REVIEW: Should you choose the Toyota Starlet over its Suzuki Baleno twin?
JOHANNESBURG - I can only sympathise with the folk at Suzuki SA after the Toyota Starlet - which is essentially a rebadged version of their very own Baleno - achieved 1102 sales in October, its first full month on the market.
Is it that the Toyota brand is so entrenched in the South African psyche that buyers simply opt for its products by default? Suzuki certainly has its own fan club, but perhaps the Baleno has been overlooked because those stepping into its showrooms tend to be charmed by the cheaper and funkier Swift.
Either way, it is impossible to continue with this review without at least trying to determine which is the better buy - Suzuki’s Baleno or Toyota’s Starlet.
We’ll get into the whole driving experience a little later, but for now I’m going to jump the gun by stating that you are getting a very decent, practical and agreeable car regardless of which badge you choose.
But to make an informed decision you’re going to have to compare the prices, specifications and aftersales plans.
When it comes to equipment, it’s really much of a muchness between the various Baleno and Starlet spec grades.
The base models
Opt for the base model (Baleno GL or Starlet Xi) and you get all the basics like air conditioning, electric windows and a conventional audio system with Bluetooth connectivity and steering controls, while safety kit includes dual front airbags, ABS and stability control. There are no touch screens to speak of here and the wheels are steel with plastic covers, which is typical base spec fare.
But with the Starlet Xi coming in at R204 900 and the Baleno GL commanding R221 900, the Toyota is clearly the better deal for those shopping at that end of the market. In fact, providing you can live without a touchscreen - and I certainly could - the Starlet Xi is quite possibly one of the best deals on the market right now. Of course it also depends on what kind of discount the various dealers offer you, so do shop around.
Top of the range
It’s not so clear-cut at the upper end of the range, where the Starlet XR starts at R258 500 in the case of the manual model that we had on test, which is just R1400 cheaper than the range-topping Baleno GLX. Once again, the feature count is much of a muchness, with both cars sporting alloy wheels, touchscreen infotainment systems, automatic climate control, cruise control, park distance control and four additional airbags (side and curtain).
Overall, there is very little to separate the two, but it’s worth noting that the Suzuki has the superior aftersales plan, with a five-year/200 000km (promotional) warranty and four-year/60 000km service plan, versus the Toyota’s skimpy three-year/100 000km warranty and 45 000km service plan. However, this also has to be weighed up against the Toyota’s larger dealership footprint - if that matters to you. Suzuki currently has around 60 dealers countrywide, which is perfectly adequate in my book.
Once again, it might just boil down to which dealer offers the better discount.
Cheaper than rivals
Another thing that stands out for me in both cars is that they are significantly cheaper than other similarly-sized hatchbacks on the market. Measuring 3995mm in length, the Starlet is slightly bigger than the Hyundai i20 and marginally smaller than the latest Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo. Now consider that the cheapest Hyundai i20 costs R265 900 and getting into a Polo requires at least R284 200 - and we’re talking rental spec models here.
What’s it like to drive?
Like its Suzuki twin, the Starlet is powered by a 1.4-litre normally aspirated petrol engine that delivers 68kW and 130Nm, and while those outputs are on the modest side, the car is surprisingly light for its size, tipping the scales at just 915kg. The performance that it delivers is on par with what you would expect from a car in the lower end of the B segment. You will need to work the engine hard at times, but overall performance is quite acceptable and it does cruise quietly on at highway speeds.
As for economy, I averaged 7.1 litres per 100km on a route that mostly consisted of highway driving.
The ride quality is comfortable and compliant and the road holding is safe and neutral, while noise suppression is impressive. This really doesn’t feel like a cheap car to drive.
It’s also relatively easy to chuck around the urban jungle, thanks to its light steering and smooth-shifting controls.
Our car came with a five-speed manual gearbox, but for an extra R14 000 you can have one with a four-speed automatic gearbox. But given its lack of ratios, this might not be the most sophisticated package you could hope for.
Is it practical?
This is one area where we can almost give full marks as the Toyota Starlet is exceptionally roomy for a vehicle in its price range. Rear legroom is abundant, offering plenty of stretching space, although taller occupants might find the head room to be a bit tight.
The boot swallows 355 litres, which is on a par with the best in class. As my colleague Willem found out when taking our long-term Baleno from Gauteng to the KZN coast last year, this trunk certainly can swallow holiday luggage if you apply some Tetris logic.
Regardless of whether you choose the Toyota Starlet or Suzuki Baleno you are getting a lot of car for your money and a very decent package all round.
If you’re shopping at the top of the range, it’s much of a muchness and your ultimate choice will likely come down to brand preference, although the Suzuki’s after-sales package would probably sway us in the Baleno’s direction. That and the fact that we think it looks slightly better with a Suzuki badge and grille.
However, if I was spending my own money, I would opt for the Toyota Starlet Xi, because at R204 900 it really is a bargain package.