Teeny-Tiny Turbo Terrors: 1990 Suzuki Alto Works vs 1982 Honda City Turbo

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Good morning Autopians! It’s Friday, which means we blow the lid off the price cap and look at something nice for a change. I’ve got a pair of imported JDM sweet treats for you today, but first let’s find out how our high-milers ended up:

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Yep. I agree wholeheartedly. I already have a better and lower-mileage pickup than that F-150, so I’d take the Volvo and try for half a million on the odometer.

Today we’re going further afield than usual, only not really. Although both cars today are Japanese domestic market cars, both are already here in the good ol’ US of A, with all the paperwork completed. I was inspired to look at JDM cars after listening to this week’s excellent Autopian podcast, with guests Myron Vernis and Mark Brinker sharing their love of cars from the Land of the Rising Sun. I confess I don’t know a whole lot about Japanese cars; I didn’t grow up around them, and I’ve never been much of a video game player, so I wasn’t exposed to them virtually either. But I do love a good tiny hot hatch, so I’ve selected a pair of them for us to compare. Here they are.

1990 Suzuki Alto Works – $12,900

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Engine/drivetrain: 657cc DOHC turbocharged inline 3, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Ferndale, WA

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Yep

American gearheads are fascinated by Japanese “kei” cars – a special tax category of tiny cars in Japan that have to fit within certain size, engine displacement, and horsepower limits. Sadly, truly small cars have never really worked out in the US, so the “subcompacts” that Japan sends us are two or three sizes up from the smallest cars they keep for themselves. This Suzuki Alto is a full foot shorter, and six inches narrower, than the tiny Suzuki Cultus that was sold here as the Chevy Sprint.

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But look how cute it is! I even kinda like the “angry eye” headlight eyelids on this one. Who’s an adorable little badass? You are! Yes, you are!

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The Alto Works has the power to back up its cute-but-tough looks, with a 657 cc three-cylinder, sporting twin cams, four valves per cylinder, and a turbocharger. Officially, this little wonder produces 64 horsepower, the legal limit for kei-class cars, but rumor has it that it has more. It drives the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox; the Alto Works was available with all-wheel-drive, but this one is FWD only.

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This car has a few other add-on goodies, including a full roll cage and a racing seat. Someone was having some fun with this little guy back in Japan, I bet. The seller doesn’t list the odometer reading; it just says “total mileage unknown.” But does it matter? I mean, how are you going to cross-shop it?

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And look! A bi-level rear spoiler. Merkur XR4Ti, eat your heart out. I don’t think I’d want to daily-drive something this small in the US, but I really really want to play with it.

1982 Honda City Turbo – $12,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.2 liter SOHC turbocharged inline 4, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Seattle, WA

Odometer reading: 94,280 kilometers

Runs/drives? Indeed it does

Speaking of playing with things, I have been familiar with the Honda City Turbo since I was a kid. I built a Tamiya model kit of it when I was ten years old or so, complete with the folding Motocompo scooter in the back. Sadly, this City Turbo does not include a Motocompo, but it’s still a really cool little car.

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The Honda City is not a kei car; it’s too big and has an engine displacement nearly double what the regulations allow. It’s a 1.2 liter turbocharged four, sending a whopping 99 horsepower to the front wheels through a five-speed manual. The City weighs about 1,500 pounds; it has more than enough power for that weight. (In fact, some would say it could get by with half as much.)

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This City has cool aftermarket wheels and a nice Nardi wooden steering wheel, though the horn button appears to have an identity crisis. I’m sure a Honda logo button could be found to replace that blasphemous Toyota Racing Development one.

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This City isn’t perfect; it has a couple of dings and scrapes, and the interior is a little grubby. The driver’s seat has been re-covered, but unfortunately the new red upholstery doesn’t quite match, and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

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Still, the seller says it runs and drives well, and this one is just about big enough to actually use in traffic – about Ford Festiva-sized. It punches above its weight in the cool department, though.

Obviously, for most of us (including me), thirteen grand for a tiny car that’s just a glorified toy is kind of a pipe dream. But since they’re close in price, let’s just imagine you have the cash to blow on one of these. Which one will it be?


