SPOTLIGHT: What's the deal with... The Suzuki Alto?
So I've been the recipient of at least a dozen snapchats, Facebook PMs, text messages, telegraphs and carrier pigeons all asking me what this strange little car cruising around the pits at Proving Grounds was (pictured above). The car is none other than a HA21 Suzuki Alto Works. Although I was not there and couldn't talk to the owner, apparently it was a Canadian fella that got word from a friend of the event at BIR and decided it was worth the drive down south. This is a pretty esoteric car for those of us who aren't Gran Turismo geeks or neckbeard JDM Otakus, so I'll give a quick description about the hype around this car. So what's the deal with the Suzuki Alto?
The Suzuki Alto is made for a Japanese car class called the Kei Jidosha (Kei Car) class, it's closest American equivalent is the microcar class. Microcars are cars like the BMW Isetta, original Fiat 500 or the Nash Metropolitan, our microcar class has largely disappeared from our roads due to safety standards. Originally the Japanese Kei Car class was introduced on July 8th, 1949, so auto manufacturers would produce small commuter cars for the Japanese populace during the postwar rebuilding era. It worked like magic with cars like the Mazda R360 (pictured above), Subaru 360 and Suzuki Carry being the backbone of the Japanese rebuilding process after WWII. Once Japan was back on it's feet, the class was continued due to the parking limitations in urban Japan. Although classification limits grew from their original dimensions, they are still extremely small. Today a Kei Car can be a maximum of 11.2 FT in length, 4.9 FT wide and no taller than 6.6 FT, that last regulation has been unchanged since the original introduction of the class. Even engine size is strictly limited to 660 CC (0.66 L) and no more than 63 HP. For comparison, a Geo Metro was 12.4 FT, 5.25 FT, and 4.6 FT, with a 1.0 L engine. Going over any of these regulations will put the car in the more expensive to own Sub-compact class that also forces owners to have a private parking garage, which can cost nearly as much as a small apartment in some parts of Japan. We do get a handful of cars that fit Kei Car classification here in America, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Smart ForTwo come to mind immediately.
With our terrible selection of kei sized cars available stateside and all of these limitations, it's easy to think these cars are the most lethargic vehicles in the history of self powered transportation, but that is far from the case and that's where the Suzuki Alto Works comes into play. Throughout the later 20th century, the Japanese economy was booming and with that, car culture was at an all time high. By the late 1980's, Japan was at the height of their bubble economy and even kei car buyers wanted a performance car. With such strict rules in the class, a faster car couldn't be had by the simple fixes like a bigger engine or more power, so the ever resourceful Japanese auto manufacturers saw this class as a great R&D test bed.
They began to make dedicated sports cars in this diminutive class with microscopic engines boasting technology seen on race cars and sport bikes of the era. Dual Overhead Camshaft heads, Electronic Fuel Injection, Turbocharging, Supercharging, Lightweight engine internals, and stratospheric rev limiters were common spec. If you can think of it, there was a Kei Car with it. Although the maximum power was 63 HP, there were no rules as to how you could make it or where you could deliver it. Front engine rear wheel drive roadsters, mid-engine micro-supercars and all wheel drive hatchbacks all fought for title of the fastest Kei Jidosha.
Given that Suzuki's bread and butter historically was the Kei car class, Suzuki was in it's element. Suzuki had been making sporty Kei Cars since the 70s, but when they originally made the turbocharged all-wheel-drive Alto Works RS/R in 1984, the Japanese government stepped in to implemented the 63 HP limit we spoke of before. This was the dawn of the serious kei sports car market, just about everyone with a toe in the Kei Car market joined the fight for a performance offering. One upping themselves, Suzuki even released the Cappuccino in 1991, which was a FR roadster that looked like a mini-me Miata using the engine from the Alto Works.
The Alto itself was the benchmark to beat though. It was like a pint-sized Mitsubishi Evolution. It had a turbocharged 3 cylinder engine fed through a 5 speed transmission to all four wheels. All of that was pushing around a scant 1300 lbs, which made for comically quick performance. For braking, 4 wheel disc brakes were implemented as well. It was a legitimate performance car and Suzuki knew there was more in it. The car was electronically limited to 87 MPH per kei car regulations and the K6A engine found in the late 80s and 90s era models had a lot of power left on the table. The aftermarket for this car remains strong to date and that buzzkill speed limiter can be removed very easily allowing for a top speed north of 120 MPH before any aftermarket parts are added.
I haven't heard if this was entered into AutoX but had it been, it would have punched far above it's weight. Unfortunately, we will still have to wait a couple of years for the HA generation Alto seen at PG2K17.1 to become legal for import due to it's production being between 1994-1998, but the older CN21 Alto is currently available and is largely the same car mechanically. Frankly, the class fits so well into the Japanese ideal of making everything that everyone else has, but smaller. The best part of ownership of a classic kei car is that Suzuki has literally the best customer service in the world as seen here. If anyone is interested in importing a kei car, shops like International Vehicle Importers have streamlined the process greatly for us and these cars usually go for relatively cheap prices. I hope this has shed some light onto this awesome little pocket rocket, if you would like us to do more articles like this, let us know.