering. Not that that model, marketed in 2005 as the spiritual successor to the much-loved Conquest, had things its own way, either. However, with that first attempt, Toyota seemed to deliver a more favourable B-segment balance between quirky styling, solid perceived quality and peppy performance.

Much like the youth-oriented music industry, this equally popular automotive segment has proven to be a particularly slippery slope for those who fail to maintain the correct balance through generations; just ask the likes of the Nissan Micra and Opel Corsa.

Likely a source of frustration for Toyota, particularly in a traditionally favourable market such as South Africa, the shortcomings of the current-generation Yaris against better-selling rivals like the Volkswagen Polo and Ford Fiesta (and, more recently, the Korean duo of i20 and Rio) have not been accepted lying down. The car’s 2014 midlife facelift, for example, introduced not only a more youthful “X-face” grille design, but also focused heavily on interior updates, notably improved quality. A more recent, second facelift (changing the name to Yaris Pulse) builds on this momentum with further updates to the exterior styling. These include revised head- and taillamp shapes, modifications to the aforementioned grille and a selection of new paint finishes, as well as an even greater focus on cabin ambience and the introduction of a new engine option.

As competitive as it is lucrative, the B-segment has always offered plenty of variety for a diverse South African target market in this automotive niche. From first-time buyers to young families and retirees, there’s a lot to be said for both the compact, easy-to-live-with nature of these vehicles, as well as the efficiencies associated with their favourable power-to-mass ratios and, usually, the option of an automatic transmission.

It would come as little surprise, then, that another Japanese manufacturer with a reputation established on quirky, yet impressively reliable, small cars might also want a slice of the action. Currently enjoying a purple patch in terms of new products and accolades (including being named Company to Watch in CAR’s 2017 Top 12 Best Buys), Suzuki can seemingly do no wrong. With its relatively conservative styling – especially compared with its Ignis stable mate – the new Baleno goes about its business somewhat more quietly than Suzuki South Africa might like. However, it remains a package that impressed us first during our initial road test and it continues to build favour as a member of our long-term fleet.

Priced closely together and offering similar brand values in terms of honest, reliable motoring, the Yaris and Baleno were destined to be direct rivals.

Packaging

Built at Suzuki’s India-based manufacturing plant, the Baleno is handed an immediate market advantage by virtue of being one of the longest vehicles in this segment. As a result, it offers enviable levels of rear-passenger legroom and class-leading luggage space. It’s in that latter measurement where the more compact Yaris concedes points to the Baleno. In other departments, including overall rear-passenger comfort, the Suzuki’s advantage is less obvious, with both cars offering relatively impressive levels of accommodation, including driver’s seat-height adjustment up front.

Marketed as the middle ground within its range, the Yaris 1,5 Pulse manual can’t quite match the flagship Baleno GLX for standard specification. Here the Suzuki upgrades the standard air-conditioning offered by the Toyota to climate control while adding keyless entry and go, rear parking sensors, xenon headlamps, cruise control and an additional two (curtain) airbags to the four offered by the Yaris.

Both models feature comprehensive infotainment systems that include such nice-to-have features as Bluetooth telephony and music playback with supplementary controls on the steering wheel. On this note, it’s the unit in the Yaris that, while forgoing a CD player function, looks and feels the more premium of the two. On the subject of premium, both the Yaris Pulse and Baleno GLX offer just enough soft-touch surfacing, including leather-bound steering wheels and gearshift levers, as well as padded door panels, to lift their respective interior treatments above the average. Don’t go searching too far, though, as there remains lots of hard plastic to be found in each cabin.

Powertrains

The headline news with the updated Yaris range is the replacement of the outgoing model’s 1,3-litre, naturally aspirated engine in favour of a more powerful (by 9 kW and 11 N.m), yet more efficient, 1,5-litre VVT-iE unit. Interestingly, our test results indicated these increased outputs provided no performance gain over the equally perky, outgoing Yaris 1,3. Where it did trump its predecessor, though, was at the fuel pumps; the new car posted 6,2 L/100 km on our fuel run compared with the outgoing Yaris’ 6,5.

