The Suzuki Swift hatch holds a special place in the hearts of Australian drivers, especially those who remember the peppy little GTi version last seen in 1999.
With the blink-and-you'll-miss-it-new-model Swift update in 2010, fans were disappointed that the GTi still wasn't back on the list. For now, the Swift Sport is about as close to a GTi as Suzuki is likely to get. So is it convincing enough to coax buyers into its brick-like body?
Priced from $23,990, the Swift Sport is $4000 more than the Swift GLX and a stout $6000 more than the faux-sporty RE.2. That extra cash buys you an upgrade from the 1.4 litre to the 1.6 litre VVT engine, a host of interior and exterior upgrades and a series of very effective chassis tweaks.
The interior scores a six-speaker CD audio system with remote controls on the steering wheel, USB and Bluetooth phone and music streaming. You also get cruise control, headlight washers and keyless entry and start. The HID headlights are excellent, which was a pleasant surprise. An unpleasant surprise was the obnoxious beeping when the car is locked or unlocked.
Hyundai's Veloster is the closest competitor philosophically and financially. The lack of proper rear access and the challenging looks play against the Hyundai, but it’s better-equipped and runs the Swift respectably close for road ability. The Veloster starts at an identical $23,990 and also has a double-clutch transmission option.
Ford's Fiesta Zetec is down on power and torque and goes without the sportier chassis tune the Swift has, but is $3000 cheaper. The Fiesta's lower price you with some spare change to spend on the lengthy options list which includes the Powershift DCT double-clutch transmission. Both these cars best the Swift Sport's bizarre optional $2000 CVT auto with seven fake steps built in for the benefit of paddle-shifter fans.
The 1.6-litre VVT develops 100kW of power and 160Nm of torque with the aid of variable valve timing. The six-speed manual manages 6.5l/100km on the combined cycle but is a little better on a steady freeway run. We saw 6.1l/100km in a mix of city stop-start driving, back road blasting and some freeway work. The chassis is a livelier package than the non-Sport Swifts, courtesy of re-tuned dampers and stiffer springs front and rear.
The Swift's cheery face has been with us for two years, but in reality it's very similar to the car that preceded it -- which debuted eight years ago at Paris motor show. The current Swift grew in every direction but kept the same visual formula. It's a pleasingly chunky, upright shape and with the bigger wheels looks like a brightly-coloured Pixar-styled bug ready to leap into action, far more so than its under-wheeled brethren.
On the Sport, you'll find deeper front and rear bumpers, side skirts, 17-in alloys, foglamps and a wing over the tailgate. The detailing on the Sport's ostensibly aero-related improvements give the car a more sporting, aggressive character -- you'll not mistake it for a lesser-equipped sibling. Inside is a big improvement over the lower models, with sports front seats and leather steering wheel. The slightly ill-fitting, scratchy plastics remain -- as does that haunting suspicion that something will start squeaking because the materials are so hard.
As with the rest of the Swift range, the high roof is perfect for really tall people or those who like to wear their hair metro-gel high. The boxy, upright styling delivers a lot of cabin space, which is maximised by high-set rear seats. Shoulder room front and rear is hardly galactic and you may knock elbows while shifting gears. The boot looks ludicrously small when you first pop the tailgate. There's a false floor, but that extra space doesn't go a long way to making it a serious proposition.
The Swift is packed with safety gear - ABS, front, side and curtain airbags as well as a knee bag for the driver. Stability and traction control are standard, as is brake force distribution and emergency brake assistance, helping the Suzuki to its 5-star ANCAP rating.
It takes a while to warm to the Swift. The manual gearbox is notchy and noisy, almost to the point of obstructive. A light touch is needed for a clean shift but the clunk-clunk-clunk is a little tiring. The clutch is light and the bite point could be anywhere, you can't really feel it. The electric steering is devoid of life, but quick and well-weighted.
Despite the promise of the twin exhausts poking through the rear bumper, the noise isn't hugely inspiring and you begin to wonder what the fuss is about. Once you're moving, the car's dynamic ability quickly becomes apparent. Even though the ride is comfortable, the front end is super sharp, no doubt helped by a set of grippy 195/45 Bridgestone RE050s wrapped around 17-inch alloys.
Nothing beats physics like a light kerb weight, something other manufacturers have taken a while to grasp. The Swift's 1060kg is 50kg lighter than the old model and lighter than most of its competition, making it agile and eager to change direction. We might, however, forgive a little more weight if it went to noise and vibration suppression - tyre roar is intrusive at high speed on anything but the smoothest surface and the pedals buzz more than we'd like.
The 100kW power figure is adequate, but the 160Nm of torque is firmly at the bottom end of acceptable, forcing you to work the gearbox on even modest inclines. The torque arrives at 4400rpm, meaning you need to keep the needle pointing north by north-east to get the best out of the engine. It revs cleanly and happily, but you'll not want to stray too close to the redline as the engine runs out of puff and starts to thrash a bit.
While getting up to speed can be a bit of a chore and won't trouble your neck muscles, keeping that pace is a genuine hoot. The Swift can be flung at corners at quite high speeds and it will hang on gamely before gentle understeer sets in, easily sorted with a lift of the throttle. The grip is surprising and while the chassis is moving around underneath you, it's never unnerving and always letting you know what's going on between each tyre and the road.
The whole time the car stays remarkably flat and resists being knocked off-line by mid-corner bumps. The strong brakes never seem to give up, despite them looking tiny behind the big wheels. Again, the steering doesn't talk to you, but the chassis itself gives you plenty to go on with. Once you're past the apex of a corner, it almost begs you to get back on the throttle – and it promises to be a riot on the track.
It feels a lot like the true spiritual successor to the original Mini, a fun car for drivers on a budget. Suzuki themselves were on a budget and choosing to put their effort into the chassis rather than chasing steering feel or a snick-snick gearbox to please the purists was the right choice.
You could complain that the Swift is no GTi and that it needs more power, but that's missing the point. The comparatively low power and torque figures means the chassis will never be overwhelmed and it puts the driver in charge of the car, gets you involved and thinking ahead about gearshifts and braking. You'll hardly ever see the traction control light blinking at you.
It shares little of the high-tech features its main competition enjoys and will have a harder job if Renault ever makes good on its unspoken threats and finally releases the Renaultsport Twingo. While lagging a bit on power and gear, the Swift is bags of fun once you're moving and the softness in its character means it is never hyperactive around town, its most likely habitat.
It won't replace the Swift GTi in our hearts, but the combination of five doors, excellent handling and mechanical simplicity means the Swift Sport stands on its own as a budget sportster you can live with.
Suzuki Swift Sport
Price: from $23,990
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Safety rating: 5-star ANCAP
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cyl petrol 100kW/160Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual, FWD
Body: 3.9m (L); 1.7m (w); 1.5m (h)
Thirst: 6.5L/100km; 98 RON; 153g/km CO2