KEI HERO: Suzuki Alto Works

Poor America. We don’t even know how bad we have it. In the States, we think of hatchbacks as puny, minimally equipped tin cans that people buy because they can’t afford something better. Elsewhere in the world and especially in Japan, not only are the smallest of the small kei cars acceptable, they are desirable, deliver superior performance, and are packed with technology that would make actual sports cars of the era look like an oxcart. There was perhaps no better example of this phenomenon than the Suzuki Alto Works, the tiniest hot hatch. 

The 1970s birthed the hot hatch revolution, normal econoboxes with hotted up engines that, while usually on the slow side of the spectrum, were more fun than a barrel of monkeys. It was the whole “driving a slow car fast” proverb in action. Japan, where tiny cars were all the rage, took this to a whole new level, and by the 1980s, just about every hatchback had a performance variant.

Suzuki, which dominated the kei car market, of course had a kei hatchback, the very popular Alto. With a the hot hatch movement in its prime, they basically had no choice but to build it into a hot kei hatch. So, Suzuki took the Alto, gave it to the mad scientists at their performance department and said, “Have at it.”

It was from there that Suzuki released a SOHC intercooled turbocharged Alto Turbo in 1985. From there, it evolved a twin-cam variant, and in February 1987 it morphed into its ultimate boss form — the Suzuki Alto Works.

There were three trim levels The RS-S was the most basic model, the RS-X added options like aircon and a really awesome day glow pink-accented interior option. The king daddy RS-R added full-time AWD on top of that.

Each Alto Works featured the same bold aero kit, alloy wheels, spoiler, and (relatively) massive hood scoop. In case the bodywork wasn’t enough to set it apart, Suzuki also affixed a furlong of vinyl decals across any flat surface it could find, boldly announcing that this was, in fact, a Works car. Each feature had a separate sticker: fuel delivery, camshaft count, aspiration system, power delivery and trim level are all accounted for, in addition to two stripes that ran half the length of the door and boot lid. Even the defroster element let you know the car was twin-cammed and turbocharged.

That original Alto Works was powered by the F5A engine and made what would become the government mandated kei class maximum output of 63 horsepower. Brakes were four wheel disc units, and it featured performance-tuned suspension to boot. At the time, the Alto Works was regarded as the fastest kei car ever made.

Two years later, the Alto was due for a model generation update. This was the third-generation Alto and second generation of the Alto Works. Naturally, Suzuki carried forward the Alto Works. This time, instead of just an aero kit placed over a factory body, the Alto Works featured an entirely different front end with round headlights.

With an exterior glance the car was much more conservative. It still featured the asymmetric grille and hood scoop of the original, but replaced the wraparound wing with a mid-mounted spoiler. One of the more interesting designs of this model were the side windows that curved towards the roof.

Under the this skin it was no less bonkers than the original. This was also the first generation of the Alto Works to fall into the new 660cc kei limit that began in 1990, and Suzuki engineers upped output to 77 horsepower.

Unfortunately, because speed-crazy automakers had been constantly trying to outdo each other, the government put a stop to the escalating horsepower wars — kei cars were supposed to be cars of the people, after all. Coincidentally, the cap was 63 horsepower, exactly the previous Alto Works’ output, though the government did not publicly say this was the reason. That’s why despite the 20 percent increase in displacement, the second-gen Alto Works’ horsepower stayed the same.

That wasn’t going to stop Suzuki from making the car a cracker, though. It was one of the best performing kei cars of the era, and even today the F6A is widely considered the high point in Suzuki engine design. The car was a sensation in the kei car aftermarket, outshined only by the roadsters and mid-engined kei models it shared an engine with.

Speaking of that engine, to fully appreciate the Suzuki Alto Works we need to talk about the sensational 657cc F6A. The basics are that it’s a turbocharged, dual overhead 3-cylinder design, but it get’s even better when you dive into the technical aspects.

The F6A was just shy of a square bore-to-stroke ratio at 65.0 x 66.0 mm, and had a semi-closed engine block deck to keep cylinder movement to a minimum. To those of us who aren’t enthused by number crunching, that means that the engine is capable of safely revving to extreme engine speeds. Stratospheric redlines north of 9,500 rpm are commonplace among tuned F6As.

