Suzuki Hassler, the K-car for Italy. Here’s our preview test of the mini crossover
Rubasumero (Torino) – Can Japanese Kei cars reach and achieve success in Europe as well? Suzuki is conducting market evaluations of two models, the Alto and the Hustler. Luca De Meo, CEO of Renault Group and President of Acea (Association of European Manufacturers), which analyzes the European industry and market involved in the green transition, invites us to take a look at “what the Japanese did with kei cars, a perfect example of what we also have to do in Europe» De Meo is also hoping for financial support, purchase incentives, fee reductions and policies that make these cars accessible to historic centers, since Kei cars exist in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Literally light cars, Kei cars were born in Japan in 1949 with the intention of powering a country devastated by World War II, and over the years they have become very popular. In 2022, 1.22 million were registered, equivalent to 36% of the market share. The market leader is Suzuki with 377,605 units, followed by Daihatsu (353,753) and Honda (265,624). These are small cars that can accommodate four people with maximum dimensions set by law: 3.4 meters long, 1.48 wide, and no more than 2 meters high, hence the reason why the structures are so high to ensure good habitability. With a reduced length, about 30 cm less than a panda.
The flagship cars also have a maximum displacement of 660 cc and a power of 64 hp. In Japan, Kei cars enjoy significant tax advantages upon purchase, and usage advantages such as reduced road taxes and tolls and lower insurance rates. Compared to traditional cars, it is 45% cheaper. Its price translated into euros ranges from 6,500 to 12,000 euros and the annual property tax is around 45 euros.
“Kei cars – recalls Massimo Nalli, President and CEO of Suzuki Italia – are the perfect response to the crowded Japanese context where space is a luxury. These compact and very light cars allow you to move easily around the city. Moreover, they are cars that also require little Few resources and materials to manufacture, so they cost little, but above all they take up very little space, consume and emit very little.
Although they are considered basic and sensible cars, the safety and driver assistance systems are of a high standard, certified to Japanese JNCAP standards, comparable to those of EuroNCAP. Six airbags are standard, while lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking, road sign recognition and fatigue warning are standard features on most models on sale.
After withdrawing from the European market the Jimny for emissions reasons, a popular off-roader with which you can climb mountains and a true K-car in size, albeit with a 1.5-liter petrol engine for Europe, Suzuki chose to test the Alto and Hustler on the streets of four Old Continent markets: Italy France, Greece and Germany.
Of the two cars, the Alto is the more traditional model, and is the entry level to a range of 14 Kei cars in Japan. The front is square and the oval headlights are prominent, otherwise the Alto has softer, less angular lines, and the windshield is slightly slanted to make the passenger compartment more spacious. The Alto is 3.39 meters long, 1.47 meters wide and 1.53 meters high, weighs just 700 kg, and under the hood is a 650 cc three-cylinder engine with 50 hp and 40 Nm of torque. The mild hybrid system relies on a 2-kilowatt electric motor and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). There are no other technical data available for this model, but considering the weight-to-power ratio, we can assume emissions of 60-65 g/CO2 and a consumption of 25-27 km/l, which is very close to the threshold of 3 liters per 100 metres. Kilometers.
The Hustler is a mini crossover, halfway between the Jimny and the Wagon R+. The front is inspired by off-road vehicles with round headlights, a chrome grille and a muscular bumper with raw plastic inserts. The bodywork is very square, highlighted by some straight lines on the side and dark plastic wheel arches.
Orange and black paint brightens the appearance of the rear, hiding the vertical rear window. Length and width are the same as the Alto, with the height difference being 1.68 metres, as is the weight at 830kg. The car is available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and features a three-cylinder turbo engine with an intercooler that produces 64 horsepower and 98 Nm of torque. The 2kW electric motor makes it a mild hybrid, while the CVT gearbox, thanks to paddles on the steering wheel, can also be used in seven-speed manual mode. Emissions are estimated at 75g/km and consumption 23-24km/l.
The Alto and Hustler tested near Turin have arrived from Japan and are clearly right-hand drive. Once on board, I was blown away by the brightness, thanks to the ultra-thin columns and large glass surfaces. The amount of space available is notable, given the Lilliput’s dimensions, but the advantage is a very long wheelbase, 2.46 meters (16cm more than the Panda which is about 30cm longer) and a straight-line height of 1.52 metres, about the same as the Panda and the 1.68 Hustler. As Nally explains, “Suzuki’s basic concept is to maximize efficiency also in the use of space.”
We tried it out along a mixed route through the Lanzo valleys in Piedmont and I have to admit that despite its width of 1.48 meters (16 less than the Panda) you don’t feel at all cramped and unprotected by the light and thin doors, on the road. In contrast, a high driving position allows for good visibility. The reduced width is precisely what makes the road appear wider and provides safety margins on narrow mountain roads and intersections.
It’s undoubtedly very easy and fun to drive and slides through traffic without problems, the steering is very light and, thanks to its fairly small turning radius, it’s well suited for driving in tight spaces. The brakes are also strong and responsive thanks to the low overall vehicle weight and the mild hybrid system helps when restarting with extra torque.
The Hustler certainly features better sound insulation and more refined interior finishes, and every corner is used as a storage compartment in different shapes and sizes, such as the removable basket hidden under the passenger seat cushion. The spaciousness and accessibility of the rear seats is surprising, even for people taller than 1.9 metres. Moreover, by tilting the seats, a completely flat surface is obtained that is also suitable for accommodating, in addition to all types of luggage, up to two people for overnight camping – a feature that is highly appreciated in Japan.