History of the Suzuki Alto

Thread Starter #1
Aug 2, 2011
Last year was the 30th anniversary of the Suzuki Alto, the model line having started in 1979. By then, Suzuki already had 25 years of experience making 4-wheelers and was noted for lightweight engineering. With the aim of creating a car that would be easy for women to drive, the Alto actually evolved from a model known as the Fronte/Cervo which had rear-wheel drive. When the Alto was developed, the engineers decided to switch to front-wheel drive for the new model. It was also a transitional period in engines as the older ones with 2-stroke operation were replaced by 4-stroke types. They all had 3 cylinders though there was also a 4-cylinder unit of 970 cc.

For the Japanese market, however, the Alto could only be sold with an engine not larger than 550 cc as it was classified as a kei-car. Such cars enjoyed lower tax payments and had some other benefits but they also had to be of a certain maximum size (in 1976, the regulation set the maximum length at 3.2 metres and the maximum width at 1.4 metres). For export markets, Suzuki installed larger engines and the first generation was offered with a 3-cylinder 800 cc engine.

The next generation of the Alto – Fronte was also used in some markets – came in 1984. Initially, it had a similar platform as the first generation but two years later, Suzuki upgraded the rear suspension. Turbocharged engines and even 4WD were available in JDM models.

It was during this time that Suzuki formed a joint-venture company with the Indian government called Maruti Udyog. The second generation Alto was chosen to be manufactured there and sold as the Maruti 800. Like the Proton Saga in Malaysia during the same era, the little Maruti hatchback became something of a ‘national car’ in India as it was sold in huge numbers. The same model was also supplied to certain carmakers in China for them to manufacture and sell under their own brand names.

The third generation was introduced in 1988 and Japanese buyers had a choice of four engines. Two years later, kei-car regulations were changed to permit the engines to be up to 660 cc and Suzuki immediately installed a larger 657 cc engine. Transmission choices were a 4-speed manual or 3-speed automatic.

Maruti Zen has been best-selling car in India

During the 1990s, the Maruti model was a phenomenal success and because it was manufactured outside Japan, it could be slightly larger, making it more suitable for other markets. The name was changed to Maruti Zen in the Indian market and in some export models, a 1-litre engine was fitted.

Late 1994 saw the fourth generation of the Alto, by now available in two bodystyles and with four engine choices. Higher performance was available with the new K6A engine that produced 64 ps. In the Japanese market, it was also available with 4WD for customers who lived in areas that were covered with a lot of snow in winter.

For the fifth generation, which appeared in 1998, the Alto’s lines were ‘softened’ and by then, there was increased occupant protection provided (eg impact beams in the doors). A number of variants were produced during this generation and Mazda also bought the Alto from Suzuki to sell as a Mazda Carol.

In India, Maruti Suzuki (the name was changed by then) also started producing the fifth generation and also used Alto as the model name. It was a significant change from the Maruti 800 in many ways, offering a lot more modern features like power steering and a 5-speed transmission.

The sixth generation was launched in 2004 and looked markedly different from earlier generations with some styling cues that would appear in the Swift later on. Mindful of the concerns of consumers regarding fuel economy, Suzuki decided to position the Alto as an economy car more than anything else and offered it with just one engine in Japan. However, for enthusiasts, it still made some special versions with more powerful engines. Nissan and Mazda also bought the Alto to sell under their own brands.

Since the first-generation launch, 4.8 million Alto units have been sold in Japan and 5.2 million units of Alto-based models have been sold in other countries.

An advertisement for the SS80 in 1982 highlighted the fuel-efficiency of the RM15,000 car - see below

The first generation of the Alto was introduced in Malaysia in 1981 as the SS80 (the export name). Imported by Kobin Motors, the distributor at that time, it was priced at around RM13,000 which was a bit expensive for such a small car but that was due to the tax penalty for imported cars. Small cars like the Mini cost less than RM10,000, partly because they were assembled locally.

Though the SS80’s price was not so attractive, there were still people who bought it because it was a bit unique with its frameless rear window that could be popped open separately from the rear hatch. Though the engine was a small 3-cylinder 800 cc unit that produced 40 bhp/59 Nm, it still had nippy performance as its body weight was only 630 kgs. With a manual transmission, it could go from 0 -100 km/h in 20 seconds and reach a top speed of 130 km/h or so.

Most of the sub-1000 cc cars had faded away by the early 1980s (the exception being the Daihatsu Charade which dominated its segment) but the SS80 remained available till around 1984 when its price went up to around RM15,000. By then, it was clear that the model would have no future in the Malaysian market as it was already known that in 1985, there would be a Malaysian National Car – and at launch time, it cost less than RM17,000.

The Suzuki franchise also changed hands and the new distributors wisely did not bother to market future generations of the SS80 and instead focussed on the larger SA310 Swift and a bit later, the Vitara.

The latest Alto (Japanese version) and the first generation, which was launched in 1979, displayed at last year's Tokyo Motorshow to mark the 30th anniversary of the model - See last pic

Source : Motortrader, Wiki


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