REVIEW | The Toyota Starlet proves a winning recipe can always be improved

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  • Pricing starts from R226 200 for the Starlet 1.5 Xi manual.       
  • The first-generation model was introduced locally in 2020, albeit a carbon copy of the Suzuki Baleno.     
  • It is powered by a 1.5-litre engine with outputs of 77kW and 138Nm. 

Let's get this out of the way even though most people might already know by now: the Toyota Starlet is a Suzuki Baleno with a different badge, just like the Urban Cruiser and Rumion models are – compared to the Vitara Brezza and Ertiga, respectively. Toyota and Suzuki joined forces a while back and agreed on a model that works and suits both parties just fine. The Baleno and Starlet are built at the same plant and are very close in pricing in the local market. 

The first-generation Starlet was introduced locally in 2020 and bathed itself in massive sales success. The new model is barely six months old, and many of them are already taking up space (in a good way) on the road. 

Toyota Starlet

Baleno, Starlet, same thing 

Not to throw any shade on Suzuki's parade (even though their cars are the same), but the main reason the Starlet outsells the Baleno is that Toyota has a substantially larger brand-loyal customer base in South Africa. Not to mention a bigger footprint, with more than 200 dealerships around the country, than Suzuki's growing 84 dealers. To put this into perspective, Toyota sold 839 Starlets in October, while Suzuki moved 233 Baleno models. 

Toyota is seemingly the better brand because of its customer base and a higher value trade-in percentage, and they've been around since 1962. Customers stick to what they know, but they are also getting to know what Suzuki is about since Toyota has chosen to piggyback off its vehicles.

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The model we've had on test was the top-specced Xr priced at R313 300, while pricing for the entire range starts from R226 200 for the Xi manual.

Where Suzuki only has the GL and GLX trim levels for the Baleno, Toyota has three with the Xi, Xs and Xr. The new-age Baleno launched earlier this year, and the expectation was that everything would be the same. That is pretty much the case with the Starlet – bar a couple of standouts. 

Starting from the outside, the Starlet has a more aggressive-looking bumper featuring a C-shaped outer chrome fog light trim, sleeker headlights (LED dependent on grade), a lower honeycomb grille and what Toyota describes as a chrome 'brow' between the headlights. The Xr derivative comes with full LED headlights and fog lights. It also sits pretty on 16-inch alloy wheels, and electric folding mirrors are thrown in the mix. 

Toyota Starlet

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You'd have to really be up close from the rear to know whether it sports a Suzuki or Toyota badge because the rear ends are the same. 

There's nothing unique about the interior besides the Toyota badge on the (leather-wrapped) steering wheel and Starlet-emblazoned mats. Other than that, you'd think it's a Baleno because even the steering wheel design is the same. What you do get with the Xr by way of convenience and safety features is comprehensive. 

Besides the usual ABS with brake assist, EBD, you also get rear Park Distance Control, Hill Assist Control and Vehicle Stability Control as standard. The fun doesn't stop there - six airbags (side, curtain, driver, passenger), Smart Entry, Push Start and Cruise Control and a six-speaker system complete the list. 

The boot space of 314 litres is generous and can be increased to 1 057 litres with the rear seats folded flat. As a bookmark, that is bigger than the Volkswagen Polo Vivo GT's boot, with a capacity of 280 litres. 

Toyota Starlet
2020 Toyota Starlet

What's under the bonnet? How does it drive? 

The powertrain comprises a naturally aspirated 1.5-litre engine, replacing the previous model's 1.4-litre unit. The increase in displacement means more power by 9kW and 8Nm, respectively, amounting to a total power output of 77kW and 138Nm. The engine can be paired to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, which translates to fuel consumption figures of 5.4-litres (manual) and 5.7-l/100km (automatic model). The test unit made do with a four-speed auto. 

Let's dig into the dessert first. The hatch is a treat for everyday driving. You get used to the car very quickly. It is typically Japanese, where the light switch controls are on the steering column, whereas most cars have a separate turning switch on the lower right side. All you need to see and know is right before you, courtesy of the multi-information display. 

The great thing from behind the wheel is that you are in control of everything, from the 23cm infotainment screen (with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto interface) to the various climate control buttons. Sometimes basic is better than over-the-top features with intricate tech, which is often best left to more premium offerings. 

Now for the veggies. I had a gripe with third gear, in particular, that drags out a bit too long to as far as 3 500rpm, making the engine sound strained or over-revved at times when applying pressure on the throttle. A Toyota technician I spoke to says the ratios are set up like that to compensate for the 'missing' gear – being fifth. In that case, there is also the option of a five-speed manual, though you obviously lose the convenience of driving with one foot. 

Though Suzuki has the cheaper package – the top-specced Baleno GLX is priced at R301 900 – Toyota will always have a customer's credit in the bank, which counts for a lot. People know what they are getting. Look at it from a different perspective, people are essentially buying a Suzuki, but in this case, it's all about the 'T' badge on the bonnet. 

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