Words and images by Daniel.
The Mini, Beetle and 2CV. They’re all small simple cars of their time that were designed to provide motoring to the masses at an affordable price. They weren’t powerful, and they were very small but they all had a unique character. They would fit four people, especially if the back seat passengers were used to having their legs around their ears. The filled the exact purpose they were supposed to, and are now iconic.
So iconic in fact the VW and BMW (who subsequently bought Rover and all their brands) reinvented the Mini and Beetle for the 21st century. The new Mini and new Beetle trade on the looks of the original rather than innovation and affordable prices their predecessors brought to the market. They’ve both grown substantially in size, but more so in price no longer cheap transportation.
In 2009, Suzuki introduced the Alto to Australia. It had 5 doors for practicality, and a 1.0 litre 3 cylinder engine producing 50kw of power. At the time, it pretty much had the class to itself. The only comparable sized cars were the Smart Fortwo and Fiat 500, both of which were considerably dearer (starting at $19,990 and $22,990 respectively).
The world has two different versions of the Alto. The 2011 versions looked similar, but they’re different cars. The Japanese Alto is a Kei car, and much smaller than the other version. The ‘world’ Alto is actually the Indian Maruti Suzuki A-Star (Alto-Star). It was developed primarily for India and is built there and exported worldwide. It also has the bigger 1.0 engine. It was also sold in Europe as the Nissan Pixo, with different bumpers, grille and headlights.
In Australia the Alto GL manual was launched at $12,490 plus on roads, with an extra $2,000 for the GLX (adding fog lights, stability control, a tacho, height adjustable seat and alloy wheels), and $2000 for a four speed auto. But it’s Indian sourcing, and very low build costs meant that in late 2010 the GL all the GLX’s standard equipment, except the alloy wheels and a price drop to $11,790 for the GL, and $12,490 for the GLX and $1500 for the auto option. In fact during its life the Alto was advertised as low as $9.990 drive-away for a brand new car, with metallic paint. Although this was often the pink ones that dealers were stuck with because no one really wanted one of them.
The Alto came reasonably well equipped on the safety front with stability control (not on early GL’s), six airbags and ABS adding up to a four star safety rating. It also had standard air con, remote central locking, electric front windows, six speaker CD/MP3 player, a full size spare (an oddity on a city car, but the wheels were only 155 wide) and loads of very obvious cost cutting.
The front electric windows are only on the door that they operate (so the driver needs to reach across to the passenger window to wind that one down if there’s no passenger), the external mirrors aren’t electric, the rear view mirror does not have a day night switch, the tacho is on a separate pod that looks after market, there’s little sound deadening, there’s no centre console, no boot light and the interior plastics are cheap and hard.
But for the money, they were pretty good value, maybe not such good value second-hand though. During Covid times, a Victorian dealer had a 2012 GL Auto ($13,290 new) for $12,990 drive-away. It was later reduced to $11,990 drive-away. But they’re seeking over 90% of its new price after 8 years.
Why did I buy an Alto?
I really wanted to reduce my living costs, so I was after a reasonably cheap to buy car, but more importantly cheap to run, reliable and safe. Relatively new with low k’s also came into it.
Like four of the last five cars I’ve bought, I bought this one from Graysonline, although unlike my last five cars I actually looked at this one before buying. It seemed well cared for, with 84,000km, icy cold air conditioning, and the only faults being the ESP and ABS lights on, and a couple of small blemishes in the bonnet’s clearcoat. I ended up winning the auction at $1909, plus $360 in auction fees.
It needed a new ABS controller for the roadworthy, a $3000 part new. It’s a common issue, so most wreckers didn’t have them. My mechanic spent a few hours on the phone and managed to find one at a fraction of the price. The only other thing it needed was the spare tyre to be fastened down. All up it cost me about $3400 on the road, around half my budget.
It met the brief so well, that I even bought it again. Less than a month after buying it and getting it on the road I was at Midsumma Carnival and it was parked at the station. Melbourne got hit with a hailstorm and every single panel copped a beating. The dents were so small I didn’t notice them until the next day. The roof with 11 and bonnet with three were the worst, most other panels had one or two. After a few months the insurance company decided to write it off. I was paid out $4900 so all up I was out of pocket about $200 after my excess and 12 month insurance policy. I paid $1000 to buy it back.
It’s not a V8, definitely not a V8. But it’s got loads of character with its thrummy revvy little three cylinder engine that lets you know when it’s being worked. Which is every time you hit a hill, a highway or the freeway, or even just when the light turns green. It’s the least powerful car I’ve ever owned, but keep the revs up and it can keep up with traffic.
You get a fair bit of wind noise on the freeway. The lack of sound deadening has helped keep the price and weight down. It’s noisy on a long trip, but that just goes with the territory with cheap car ownership.
It’s not really made for the highway though. It’s so tiny it fits into any spot easily, leaves a fair bit of spare space in the garage, and uses very little fuel. Officially it’s 4.7l/100km, and I’ve averaged 5.2l/100km. I get better economy if I try, but that wouldn’t be fun. My worst tank was 6.4l/100km during lockdown where I was rarely driving more than 2km trips.
The seating position is pretty upright, and it has heaps of headroom for my 185cm. The rear seat isn’t so great. It’s only a four seater so width is OK, but headroom and legroom definitely aren’t.
If the wind noise and size aren’t enough to turn you off a road trip with friends, the 110 litre boot will almost certainly put an end to that idea. The boot is relatively also shallow, in part due to the full size spare.
It fits a fortnightly shop for a single person in there easily, but getting it in is my biggest frustration with the car. The boot is 34 cm deep, marginally higher than the 32cm height of a green shopping bag. The parcel shelf isn’t attached to the tailgate with strings, so needs to be manually flipped up and down. Given the location of the hinge, lifting it up impedes into the boot space, leaving only 28cm below the overhang, not enough for a green bag, so you have to remove the parcel shelf completely to load shopping.
The only other problem since buying it is the clutch. The take-up is really high, my mechanic suggested will need replacing before the next service. I’m currently deciding whether to have a go at it myself, or be as careful as possible with it as possible and replace the whole car when I have to.
I’ve taken it on some road trips around Victoria, and I’m planning a trip to Sydney in February, Tasmania in March and Adelaide at Easter. Cruise control and more power would be nice, but so would a brand new Tesla.
It’s got enough power, enough space, enough safety and uses little enough petrol. To be honest, it’s all the car most single city dwellers really need.
Realistically, this is really all the car I need. Like the Mini, 2CV and Beetle, it’s compromised out of the city. But it’s Indian roots means it actually hands the unmade roads pretty well. Every car has some sort of compromise, but the simplicity of the car and the money I’m saving provide their own joy.