Review and road test of the Suzuki Wagon R+ (1997 - 2000)
CAN WAGON WHEELS GET ANY SMALLER?
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The Suzuki Wagon R+ is something of a landmark vehicle. Initially dismissed by the European market as just another example of Japan's obsession with miniaturisation, the design has been embraced by General Motors and made available to a far wider audience. As Vauxhall badged variants appear, the gulf between what constitutes a European and a Japanese citycar will quickly narrow. As a used buy the Wagon R+ makes a great deal of sense as long as you can get along with the looks. If you can't, no amount of logic is going to sway you from something a bit more conventional, a concept with which the little Suzuki struggles to come to terms with.
First Generation: (5dr hatchback 1.0, 1.2 petrol [GA, GL])
The Wagon R+ was introduced in October 1997 in 1.0-litre form, its tiny four-cylinder engine generating 64bhp. The bodyshell was very square and upright, if not quite so brutally cubist as the Daihatsu Move. The Suzuki really was one of the most micro of micro-MPVs, and UK buyers felt the car was perhaps a little too extreme to compete against established citycars such as the Ford Ka, the Fiat Cinquecento/Seicento and the SEAT Arosa. Many buyers also underestimated Suzuki's strength as a manufacturing concern. Available in GA and GL trim levels, the first-generation Wagon R+ was a strong offering that never reaped the success it deserved. It received a 1.2 litre engine in August 1998 along with a very mild facelift.
The second-generation cars received more critical acclaim and remedied the stylistic excesses of the early model. Launched in summer 2000, the newer car was a different proposition. Although the basic dimensions were unchanged, the look was more rounded off, mature and acceptable to the European eye. The engine was changed to a 1.3-litre unit, which although only generating 75bhp, nonetheless did a good job of propelling the lightweight body. This car was manufactured in Hungary, and spawned the General Motors offshoot, marketed in the UK as the Vauxhall Agila, albeit with a smaller engine.
What You Get
The first-generation cars are the ones that will be widely available for used buyers. So what can you expect from one of these? It wouldn't be overly demeaning to say a box on wheels, because that's exactly how Suzuki's designers set out to style the Wagon R+. It's a narrow, tall, wheeled box that holds as much internal area on as little floorspace as possible. Suzuki quickly realised, however, that sensible reasons were not the only ones that attracted new converts to Wagon R+ motoring. So it is that you could have your own version painted a lurid purple or order it with a variety of imaginative option packs. These included mock-chrome for the grille, mirrors, roof rails and wheel covers as well as wood trim for the interior and - rather worryingly - for the exterior!
You didn't have to make a style statement, of course; without all these dubious add-ons, the base GA model looked almost restrained in lighter colours. It also came well equipped and full of handy features like cubby boxes, a ticket holder, a 'lights-on' warning buzzer and a headlamp-levelling device. The GL added electric power steering (just like an MGF), body-coloured bumpers, electric windows and mirrors, a retractable luggage cover, central locking and, believe it or not, a pull-out shopping basket that nestled under the passenger seat.
As for safety, Suzuki did their best to impress; twin airbags, side-impact bars in the front doors and seat-belt pre-tensioners came on every car. Having said that, there's no denying the sensation of vulnerability some drivers may feel behind the wheel, due mostly to the car's diminutive size. You just have to get used to it.
What to Look For
The Wagon R+ is a pretty durable little car. Neither the 1.0-litre or 1.2-litre cars are particularly adept at motorway work, so many have quite low mileages. That's not to say they won't have suffered much wear and tear: the twin demands of city driving and ferrying kids around is an acid test if ever there was one. Check the interiors for signs of damage to fittings, rips or stains on the upholstery and damage in the load bay caused by bulky objects (the seat backs are rather vulnerable). Check tyre wear and also the condition of the exhaust, and make sure all gears engage cleanly and do not jump out. Otherwise insist on a service record and buy with confidence.
(approx based on a 1998 1.0-litre Wagon R+) The Suzuki Wagon R+ is the sort of car you could quite happily drive about in, revelling in its modest thirst and low upfront price, but still have a gnawing doubt in your mind that should something go pop you'd pay through the nose for it. Is that the case? Well, yes and no. Certain items are on the pricey side, items such as an alternator at around £375, a starter motor at £290 and an exhaust at nearly £400. Other bits aren't too bad at all. A new clutch assembly is about £110, a new radiator £195, one of those bug-eyed headlamps is around £95 and front brake pads are about £55 a pair. It's just something to factor into the equation when you compare the Wagon R+ with rivals.
On the Road
Very much a game of two halves. The early 1.0-litre and 1.2-litre Wagon R+ models are at home in the urban environment, but struggle on major roads. The second-generation 1.3-litre model is far more refined and accomplished, and makes longer journeys no great hardship. All manual models have crisp, light gearchanges, although the automatic gearbox exacts a stiff penalty on the already modest performance and should only really be specified if a good proportion of your time is going to be spent nose-to-tail. Handling is predictably roly-poly, but roadholding is pretty good. Much like the old Citroen 2CV, the upstanding Wagon R+ will lean over a very long way before it starts to slide. Few owners will subject their cars to such tactics, but its good to know that due to it's Weeble-like tendencies, the Wagon R+ might wobble but it won't fall down. The first-generation cars are noisy, with the 1.0-litre models making normal conversation impossible above 60mph. The 1.3-litre cars are predictably better, with good engine, if not wind, soundproofing.
Unless you plan to use the car solely for short-distance work in the urban sprawl and crawl, try to stretch for a 1.2-litre model. The added flexibility makes driving far easier. You may have to search quite hard to find the car you like, as the Wagon R+ is quite rare and there were some styling accessories of distinctly dubious appeal around. If you can find a nearly new 1.3-litre second-generation car, take it for a test drive. They're genuinely good fun, and you may become a convert. And the looks? Well, if you're on the inside.
Suzuki Wagon R+ (1997 - 2000) review by ANDY ENRIGHT