Offering smaller displacement and less power and torque than the Yaris, the Baleno’s performance and efficiency figures are helped instead by the remarkably light mass (916 kg on our scales). That meant the Suzuki was slightly faster off the line than the Toyota and it posted a more frugal (5,5 L/100 km) fuel-route figure.

Ride and handling

So impressively low is the Baleno’s overall mass that the still-lightweight Yaris concedes 160 kg. At 1 071 kg, the Toyota nevertheless feels nimble and sprightly round town, with its top (sixth) cog versus the Baleno GLX’s five-speed manual transmission offering cruising-speed respite from the otherwise busy workings of its engine. Having benefited from adjustments to its suspension setup (MacPherson struts/torsion beam) during the previous facelift, the Yaris Pulse continues to offer one of the most comfortable and forgiving ride qualities in this segment. While the electrically assisted power steering remains discernibly featherlight in all conditions, once you are used to its relatively lifeless workings, it helps make the Yaris feel instantly manoeuvrable, particularly in congested areas.

The Baleno offers an equally pliant and comfortable suspension setup that successfully manages to counter any potential downside to the fitment of standard 16-inch rubber (the Yaris Pulse uses 15-inch items). While the default soft set-up on both cars translates to a fair amount of body roll when pushing on, it’s the Yaris’ front tyres that resist the natural urge towards understeer the longest. Further to its marginally superior dynamic ability over the larger Baleno, the Yaris Pulse’s emergency braking times proved more impressive than the Suzuki’s on the day.

TEST SUMMARY

It's testament to both how adept and active this segment is that, despite the reputations of their respective makers, neither the accomplished Yaris Pulse nor the Suzuki Baleno are likely to trouble the top sellers when it comes to getting the balance spot-on between comfort, dynamics, space, perceived build quality and specification.

With the likes of the all-new Polo and Fiesta on the horizon, as well as current competitors such as the Mazda2, Renault Clio, Rio and i20 all staking a claim, this remains a segment where the margin between success and frustration is achingly narrow. As reflected in the test scores, however, the margin between this updated Yaris Pulse and the Baleno is somewhat wider.

While offering impressive levels of comfort, class-competitive amounts of interior space and an enviable reputation for reliability, the Yaris Pulse is handsomely bettered in the standard specifications department by a Suzuki Baleno that also marginally outperforms its newest entry and is more roomy overall. This victory will, however, come as small consolation for Suzuki South Africa if its accomplished Baleno doesn't begin to make more serious inroads into the market...

*From the September 2017 issue of CAR magazine...

South Africans buy more B-segment hatchbacks than any other vehicle. To capitalise, Suzuki has launched a second range in this market...

As is the case with most Japanese manufacturers, Suzuki's cars are known for their build quality and reliability. And, among the Far East brands, it has established itself as a builder of appealing light and compact cars. That level of prowess is most evident in India where, under the banner of sister brand Maruti, Suzuki focuses on smaller cars and enjoys a massive market share of close to 50%. Even older Suzukis are difficult to fault. The current-generation Swift is getting on a bit now and we ran our first test six years ago. However, thanks mainly to its superb value proposition, it has remained a Top 12 Best Buys recommendation in its segment, which is quite an achievement.

Slotting in slightly above the Swift is the new Baleno B-segment hatchback. It is priced closely to the Suzuki Ciaz sedan, as well as the seven-seater Ertiga, and shares its engine with both those models, as well as the Swift. The Baleno's exterior design is not the most exciting, sure, and, while it certainly is more sophisticated, it's also a more conservative styling exercise than the perky Swift.

The attractive grille has a typically Suzuki visage, with the lines flowing down to run underneath the badge. At the rear, there is a neat roof spoiler, while the hatch opens up fairly high as the leading edge runs only slightly lower than the rear taillights. And that means once you've opened the boot, the floor is still quite low, offering a deep luggage space that can take an impressive 296 dm3. Fold the 60:40-split rear seats and you have access to 896 dm3, which is more than a Volkswagen Polo or Ford Fiesta can muster, but marginally less than the equally spacious Hyundai i20 (920 dm2), for example.

