Not giving it stick

Lack of a manual transmission can start to grind a blokeís gears

CAMERON KIRBY

ITíS A cliche as an automotive enthusiast and writer to bemoan the downfall of the manual gearbox, and cliches are lazy.

But screw that, because I have an axe to grind, and it requires a third pedal.

The Suzuki Baleno GLX Turbo has a great, rorty engine and is nicely balanced, but the lack of a manual gearbox leaves me severely disappointed. The arduously slow steering ratio and mandatory automatic transmission for this model left me wanting more from what I knew could be a tidy sporty package.

Donít get me wrong, the automatic shifter mostly performed admirably. But with each drive I was left wondering if I would not be having more fun with an extra pedal. The Baleno isnít an involving car to drive unless you are on the hunt for the limit, despite an engaging and characterful engine.

The frustrating thing about my gearbox gripe is that despite the number of you who agree with me, the commercial reality is our wishes are unlikely to ever be granted.

Suzuki Australia General Manager Andrew Moore told me at the Suzuki Ignis launch early this year that manual gearboxes make up barely five percent of cars sold by the company, and if he had his way the number would be even less as the three-pedalled stock is hardest to move. Consumers just donít want them.

The Balenoís styling did win me over.

Without the bodykit the car is visually a bit beige, but the optional extra bits change

A slide would rule

Itís a small gripe, but the layout of the shifter in the Baleno continued to catch me out, even after three months of use. It follows the standard pattern of P, R, N, D, but then adds M (for manual) directly at the bottom. This means upon start-up it is easy to slide the shifter all the way to the bottom and find yourself in lurchy manual mode at take-off, and rev the ring out of it as the six-speed auto holds itself in first. Activating manual mode with a slide to the side would be a more intuitive design.

the character completely. For young buyers wanting something other than a run-of-the mill Swift, the Baleno adds some extra eye candy (along with bigger boot space), and the optional body styling makes the car stand out from the crowd. If any of my friends were looking for a first car in this segment, but didnít want one of the staple offerings like the Mazda 2 or Polo (being an individual matters to some), Iíd gladly point them in the direction of the Baleno.

One point that must be addressed before the Baleno is farewelled is the issue of its crash rating. Euro NCAP gives the Baleno a three-star safety rating. Itís not Ford Mustang, two-star, headline-making shocking, but something worth investigating and explaining further. The lack of any active safety features like AEB is the main drag on the rating (a 25 percent Ďsafety-assistí result sticks out like a sore thumb), but doesnít actually affect the way the Suzuki will protect you in the instance of an unavoidable metalcrunching crash. Adult occupant and child occupant results were 80 percent and 73 percent respectively Ė perfectly acceptable for this class Ė while for pedestrian safety the Baleno earned a 65 percent rating.

So viewed in a more real-world light, itís hardly a deal-breaker, but is definitely something worth considering for the more safety-conscious consumer.

Iíve been without the Baleno for a few weeks now, and must admit Iíve missed the way it eagerly tipped into corners and navigated tight inner-urban mazes with ease. The infotainment system was intuitive, if not entirely glitch-free (see breakout, above), and the rear seats proved adept at accommodating passengers without turning them into human origami.

But while the Baleno is a well-packaged offering, and a capable city runabout, it couldnít quite deliver on the fun promised by its brilliant three-pot engine. In my perfect world, the GLX Turbo would have a brother, the Turbo Sport, and that would come with the rims and bodykit as standard, a warmer engine, quicker steering rack, and the option of a manual gearbox. A bloke can dream.

Preferable to an actual crash, but...

Another month, another comment on the infotainment system. After running flawlessly for the first two months of our loan, the little Balenoís infotainment system hit the fritz in month three. While driving, the entire centre console would freeze, go bright white, blank, and then reboot with the Suzuki logo for a brief period. It seemed to be completely at random and was difficult to replicate, but started occurring with increasing frequency near the end of our loan.

SUZUKI BALENO GLX

Date acquired: October 2016 Price as tested: $25,742 This month: 886km @ 5.5L/100km Overall: 3799km @ 6.2/100km 34 3 334 44 3 0 0 5 8 3 0 WEEK 17 URBAN COUNTRY SPORTS FAMILY MOTORWAY