FIRST DRIVE: Suzuki Swift Sport
The Suzuki Swift has always been admired. Phil Huff finds out if the latest model deserves to be loved...
Along with almost every motoring journalist I know, I loved the outgoing Suzuki Swift Sport. I adored its peppy character, its practicality and its honesty. I could even forgive its distinctly low-rent interior, mostly because it was a very cheap car. Yes, the Ford Fiesta ST was always the better car, it was also a far more expensive one, a fact that cleared the way for the little Suzuki to claim the made-up title of Best Budget Hot-Hatchback.
But times move on and the Swift has inevitably been forced to move with it. For a start, 1.6-litre engine of the old car has been swapped for a smaller, 1.4-litre unit with a turbocharger bolted on. The Boosterjet engine, which made its debut appearance in the Vitara, isn’t going to set the world alight with its 138bhp but that is 4bhp more than the engine it replaces and, more importantly, it now has less weight to haul around. The new Swift Sport weighs just 975kgs, which is a whopping 65kgs less than the car it replaces. Crucially, it’s a massive 308kg lighter than the Fiesta...
It has five doors now too, rather than just the three of the older model, and the rear door handles are neatly hidden away, retaining the illusion of a sportier three-door car. Six colours are available, including Champion Yellow, exclusive to the Sport version of the Swift range.
The interior is now much more up-market and the front seats now actually provide good lateral support, as well as sitting you lower in the car. The Swift Sport is only available in one trim level, but that’s fine because it is loaded with kit, much of which would be optional extras in its rivals. The specification includes Android Auto, satellite navigation, climate control, keyless entry, parking sensors, LED headlights with high beam assist, and 17-inch alloy wheels as standard. More importantly, you also get (over sensitive) automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, a (hugely irritating) weaving/drowsiness monitor, advanced pedestrian detection, and radar cruise control. This safety kit boosts the Swift up from a three-star to a four-star EuroNCAP safety rating, which is reassuring.
But this equipment comes at a cost, which brings us to the elephant in the room. While the old model undercut the Ford Fiesta by several thousand pounds, the new one doesn’t. In fact, a Swift Sport will set you back £17,999, which is just £1,000 less than Ford is asking for its new Fiesta ST. Of course, the Swift is the more generously optioned of the two but that significant price advantage has vanished.
As has a little bit of the fun. The old Swift Sport was a real hoot to drive on twisty back roads but the new one feels a bit less lively, a bit less chuckable. It’s still enormously entertaining - and a whole lot more civilised and refined - but it is a bit less, well, fun. Driving it along some sensational mountain roads outside Dublin, followed by a few laps of Mondello Circuit, showed that while it was satisfyingly quick, it did feel a little numb at times.
Third is your go-to gear for making rapid progress along the sort of B-roads which the Swift Sport excels; the engine’s broad torque curve means you only need to snatch second for the tightest of bends and the 6,000 rpm redline means you’ll be travelling at licence threatening speeds before you run out of revs in third, making it surprisingly easy to cover ground. But that’s almost like driving an automatic, something that’s not involving when you really want to be involved.
The suspension is excellent, and balances compliance with precision very well - the engineers should be congratulated for getting the springing and damping so well-tuned. Suzuki says the team tried more than 100 spring/damper combinations before settling on the final production settings and it shows. Few hot-hatches ride as well as this, something that shouldn’t underestimated on our terribly potholed roads.
The steering takes some getting used to. The trend for bigger tyres and stiffer suspension and steering means you expect to need to manhandle it into every turn, but it actually requires a degree of finesse to extract the most from it. A delicate touch, fingers holding lightly to the wheel, will get the car darting across the tarmac enthusiastically, which then allows you to extract the most from the chassis. Brake hard and the back end will swing round, something that’s easy to catch with almost instinctive reactions, but you need to reprogram your brain from the electronics-limited heavy-footed approach of its rivals.
And when you do get the most out of it, you lose a little bit of the fun of driving. It’s more akin to passing an exam, with a sense of satisfaction rather than outright pleasure. A little bit of the magic that endeared it to so many of us has gone.
And yet I came away thinking that the Suzuki could find a place in my heart - and garage. It’s an undemanding companion that it just as happy in the city as it is on the track. Sure, there are faster, more focussed hot-hatchbacks out there but I doubt that many would worm their way under the skin like this one does. Suddenly £17,999 seems a little more reasonable, and the elephant turns into the new Fiesta ST. With an extra 59bhp to play with, the Fiesta is undoubtedly quicker that the Suzuki, but it’s heavier and loaded with electronic gadgets to handle the power. Right now you can save £1,000 on the Swift Sport, and you really need to spend more than the starting price on a Fiesta ST, leaving a £3,000 or so gap between the rivals.
The Fiesta ST is the better car, but the Swift Sport's value could just swing the balance in its favour.
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