It might not look so in these pictures, but the Baleno is somewhat larger than the likes of the Polo and Fiesta. That, however, is not the Suzuki's only trump card. The generous wheelbase of 2 520 mm (compared with the Polo's 2 470 mm) plays in the favour of those seated in the rear. One of our taller team members (at 1,87 metres) was able to sit comfortably behind his ideal driving position, and that's a rare thing in the segment, matched only by the aforementioned i20 and Honda's Jazz. Headroom isn't quite as generous, though, but that's forgivable in the context of the Baleno's small-car countenance.

This GLX manual sits smack-bang in the middle of the range, book-ended by the lower-specification GL and the more expensive GLX auto. In the GLX, you're greeted by a decently specced cabin with comfortable cloth seats, electric windows and mirrors, a 6,2-inch Pioneer infotainment system (that can be difficult to read on sunny days) and a small 4,2-inch information screen in the instrument cluster sited between the speedometer and the rev counter. Apart from giving the necessary trip-computer information, ambient temperature and average speed, this secondary screen also offers a graphic display of the power and torque supplied from the moment you start the car.

There are, however, a few places where Suzuki can consider improving the cabin trimmings. Some buttons, such as the push stalk next to the instrument cluster to toggle the trip computer, feel out of date, while the perceived quality of some plastics aren't quite European level. Overall, though, it is a well-built product. This is evident in the solid way the doors close, as well as the manner in which the switches, stalks and levers in the cabin operate.

In terms of Bluetooth connectivity, both Android and Apple phones were easy to connect and can be controlled via the multifunction, rake-and-reach-adjustable steering wheel. Equipped with Suzuki's proven 1,4-litre, naturally aspirated engine, you might expect the car to feel a little asthmatic, especially with the modern trend towards small-capacity turbocharged technology, but that's not the case with the Baleno. It is refreshing to read a press release where a manufacturer states that its "new platform offers a high level of rigidity and low mass", and then the tests prove that to be true by weighing less on our scales than our sceptical brains expected.

The Baleno is a case in point; at just 916 kg (fully fuelled), it's one of the lightest cars in this segment we've ever tested. Yet, despite the low mass, the Baleno's smooth aerodynamics did see it only slightly disturbed by the Cape's winds, and the lithe body allowed the engine to feel enjoyably punchy once taken into the second half of its rev range. At highway speeds, you can, for instance, stay in fifth gear (top) to overtake. With passengers on-board, however, a quick snick into fourth or even third is necessary. That's in line with its competitors, and the slick gearbox makes it more pleasure than chore. The Baleno's ride quality was another highlight. It easily soaks up most road irregularities, while noise suppression is good at high speeds.

On our test strip, we were able to match Suzuki's claimed 0-100 km/h time of 10,9 seconds, while the brakes performed well during the punishing 10-stop emergency test. There was some body movement during these manoeuvres, but nothing alarming and certainly not out of character for the size of car. In terms of handling, the Suzuki feels composed, even if you drive it with a level of vigour beyond what its owners will likely subject it to. Completing the strong showing is an average consumption figure on our 100 km mixed-use, standardised fuel route of just 5,5 L/100 km.

TEST SUMMARY

Suzuki Auto SA remains conservative with its engine line-up, offering no turbodiesels nor -petrols in our market. At the Baleno's global launch in Ireland last year, we experienced the company's new 1,0-litre Boosterjet turbopetrol and walked away impressed with this mill - which, for now, won't be offered here - and the package as a whole.

"With little weight to haul around, the 1,0-litre engine never feels overly taxed and the Baleno is nimble without a hint of fragility about it," was associate editor Gareth Dean's take after the launch. Surprisingly, however, the 1,4-litre engine does not feel like a poor relation. It's perfectly fit for purpose, is cheaper to build and so keeps the list prices down, and feels unbreakable.

If it isn't clear yet, we like the Baleno. A lot. It's well packaged, has a long equipment list (including xenon headlamps, keyless start, automatic climate control and six airbags), rides superbly and boasts a frugal engine. The service plan also trumps those of some competitors.

Overall, it is another recommendable addition to Suzuki's local line-up that deserves to find favour with demanding South African consumers.

*From the January 2017 issue of CAR magazine

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