It sometimes feels like the Fun Police are everywhere. Any wheeled activity remotely titillating or exciting these is probably expensive, inaccessible, or liable to get you arrested. But don’t worry Autopians. As your resident rebel-without-a-clue I have just the antidote: an budget thrill ride that proves all is not yet lost. A car that will have you making handbrake turns straight back to 1993.
I was never into hot hatchbacks when I first started driving. My mates and I hailed from dirt poor east London, so our religion was cheap RWD Fords. But if I had access to a Suzuki Swift Sport back then, I can confidently say Friday nights there’d be a McDonalds chocolate milkshake in the cupholder, ‘Leave Home’ by the Chemical Brothers would be blaring out the stereo on repeat, and I’d have it on three wheels lapping an Essex town center one way system. One hand across the steering wheel with a thumb hooked through a spoke, the other hovering between gear knob and handbrake. It’s just that kind of car.
In the ’80s and ’90s family shopper hatches announced their performance credentials with chunky alloys, flashy red trim and badges denoting what flavor of power increase they had under the bonnet – sixteen valves, fuel injection or a turbo. In these eco-conscious times, such brashness just won’t do. The Swift Sport takes a much more acceptable and oh so twenty first century approach – it’s now a mild hybrid.
A Swift Bit of History
In one form or another, the Swift has been around since 1983. According to the dreaded Wikipedia, the project originated at GM as the M-car. GM being their usual hapless selves thought they wouldn’t make any money on the little car, so passed it to Suzuki in exchange for five percent of the Japanese company. Sold as the Cultus in Japan, GM versions were sold in North America as the Chevrolet Sprint, Pontiac Firefly and in Australia as the Holden Barina.
The second-generation Swift arrived in 1989 and was everything everywhere all at once. The global manufacture and marketing of where it was built and what names it was sold under worldwide is too tedious to go into here, but what’s important is that it tip-toed onto US soil as the Geo Metro.
With a lowercase i to distinguish it from the Golf, which VW were pissed about, the little Swift GTi was always on the undercard compared to the main event Peugeot 205 and 309 GTIs, the Golf GTI, Astra GTE, and of course the Escort XR3i. Its virtues of a lower purchase price, smaller size and lighter weight to made up for its lack of outright grunt and prestige. Golf aside, none of those other heavy hitters survived the great hot hatch massacre of the mid-nineties, rising insurance rates smiting them a death blow the same way they did for muscle cars twenty-five years earlier.
You can’t keep a decent hatch down. In 2004, the Swift was reintroduced as a totally new model that owed nothing to its tinny M-car based predecessors. Despite being shaped like a clothes iron with wrap-around glazing, the new Swift Sport had zingy naturally aspirated engines and a lightness on their feet that made them a favorite of enthusiasts with a shallow wallet everywhere. The Swift Sport regularly found its way onto car magazines’ self-important yearly best-of lists.
The latest Swift Sport will ring the till for £24,270 ($29,490), a hefty seven grand over the base non-Sport Swift. That puts it in direct competition with the standard 3-door Mini Cooper (from £23k or $28k) but a VW Polo GTI is – excuse me while I piss myself laughing – £30k ($36.5k), although that car does have a bigger engine and much more power.
Now With Added Boosterjet!
Boosterjet sounds like the sort of bullshit suffix you would see plastered all over advertising when Communists were hiding under the bed–would sir or madam care to look over the new Boosterjet food mixers? It’s Suzuki’s name for the range of engines powering the Swift. They use a smaller turbo bolted directly to the cylinder head for quicker heating and spool-up times. It also helps keep the 1.4-liter four-cylinder compact. The hybrid system consists of an integrated starter generator in between the engine and gearbox, a small li-ion battery and a DC-to-DC converter to down step the voltage from 48v to 12v for the accessories. These gubbins are stuffed under the front seats, so interior room and hip point (the height of the front occupant’s hip from the ground plane, a key dimension in how a car is packaged) aren’t affected. Suzuki claims the hybrid system only adds 15 kg (33 lbs.) in weight – the whole car is a tiddly 1025kg (2260 lbs.).
Despite being a hybrid there’s no electric-only running here. Small turbo engines can be a bit all-or-nothing boosty; the Suzuki system cuts in when you toe it from low engine speeds to help out the motor when it’s working hardest, increasing torque and pumping up the area under the curve. Does it work?