Unlike its successor, the F6A had an iron block, which allowed the block to handle whatever boost pressure was thrown at it. It was a perfect combination of attributes for an endlessly reliable and capable engine. It’s not unheard of for Alto Works to reliably produce 120 horsepower on street driven cars with not much beyond basic bolt-ons.

Beyond its incredible engine, the Alto Works was a properly sporty car. If the Civic SiR was a tiger, then this was a sand cat. It was the tiniest hot hatch you could get, but just as fierce as the big cats.

It’s ferocity was seen in Japanese domestic rally series, where it was a force to be reckoned with. While the majority of kei racing took place on tarmac, the little Alto Works was largely piloted off road, its AWD drivetrain making it into a tiny, competition-decimating LanEvo. Privateers piloted the Alto Works to success in their own endeavors as well, and there are a number of them still running in various time attack series to this day.

While the kei sports cars of the Bubble Era have long since been discontinued, the Alto Works lives on despite a short hiatus during the mid-2000s. Features like the asymmetric grille are a nod to the Works cars of old and it still retains some of the performance found in past models.

Today, although not as common as the hipster favorite AZ-1, the first two generations of Alto Works are very well appreciated. Even the third-gen, with its aluminum block and built from 1994-98, is still desirable (though not technically legal to import yet).

Examples are getting exported around the world, and even in the west where we never received the Alto, the car is quickly gaining a cult-like following, due largely to word-of-mouth and its appearance in games like Gran Turismo.

 

In Japan, the Alto Works is a beloved part of the country’s performance pantheon, as important as a Mini Cooper S. Mechanical bits are still readily available due to Suzuki’s parts-bin engineering, and there are still a handful of tuning companies making them faster.

Sadly, a car like the Alto Works is all but impossible today. It was brewed in a perfect storm of a bubble economy, technological know-how, and a genuine passion to built the craziest minicar on the planet. We will simply remember it as the time when Suzuki pulled every state-of-the-art engineering trick available, not in service of a supercar or luxury barge, but a hatchback that makes a Civic look like the USS John F. Kennedy.

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8 Responses to KEI HERO: Suzuki Alto Works

  1. Scotty G said:

    Fantastic history, Ryan! I’d still love to get a 1987 RS/R. I have passed up two of them in the last year – the first one that I was “sure” about ended up having a lot of flaking rust underneath, even on the shock towers. The second one had been repainted and it didn’t have the graphics. That’s like wanting a Dalmatian but just being offered a white one. No graphics, no sale. One of these days..

  2. Nigel said:

    Second only to the Honda City for me. If only I could bring a shipping container to Japan.
    (Or two…)

  3. Ant said:

    Love the look of that car on the Watanabes.

    While it might not have the same focus on engineering as the earlier cars, the Works is still very much alive and well in Japan. It still looks great too. And it’s still offered with a manual transmission. And some seriously nice Recaro seats, looking at Suzuki’s website.

    I think kei regulations have kept these kind of cars interesting. Restricting size and power is a pretty genius move for encouraging innovation – carmakers can’t simply keep making their cars bigger, heavier and more powerful in order to be appealing.

  4. Mazluce said:

    There an absolute riot to drive! When boost comes on it tasks off and with short gearing your in 5th in no time. It is a true pocket rocket!

  5. I love cars like These. Solid and simple base model, with engine and drivetrain from a (that area) supercar Kind. Just with less cylinders.

    See the Honda / Mugen City Turbo II, or the March SuperTurbo (turbo- & Supercharged).

    I wish they still would make cool cars today. but unfortunately even the Performance cars are boring These days. Huge horsepower numbers but nothing cool or simple about it and a Price tag that’s way off…

  6. WasabiCars said:

    I’m very much a fan of the Alto Works. Each gen impresses.

  7. Negishi no Keibajo said:

    Great article! I love reading about the Kei’s, especially here in the US where it’s not written about. Thank you!

  8. Suzukigeek said:

    Nice article. I am the proud owner of a 87 Suzuki Alto Works RSR and it is a pocket rally car. A future cult classic car.

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