(Image credits: Suzuki – The Import Guys; Honda – Sodo Moto)

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60 Responses

  1. Honda: basket weave wheels, large TURBO graphics, Honda

    Suzuki: double spoiler, kei spec, ridiculous air inlets next to headlights, two tone paint job

    Both: asymmetric grille, silly tiny hot hatch

    *Brain explodes in indecision*

  2. OK OK to all the “cool kids”; Fine you wouldn’t spend $xxx for either car blah blah blah who frigging cares? The title of the post isn’t “tell us why you’re better than us” the title is Shitbox Showdown, where in people with normal egos and imagination go on a though exercise with Mercedes. It’s so boring to have to scroll though a half dozen “I wouldn’t give $10 for either” so move along, don’t get involved, waste your time elsewhere.

    That said because the Suzuki is in better condition, and new 100% the Alto, any power to weight issues can be cured with a motorcycle engine. The extra power of the Honda doesn’t make up for it’s general tattiness. Parts will always be a concern, so the new tidier Suzuki is the one.

  3. if I am going to have to buy something I can never hope to source parts locally, it make sense to buy the newer and arguably more likely to be reliable option. Suzuki Alto for me even though Suzuki quality is often hit or miss.

  4. Working the lot (washing/detailing/inventory move) at 2 lots for one dealership back in the early 90’s was my favorite scoot about…the manual Ford Festiva. The Honda being about the same size was all I needed to hear.
    I still kinda want one for a spare vehicle.

    1. Besides the same compact size, the City also has the same high hip-point as the Festiva, which made them both a gas to drive in the city back in the day, when most cars were low sedans. Honda engine for the win, though.

  5. I voted Honda, but it’s really close in my imaginary dilemma. Those Alto angry eyes are so comical on something so small here; it took every extra HP from the Honda to push me away. If the Suzi was AWD it’d win in a landslide.

    1. It was again exactly 301 to 301 before I broke the tie in favor of the Suzuki just now. Deservedly a close race, I think the Honda would be more practical here in the US but the double spoiler and generally better condition swung the Suzuki for me. Can’t really lose.

  6. Definitely the Suzuki – it looks more properly kei-car bonkers than the Honda. Plus, owning a City Turbo and NOT having a Motocompo to go with it would be a big let-down, and Motocompos have skyrocketed in price recently.

  7. I have driven in the UK many times and found it not too hard to adjust too, but I really hate driving on the wrong side of the road here. I was once given custody of a RHD E-type for a charity weekend to drive some VIPs around in. I just could not get comfortable sitting on the wrong side of the car in traffic. It’s sad, so many of these JDM cars look like they would otherwise be perfect for me.

    I really don’t like trucks, but a kei van or pickup would probably really make me happy. Especially if it existed in LHD and I could tune the engine up another 50HP or so. That would be fun.

  8. The Alto has character, the Honda looks like a box on wheels in comparison. You are not going to daily either one, so they are both for the novelty of it. The Suzuki has more novelty. As mentioned, an included MotoCompo could easily tip the scales.

  9. The unfortunate part of the 25-year law in the States is that people are asking silly money for old, questionable cars. There’s a guy one town away from me currently asking $19k for a 96 Nissan Stagea RS Four V, with 105k miles. I would say this is an example of silly money, but it really isn’t. RB25, auto trans, cleeeeeaaannnn car. Even though I’m totally not in the market, I wanna go look at it just so I can say I’ve seen one with my own eyeballs.

  10. Both were boy-racer-ed/ shadetree mechanic-ed – “hot air intake”, angry eyelids, crappy seat covers and a TRD steering wheel in a Honda – FFS! Both are CP ( but I love the wheels on the City)

  11. I kinda desperately want an Alto Works and plan on trying to get one next year, but the generation after this. On the other hand, the City Turbo is not the (imo) much better looking Turbo II. Both of these are a bit high, but not completely outside what I’d pay for one of these when they are already over here and ready to go.

    I’d go with the City Turbo, probably.

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