The power figures are 127 bhp at 5500 rpm and 173 lbs. ft at 2000 rpm so it’s a torquer not a singer. Sounding anodyne until you plant it, the engine suddenly turns growly and you get going smartly. Suzuki claims the 0-60 is 9.1 seconds, but this is the old Japanese ‘under promise and over deliver’ performance trick – my completely scientific and journalistically rigorous butt timer clocked it much quicker than that, hampered only by the limiter cutting in just before 6000 rpm. The gearbox, positive in normal use can occasionally get a bit flummoxed by an across the plane downshift; the upside is extremely rapid progress can be made just sticking to third and fourth gear and riding the wave. So there’s a bit of a disconnect going on here, because the little Suzuki feels like the sort of car that should have its neck wrung, not short-shifted to avoid running out of revs.
From the moment you pull away this little Suzuki buzzes with messages – it’s alive and communicative. The steering is wicked – the wheel chatters away constantly with direction and surface information while being whip-crack responsive and nice to hold – not too thick and with a nice tactility to it. The suspension which can be a bit joggly around town, will keep your butt informed what’s what once you head out onto a British B road – you know exactly what all four corners of the car are up to. The beauty of pint-sized cars like the Swift is how handy their size is when you want to have fun – the road is suddenly a lot wider and most of the time you don’t even need to brake – tight bends can be wazzed around a right old rate of knots. Just flick your wrist and you’re in. Even though it was wet (AGAIN) while I had it, never once did standing water, damp road markings or tarmac with the friction of a wet bathroom floor cause any brown alerts. There is traction control, along with a suite of keep the NCAP bods happy safety systems but these can all be turned off with a prolonged press of one button. But you don’t really need to as they’re completely unobtrusive, and with 195 tires on a 17” rim the Swift only struggled for traction momentarily when attempting a Gran Prix style standing start. When I went to my RC race meeting on Friday night, the weather was absolutely torrential – Storm Babet was in the middle of plunging the UK underwater – but the Swift shrugged it off with the composure of a much bigger car.
Pool Balls And Baseballs
Getting into the Swift Sport is like slipping on my favorite Air Max 90s – cozy and sporty but tactile. VP of GM Design Bill Mitchell used to liken this to the difference between a pool ball and a baseball. You’d get bored fondling the former but the latter would keep your hands entertained for hours. The red flashes of yore have migrated from the outside to the inside, across the door panels and dashboard. The seats cocooned me pleasantly and I had a terrific driving position nailed thirty seconds after finding all the adjustment levers. There are normal analog gauges with a small screen in between that can be configured to show the sort of thing I thought was incongruous on an old Nissan Juke but is quite fun here: turbo boost levels, accelerator and brake position, the all-important fuel economy and something that looks like a Star Trek tactical display but I think is a G-force indicator. The touchscreen controls the navigation and audio but feels a generation behind. Functionally it’s fine, just a bit clunky graphically. Wired Carplay was a bit twitchy for the first couple of days but behaved itself after that. After my problems with the Dacia, maybe I need a new lead.
I’m always banging on about packaging – what’s impressive about the Swift is although it’s only 70 mm (about 3”) longer than a Mini Cooper, it’s a much more practical device. The rear is cozy for me, although my as-usual mohawk remained unflattenend. The back of Mini I could barely contort my supermodel legs into. With 265 liters (9.4 cu ft) of space compared to the Mini’s 211 liters (7.4 cu ft) the Suzuki easily swallowed my RC gear. The other thing I’m always going on about is hidden rear door handles. So let me go on record as to why exactly I hate them.
Firstly, they’re unergonomic. Considering it’s most likely children who will be getting in the back they’re too high and your hands can slip out of flap, especially if it’s raining. Secondly, they don’t create the illusion of a three-door car, because the B pillar is in the wrong place. Take a look at the Futurista Lancia Delta restomod if you don’t believe me. Lastly, they add cost and complexity because you’re tooling up for additional parts instead of just using the same door handle as the front. Although I don’t have kids, I do like to chuck my jacket and bag on the back seat so they’re out of the way. I suppose hidden door handles will at least confuse would-be thieves at the traffic lights.
Go-faster hatches used to be all about affordable fun, without giving up any practicality. Take your B class hatch, drop in the motor from the next model up the range, tighten up the suspension, stick on some funky graphics and alloy wheels, watch the sales roll in. Every OEM had some variation of the theme in the showroom. These days you have very few options left. The Abarth 595 (which I haven’t driven, for reasons) is smaller and more anti-social. The Mini Cooper is slicker and more premium, but nowhere near as useful. The Fiesta ST, like anything from past masters the French, is dead.
The Swift Sport isn’t pretentious or flashy. It’s not the smoothest or the most refined. What it is, is more fun than Saturday night naked Twister. From the moment you get in the sheer brio and engagement of it is infectious. In that way it feels like an homage to those great GTIs of the past. It’s one of those cars that makes you look for an excuse to take for a quick spin – I’m just popping out for an hour to get some more cat food. Fifi now has enough in the house to sink a battleship.
I can almost forgive it the hidden rear door handles. Almost.
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