When I first saw the Suzuki Splash, with its high-rise construction, smart styling and useful rear space, I wrote that the car would be an ideal foil for the Swift, which has never been strong in the back seat department and doesn't quite help out in terms of its hip-line, either.
Although it was of the same opinion, Suzuki New Zealand couldn't make the figures stack up. But that's changed now, to the extent that the Splash emerges well under the base Swift price and even within cooee of the company's smallest car, the Alto. It also covers the entry-point version of the Swift, which is now a manual-only prospect, by offering both manual ($17,990) and automatic ($19,500) options.
While it's obvious that the Splash might cannibalise some sales from the Swift, Suzuki is confident that the newcomer will help reinforce the company's sales in general. I'd agree with that, because the Splash offers something genuinely useful to Suzuki's line- up.
To get the pricing right, some home comforts are missing, like power mirrors, Bluetooth, a rev-counter and alloy wheels. The omission of stability control is set to be rectified in the near future.
Everything else is there, with air conditioning, front, side and curtain airbags, ABS and electronic brake distribution on the standard equipment list, along with a four-speaker stereo with tuner, CD and MP3 compatibility.
Suzuki calls the Splash a multi- purpose vehicle, but I'd call it a single-purpose vehicle, because it's a small people-mover, pure and simple. Within its diminutive 3.7-metre overall length, it serves up to five people remarkably well. The car is 135 millimetres shorter than the Swift on a 70mm shorter wheelbase, yet affords greater overall space, much of it gained from the car's 80mm taller stance.
At first, I thought the rear seat would be a little cramped, but don't let the rear seat squab's proximity to the front seat-back fool you - even my 1.88m could slip in the rear well enough, with the front chair slid to accommodate me as a driver. The folding rear seat backs and bases are split 60:40 and for those with the need for load flexibility, there's a lot of additional volume available, expanding from 178 litres to a useful 573 litres.
In the front, the Splash offers a pleasingly uncluttered driving and front passenger environment, with remarkably comfortable, deeply-upholstered seats that afford the easy access of a higher hip-line.
The dash has the classic T-shape, with the upstroke forming a neatly contrived centre stack with an integrated and surprisingly powerful stereo and simple twist-knob air conditioning controls.
The car's 1.25-litre engine is the shorter stroke K12B version of the K14B 1.4-litre unit introduced with the new Swift. It appears just as quiet and refined as the Swift and has that pleasant tell-tale buzz of all Suzuki units, with the ability to spin quickly to power peak, while offering good mid-range tractability.
At 100kmh in top gear, the Splash cruises without stress. There's no rev-counter but I'd estimate that the open road speed limit could be maintained at about 2750rpm, with plenty in reserve.
The car's chassis is not quite as biddable and sharp as the Swift's, but it's accurate and tidy with well-weighted electric steering and no bad habits.
I'd like a little more body control when cornering however, because the car does lean more than the Swift, though it's not untoward for a tall hatch.
Where the Splash does score is in terms of its ride quality, which feels cosy and almost large car- like, with good initial impact damping and little transfer of shock to the occupants.
The five-speed manual transmission is a pleasingly accurate unit, and the clutch and throttle actions are well set for stop-start driving, while the four-speed automatic suits the car well too. I suspect the automatic will be the preferred choice for the Splash's intended demographic, which will include the older age bracket that has embraced the Swift and made it New Zealand's best-selling small car. But I can see the Splash also coming within the sights of downsizing family motorists: there's more useable cabin space, lots of extra stowage and four cupholders, Iso-Fix child- restraint systems and that little bit of extra sighting through traffic from its taller stance, all items to be considered.
Emissions ratings also feature more in purchasing decisions these days, as well as fuel economy, and the Splash's CO2 scores of 119 grams per kilometre (manual) and 133g per km (automatic) are close to the segment's peak, while its respective 5.1 litres per 100km and 5.7 litres per 100km fuel use figures also look good for potential family and fleet aspirants.
I have two issues with the car. The promised ESP can't come soon enough - all cars may soon have to have the device by law, while after-market Bluetooth could well be used as a deal-maker by more creative dealers.
Overall, though the Splash is a little late to the party, I predict that this practical wee newcomer is nevertheless well-timed to take advantage of a New Zealand market finally starting to react to the realities of hefty fuel prices and the benefits of down-sizing.
* Drivetrain: 1242cc fuel injected transverse FWD DOHC 16 valve four, with five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
* Performance: 69kW at 6000rpm, 118Nm at 4800rpm. Max 172 to 175kmh, 0-100kmh 12 to 14.5secs, 5.1-5.7L/100m, 119-133g/km CO2.
* Chassis: Front MacPherson struts, rear torsion beam. Vented front disc brakes, drums at rear. Electrically assisted rack and pinion steering.
* Safety: Front, side and curtain airbags, ABS and EBD. Four-star Euro NCAP crash rating (ESP may make this five-stars).
* Dimensions: L 3715mm, W 1680mm, H 1590mm, W/base 2360mm, F/track 1460mm, R/track 1470mm, Weight 990 to 1040kg, Fuel 45L.
* Pricing: Splash manual $17,990, automatic $19,500.
* Hot: Cute looks; clever packaging; pleasant ride; solid feel.
* Not: No diesel option or Bluetooth. ESP fitment being negotiated.
* Verdict: Family-sized people- mover capably fills an important Suzuki void.