1st generation (SS30/40)
The 1st generation (SS30V/40V), introduced in May 1979, was a 3-door cargo version of the Fronte passenger car, equipped with a folding rear seat. On introduction, the Alto received the T5B two-stroke 539 cc (SS30) three-cylinder engine, producing 28 PS (21 kW) at 5,500 rpm. The Alto was a "micro sensation" when introduced, largely due to its rock bottom price of ¥470,000 (circa $1,900 in 1979, at a time when the cheapest Ford Pinto cost $4,999). This bargain price was made possible by a number of Japanese special concessions for commercial vehicles: The engine did not require twin catalysts, unlike in the Fronte. Two less doors provided another saving, as did the exemption from commodity tax. The Alto was a sensation, and other producers such as Subaru (with the "Family Rex") quickly followed suit.
In January 1981, the F5A four-stroke 543 cc known from the Fronte was also installed (though with only a single-barrel carburettor), it too put out 28 PS (21 kW) but at 6,000 rpm. Torque was considerably lower, down from 5.3 to 4.2 kg·m (52 to 41 N·m; 38 to 30 lb·ft). 1981 saw also the year that it became available on the United Kingdom market, as Suzuki began selling cars there that year.
In export markets, the Alto name was used for the passenger car versions (chassis codes with trailing letter "S") as well as on commercials (ending in"V"), while the van was marketed as the "Suzuki Hatch" in Australia. The four-doors were not proper hatchbacks, only featuring an opening rear window. Export cars were also available with twelve-inch wheels, unlike the domestic versions which only used ten-inch units until the introduction of the 4WD version in October 1983. The 4WD "Snow Liner" thus gained an extra 2.5 cm (1 in) of ground clearance.
While Suzuki held on to the two-stroke engine concept for a half decade longer than any of its Japanese competitors, eventually market pressures and ever tightening emissions regulations spelled its end in the Alto by September 1981. The Jimny, however, did use the same 539 cc engine (called LJ50 in the Jimny) as late as 1987.
2nd generation (CA71)
The 2nd generation (CA71) was introduced in September 1984. It continued with the SS40's F5A engine, but also became available with turbocharged and multi-valve engines thereof, mainly in the "Works" series. In December 1984 a 4-wheel-drive version (CC71) was added. Performance versions of the Alto first appear in 1985 when a turbocharged engine was made available. It gradually acquired more performance-related modifications until the Works version was introduced in February 1987. The Alto Works was the first kei-car to reach the legal limit of 64 PS (47 kW). It acquired considerable popularity, with models of it still made by Fujimi. A 5-door body (identical to the Fronte's) became available in October 1985.
In July 1986 the CA/CC71 became the CA/CC72 after a rather thorough facelift. New wraparound headlights, a new dash and interior heralded the new ITL rear suspension (Isolated Trailing Link), a three-link rigid setup. A "Walkthrough Van" was introduced in January 1987, while at the other end of the spectrum, the personal coupé Cervo on the CA/CC72 base was introduced in 1988 with a new 547 cc F5B engine. In August 1987, higher spec Altos became available with a 3-speed automatic rather than the 2-speed they had been using before.
The 796 cc, 40 hp (30 kW) F8B-engined CA/CB91 was sold in Europe with either a 4-speed manual or 2-speed automatic transmission. Export Altos were technically speaking Frontes, as this was the name used for passenger versions in Japan. They received larger bumpers, making them 105 mm (4.1 in) longer and 10 mm (0.4 in) wider. European Altos received the same facelift as the CA/CB72 did in January 1988, unveiled at the Brussels Motor Show. This model remained in production (latterly by Maruti Udyog) for the European market until 1993, when it was replaced by an also Maruti-built 1-litre version of the Cervo Mode.
India and Pakistan
This generation of the Alto/Fronte still remains in production in India and Pakistan. While the Indian Maruti 800 version utilizes a 796 cc MPFI F8B engine, the Pakistani Suzuki Mehran still uses the 1980s era carburated version.
In 1988 production began in China, in cooperation with Chang'an Motors. The Chang'an Suzuki SC7080 Alto was produced with the same F8B engine as used in other export markets, and was replaced by the facelifted SC7081 Alto/City Baby/Little Prince/Happy Prince in 2001. The top of the Line Happy Prince, discontinued in 2007, used the sportier looking front bumper, grille, and bonnet of the Alto Works. Citing lower sales, Chang'an ended production of the old Alto in July 2008, although other manufacturers continue to offer it.
Another version called JN Auto is built by Jiangnan since 1992 and is still in production for the Chinese, Central and South American markets, although now it is called the 'Zotye JN Auto'. As of Dec, 2010 Zotye's Jiangnan Alto is the cheapest car in the world, with a tag price of $2,830. The entry-level model comes with the 796 cc F8B three-cylinder 36 PS (26.5 kW). A four-cylinder with a displacement of 1,051 cc and an output of 52 PS (38.5 kW) is also available. A version of the Jiangnan Alto was assembled until 2005 in Tunisia for African markets, labelled "Peugeot JN Mini".