Suzuki Spacia Gear
The difference is in the details
Suzuki is known in Europe as a specialist in small cars. In Japan, it becomes clear how the brand gets that knowledge. Over there, so-called "kei cars" are very popular. With their minimal dimensions, modest engine power and ditto performance, they are eligible for tax breaks.
All Japanese passenger car manufacturers offer one or more kei-cars, but Suzuki even has a huge range! That starts with the everyday Alto and the endearing variant called Lapin. Next to that is the functional Wagon R, with the most remarkable model being the Spacia. There are restrictions on the length (340 cm), width (148 cm) and height (200 cm) of a kei-car. And that is where the Spacia goes a step further; at 180 cm, it is a very tall kei-car.
For this test we drove in Japan's Shizuoka region, where Suzuki's headquarters are located. A rural area like this is teeming with mini-cars and thus many still try to stand out within the bounds of the kei-car. And that is why the Spacia is now available as "Gear". While most kei-cars are mostly cute, the Spacia Gear opts for a different look with an adventurous livery.
The Gear can be recognised by two-tone paint, roof rails, a unique rear bumper and a front with a unique grille and wide beams. Because of its narrow and tall bodywork, the Spacia Gear is still not an impressive car, but it shows how details can make all the difference. Therefore, the outfit that turns an everyday Spacia into a Spacia Gear could well find its way into other models from Suzuki.
And inside, the Spacia Gear demonstrates a drive for innovation that indicates the direction Suzuki's designers are thinking. For instance, the Spacia Gear features convex mirrors in the a-pillar and above the rear window. This makes the angular bodywork even more uncluttered and allows for super precise parking.
Also very clever is the fan in the roof, which allows airflow to be directed to the rear. This solution is much cheaper than a rear air-conditioner and still offers extra refreshment to rear passengers at minimal extra cost. Not cheap, but very handy in practice: the Spacia Gear has electrically operated sliding doors on both sides for ample access to the rear seats.
Further features include keyless entry, a 360-degree parking camera, a full climate control system, head-up display, a stereo camera for the safety systems and, of course, an infotainment system. As usual in Japan, this offers television (sound only while driving, picture when the car is stationary) in addition to audio, communication and sat nav. This makes it clear that more and more higher-end luxury is finding its way into the smaller models.
Japanese like to use their car as a living room on wheels, which is why there are no separate seats in the front, but a cosy two-seater bench. Thanks to the Spacia's tall build, head and legroom in the front are generous and people of up to 2 metres fit comfortably.
And believe it or not: the same goes for the back seat! Thanks to the small wheels, the wheel arches take up little interior space. The rear seat is on rails and, thanks to the small wheel arches, those rails extend very far back. Both front and rear, the small Spacia is more spacious than the large SUVs used as family cars in Europe. Of course, the legroom in the rear comes at the expense of luggage space; this is virtually nil with the rear seats in the rear position.
The dashboard has two gloveboxes (although one of them is almost entirely filled by a CD-DVD player for sat nav) and cup holders in the far corners. There are compartments in the centre tunnel where, among other things, mobile phones can be placed when used with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Even in the armrest, storage space has been created to really make use of the last cubic centimetre of interior space. The European test driver was therefore able to effortlessly stow the not very modest luggage from the intercontinental flight.
The small wheels are the secret behind the huge interior space, but also determine the handling. Moreover, the Spacia is on small rims and so the tyres have high walls and this makes for less feeling in the steering. Together with its tall build and high centre of gravity, the Spacia tilts quite a bit in corners and the car almost forces a calm driving style.
This is not a problem in Japan, where speed limits are low. In town, the speed limit is 30 or 40 km/h, on rural roads 60 km/h and on the open road 80 km/h. At those speeds, the Spacia feels fine, but in Europe, the car would regularly be driven at the limit. On top of that, the Spacia is distinctly side-wind sensitive due to its tall build and that too would be more objectionable at European speeds.
According to kei-car standards, the Spacia Turbo has a 660cc engine delivering 64bhp. What makes the Spacia different is the fact that it is a (mild) hybrid. Energy is recovered during braking and coasting, which is clearly shown on a display near the speedometer (and, unfortunately, can also be clearly heard from a whistling noise). When the petrol engine has to work harder, the same on-board computer shows when the electric motor assists.
In practice, it is noticeable that the Spacia is completely tailored to Japanese traffic. The gearbox ratios have been chosen so that the engine runs best (and most economically!) at the most driven speeds. Although the Spacia is not a sprinter, higher speeds are also achieved and maintained effortlessly. For this test drive, a trip was made from the west coast of the province to the east coast and thanks to the hybrid assistance, the test consumption came to 4.7 litres per 100 km.
What makes the Suzuki Spacia Gear interesting for Europe? Basically, the Spacia is tailor-made for the Japanese market. The dimensions and technology were chosen to meet kei-car requirements in order to qualify for tax benefits. In fact, the technology used would be limiting (handling / performance) or unnecessarily expensive (miniaturisation) in Europe and therefore the Spacia would not be competitive outside Japan.
What makes the Spacia an interesting concept is the "packaging" with which Suzuki manages to extract downright stunning interior space from minimal exterior dimensions. In the process, the Spacia introduces new features (stereo camera, head-up display) that until now were reserved only for higher-end cars. Very handy are the extra mirrors, which make manoeuvring even easier. The roof fan is like Columbus' egg: so simple and effective that it is surprising no one else has come up with it before.
Finally, the style of the Spacia Gear may find its way into other Suzuki models. With relatively simple means, a cute car has become an adventurous car and that can only make a European model better.
- Incredibly spacious
- Crosswind sensitive
- Loud air conditioning that never stops