Toyota and Suzuki take badge engineering next level with shockingly similar results

You should know by now that the new Toyota Starlet is nothing more than a rebadged Suzuki Baleno. The truly astounding fact is that in spite of three badges, a grill and some touchscreen graphics, those cars are pretty much identical. And in these two test units, it even goes right down to the third letter of their registration plates. The game of spot the difference got even better once we’d strapped our test kit to them. There basically isn’t any…


Before we get down to brass tacks and that blue touch paper, allow us to indulge you in a little history. Suzuki first suggested its future B-segment hatchback in the 2014 iK-2 concept. It soon heralded the all-new Baleno and was the first car to be powered by Suzuki’s new turbo litre petrol Boosterjet engine overseas.

Longer, wider and lower than the Swift, Baleno rides on Suzuki’s latest TECT high-tensile steel strengthened platform. Sporting MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension, it has an electrically assisted power steering. And ABS, EBD and assist braking and stability control. The car that reached South Africa late in 2016 deployed the more agricultural old school 68 kW 130 Nm 1.4-litre also used in Suzuki’s Swift, Ertiga and Ciaz.

We were suitably impressed when we tested the Baleno early the following year. Acceleration proved considerably quicker than claimed, we readily met its fuel consumption and range claims and we were impressed by its quiet ride, solid feel and quality finishes. Baleno quietly went on to provide a few South Africans with a great transport solution.


Suzuki can be proud of its efforts over the twelve years since the car brand re-launched here and the company is to be commended on breaking the 2000 cars sold barrier a few months back. Suzuki builds splendid little cars. So whoever sold the deal to Toyota, did a brilliant job.

See, Toyota and Suzuki just as quietly joined forces about a year ago. Suzuki wanted hybrid and autonomous tech and Toyota liked the idea of slapping its badges on some market-leading compact Suzukis. And Starlet is the first spawn of said union in this market. So now rather than shipping 50 cars down the spice route to Durban, Maruti Suzuki sends thousands of cars to Africa every month.

Good business? You bet!


So, this ‘brand new’ Toyota Starlet is actually a Suzuki Baleno in drag. It brings an old Toyota badge to this market for the first time, to open a new South African motoring chapter. Big for a Suzuki and small for Toyota, it fills a pretty big pair of shoes too. See, the Starlet replaces the runaway Toyota Etios, which commanded a quarter of its segment through its decade tenure.

As a Toyota, Starlet builds impressively on the Etios’ pillars of performance, economy and value. And adds a big dose of style, space and spec. Besides the Toyota badges, grille and trim, for the rest, you know the drill. Just re-read the sixth paragraph up and apply it all here. Toyota also reminds us that Starlet (and obviously Baleno) can tow a one ton braked trailer.

Both cars look the part — the inly real difference besides those bagdes, are the grilles. They sit between identical handsome LED daylight running headlights, but we did notice the Suzuki’s seemed brighter. Are we dreaming or is there really a difference? They share the same front fog lamps and roof spoiler to add to a their cloned, swooping but pleasing allure. They even have the same little alarm warning stickers on the rear quarter windows!


This pair — the respective Baleno GLX and Starlet Xr manual flagships, share the identical and most impressive spec too. Access to both the spacious and people friendly climate-controlled cabins is by remote central locking. Or just touch the cloned buttons on the bold chrome door handles with the key in your pocket.

Now here’s a thing. We drove both cars often in their time with us and I was the champion of getting to the right car with the wrong key. Were these cars making subliminal suggestions?

Settle in behind the chunky telescopic tilt-adjustable electric power multifunction leather steering wheels and you’re greeted by a really cool set of analogue and digital instruments.They’re cloned too. As are the adequately adjustable and comfortable front seats. There’s literally acres of space in both too and the rear cabins are just as spacious with 60/40 split folding benches for versatile loading and there’s privacy glass and 12-volt outlets to boot.


Both have all four power windows with one-touch operation for the driver, along with indicator repeater power wing mirrors. But hang on a second — we have found a difference! The bright, clear, legible and simple to operate multi-info displays sit in the same spot atop the centre dash and both include the same Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, CD, Bluetooth, USB, Aux and 6-speaker audio.

But each has its own graphic display design. One of us liked the bright Toyota look, another the darker Suzuki and a third was nonplussed. There’s also a reverse camera and park distance control. They both work the same though and we’d happily say they share he honour of being the cream of the entry car infotainment crop.

Both cars also pack an impressive safety spec with driver, passenger, curtain and side airbags, two ISOFIX child restraint anchor points and a security system. And the difference in display is probably down to the MyToyota App Wi-Fi hotspot telematics app that comes with 15 gigs free data to help manage your Starlet via the web. That’s likely also why there’s a three grand difference in price between them…


The Toyota Starlet 1.4 Xr manual comes in at R263K, a grand dearer than the Suzuki Baleno 1.4 GLX. The Toyota gets a 3-service or 45 000 km plan at 15 000 km intervals and a 3-year 100 000 km warranty, which is precisely the same guarantee the Baleno comes with. But the Suzuki has a more traditional and seemingly longer 4 year 60 000 km service plan. Horses for courses?

Both cars fire up at the prod of their Start buttons to bring those rorty 1400s to life. Clutch action is easy and gear selection a cinch — there’s no difference between them either. And both cars delivered all but identical performance — just a couple of thousandth’s of a second separated them on our runs conducted a few minutes apart on the same stretch of tarmac. Which we suppose is pretty much what we should expect.

There’s no tangible difference between these two on the road, either. Both are solid and silent, handling is sweet and road holding positive. And both pack cruise control to make country driving a pleasure.


It is very difficult to criticise either of these fine cars, besides the fact that they take badge engineering to a whole new level. That also helps to understand why Toyota went this route to replace the Etios. This car is a giant leap forward over the Toyota that the Starlet replaces. Which is of course also giant kudos to Suzuki. And a really fine game of spot the difference too.

That’s because there’s hardly is any difference at all. And that makes the game all the more challenging!. — Michele Lupini

Images — Giordano Lupini

Car             Suzuki           Toyota
Model           Baleno 1.4 GLX   Starlet 1.4 Xr
Engine:         1.4-litre        1.4-litre 
                petrol I4        petrol I4
Output:         68 kW 130 Nm     68 kW 130 Nm 
Drive:          5-speed          5-speed
                Manual FWD       Manual FWD
0-60km/h:       3.97             3.99sec
0-100km/h:      9.35 sec         9.37 sec
0-160km/h:      27.67 sec        27.64 sec
400m:           16.5 sec         16.5 sec
Terminal Speed: 132 km/h         132 km/h
80-120km/h:     6.97 sec         7.01 sec
120-160km/h:    14.54 sec        14.66 sec
VMax:           175 km/h         175 km/h
Fuel:           5.1 l/100km      5.1 l/100km
CO2:            120 g/km         120 g/km
Warranty:       3y 100K km       3y 100K km
Service:        4y 60K km        3-service 45K km
LIST PRICE:     R259K            263K
RATED:          8                8
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