Cheap and cheerful is an oft-used phrase, but very rarely is it true. Cheap food often tastes like cardboard, cheap clothes itch, and cheap cars are usually joyless rattletraps; the auto equivalent of dishwashers on wheels. Mercifully, some cars manage to buck the trend – cars like the delightful Suzuki Ignis. It doesn't cost much, and it's not particularly luxurious, but this funky helmet-on-wheels never failed to brighten our day.

It's hard to nail down what's so appealing about the little Ignis, but just taking a look is a start. Put your turtlenecks on, it's time to talk styling. Although the car looks like a proper compact crossover in pictures, it's more like a pre-teen tottering around in her older sister's high heels. It majors in avoiding driveway scrapes and curb strikes that would cripple carelessly driven rivals, but we wouldn't suggest trying to go much further than that.

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Regardless of ride height, the cutesy face and SS20 Cervo-inspired tail make the Ignis stand out from the crowd. It isn't trying to be luxurious or serious, and that gives it instant charm. Contrasting mirror caps, roof finishes and headlight surrounds are all available if you've got a burning desire to make the car stand out, too.

Power comes from a naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine with 66 kW (88 hp) of power and 120 Nm (89 ft.lb) of torque. Just to be clear, the official scientific term to describe that amount of power is not much. Base models put their power to the road through a five-speed manual, but our higher-spec GLX ran with a continuously-variable transmission instead.

Unlike conventional gearboxes, CVT systems aren't made up of individual gears. Instead, they manipulate power through a pulley system capable of endlessly changing the effective gear ratio. Rather than pulling from idle through to redline, changing gear and doing it all again, cars with a CVT can maintain constant revs under acceleration, backed by a droning noise that could be mistaken for a slipping clutch. We'd much rather a manual.

Performance in the Ignis is on par for a small car. It picks up strongly off the line and doesn't struggle to keep up with highway traffic, although you need to give the throttle a decent jab to wake the powertrain at a cruise. The naturally aspirated engine can sound a bit raspy when you drop the foot, but the powertrain is surprisingly refined most of the time. Forget refinement and performance, though, efficiency is the real point here. Suzuki claims 4.9 l/100km (48 mpg) on the combined cycle, and we averaged a respectable 6.5 l/100km (36 mpg) in our week driving in heavy traffic.

Around town, a tight 9.4-meter (31-ft) turning circle and excellent visibility make piloting the Ignis through traffic a breeze. The steering feels a little bit slow compared to the high-geared, fingertip-friendly setups you find in some other superminis, but it doesn't take too much effort to slip into tight parking spaces or dodge and weave through the chaos. Like in the Citroen Cactus we drove last year, the driver and passenger sit in soft, welcoming armchairs. They feel like a warm hug from that fat aunty you see at Christmas every year.

Just like the exterior, there are a few neat quirks inside the Ignis. It's much more colorful than the average supermini, with little contrasting touches on the air vents, arm rests and transmission tunnel, and the plastic door/dash trim is finished in white. Some of the cabin plastics feel cheap, but that doesn't change the fact this is a light, airy space that still manages to feel a bit special.

Back seat space is surprisingly good, but the sliding, folding rear bench only is only designed to accommodate two passengers. We're not sure why Suzuki has decided to make this a four seater, but it's something worth considering if you often use the full five seats. That middle seat in most small cars may not be comfortable but it's better than nothing for short trips. Moving further back, the deep boot holds 270 liters (9.5 cu.ft) with the rear seats in place, and 1100 liters (39 cu.ft) when they're folded away.

It might look basic on the outside, but the Suzuki Ignis adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. The cutesy styling, willing powertrain and versatile interior make for a compact car that never fails to put a smile on your face. It might be cheap, but the Ignis is also unashamedly cheerful.

Pricing for the Ignis kicks off at AU$16,000. Like the Vitara Turbo we loved so much, it won't be sold in America – Suzuki pulled out of the market last year.

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