In performance-mad South Africa, the hot hatchback is a revered mode of transport, an apparently normal vehicle that’s been tweaked to deliver dynamics good enough to embarrass the occasional sports car. Suzuki’s new Swift Sport isn’t the hottest hatch around, but it does deliver a tasty driving experience.
Suzuki has an enviable reputation for producing cars that are a cut above the many other, generally more pedestrian offerings from Japan. The specialist small car maker used to be better known for its motorcycles in South Africa – that is, until Suzuki Auto SA joined the local market in 2008.
Since then, SA motorists have been able to choose from an increasingly comprehensive list of Suzuki passenger cars and compact SUVs, including the Swift, a subcompact hatchback with zing, good spec levels and reasonable price tags, albeit in relative terms.
I’ve always enjoyed the Swift, because it over-delivers in palpable quality terms, and because it provides a feel-good driving experience. Much of the latter is the result of a chassis tuned for cohesive, balanced handling. But that proficiency has often made me wonder what a Swift with more muscle would feel like.
Sure, the standard Swift is a brisk little hatchback. But while its 1,5-litre four-cylinder engine is a brave unit, its 74kW maximum power output simply isn’t enough to really burn rubber. The addition of the peppier Swift Sport should change all that.
The Sport has been a revered member of the Swift clan in Europe for some time, where the zippy three-door hatchback has been used as the basis for a highly successful rally campaign. The Swift remains one of the front runners in the Junior World Rally Championship.
Of course, the standard version is a far cry from the highly modified rally runner, but it’s easy to understand why the road car is such a perfect starting point for the competition model. While it remains unmistakably a Swift, the Sport looks like it’s spent some time working out in the gym.
Compared to the normal Swift, the most obvious change is the three-door body, which instantly creates a chunkier, more athletic personality. But the big 17-inch wheels, the fat Goodyear Eagle F1 rubber and the subtle, but aggressive body kit all suggest a substantial boost in performance potential.
Up close, some styling details unique to the Sport version also become apparent, such as the twin exhausts that jut out from the expanded, black mesh-finished rear apron, and the rakish roof spoiler tidily located above the rear screen.
The wheel arches appear more pronounced, partly to accommodate the large, spoked, 17-inch alloys. And at the front, the enlarged lower air intake endows the front with a hungry, menacing visage. Colour-coding is lavishly applied, with the black mesh detailing providing the only visual relief.
Also apparent is the hunkered-down stance, which underscores the Swift Sport’s performance potential. But the real question is whether the new car’s mechanicals are up for the hot hatch challenge.
The answer isn’t a straightforward one. For a small three-door subcompact, the Swift Sport has a healthy four-cylinder engine. It’s a free-revving 1,6-litre unit with twin cams, 16 valves and variable valve timing.
The compact unit is transversely mounted, and delivers a useful, if not earth-shattering, 92kW of maximum power. But the modest 148Nm of torque is disappointing. Even more pertinent is that the full torque dose only comes on stream at 4,800rpm, suggesting a peaky nature.
In reality, that means the powerplant needs to be kept on song by working it hard and keeping it in the narrow power band – an endeavour that sounds like hard work, but actually suits the Sport’s zippy character. And besides, given its relatively low mass, there’s less inertia to overcome.
Put it this way: This sporty Swift never feels lethargic, and always enjoys being exercised. But don’t expect a relaxed cruiser. To extract the best from this hatch, you need to use that five-speed manual gearbox to the full.
Fortunately, the gear shift is short and snappy, and the ratios closely stacked. Although six gears would have made for even more fun, and would also have made it easier to keep the engine in its optimum rev range.
Spending time in the Suzuki’s company is made even more pleasant by a well-kitted and distinctive cabin. Because this is the Sport, it gets a racier interior with bolstered bucket seats and a red-and-black colour scheme. Silver accents on the dash and the door panels add further pizzazz, while lots of standard kit ensures comfort and convenience.
Included are the likes of climate control, remote central locking, keyless operation, electric windows and a decent multi-speaker sound system with steering-wheel mounted controls. Talking of which, the Swift’s helm has a thick and grippy rim, just like that of a real sports car.
The safety kit is comprehensive, with front, side and curtain airbags provided as standard, together with all-disc ABS brakes, and ESP stability control. But practicality isn’t this cabin’s strongest suit – rear accommodation is cramped, and the boot is tiny. This is not a family car.
Most impressive, though, is the tangible quality on offer here. There’s nothing basic or tacky here. The materials look and feel upmarket, the panel fit is perfect and the switchgear operates with slick precision. This Suzuki feels like it’s been built to last, and that’s not always the case in this segment.
On the road, that solidity becomes particularly apparent on our rural roads, where undulations, rough surfaces and irregular patches of tar will shake, rattle or squeak. To the Suzuki’s credit, I couldn’t find any such flaws.
Life behind the wheel of the Sport also has other attractions. The solidity extends to a cohesive chassis offering intuitive, razor-sharp road manners. In fact, this Swift’s strongest talent is its handling.
The stiffer suspension, lower ride height, bigger wheels and fatter rubber all conspire to provide the chunky hatch with a wieldy, feisty character. Chucking the little hatch through corners is lots of fun, and proves that there’s more to life than sheer muscle.
That’s just as well, because in pure, straight-line terms, the Swift Sport won’t exactly set the tar alight. Yes, the combination of low mass and ample urge does translate into lively dynamics. But in this category, there are quicker machines.
The factory figures link a zero to 100km/h sprint time of 8,9 seconds to a 200km/h top speed. Neither figure is class-leading, but those stats also don’t tell the full story. The overall driving experience – the balanced chassis, the extended grip levels, the high cornering speeds – delivers a level of satisfaction that doesn’t have to rely on outright shove or sheer speed.
Put the Suzuki in a tight and twisty mountain pass and its verve and composure will unsettle even the most fancied of sports car machinery. In that sense, it’s a giant killer in the making. And remember, it also comes with a price tag that’s much more reasonable than exotic marques dictate.
The Suzuki Swift Sport is a small car with a big heart. It plays in a tough league, dominated by more muscular, but also more expensive rivals, including the current, class-leading Renault Clio RS and the upcoming VW Polo GTI.
But it’s the Swift Sport’s overall package that impresses – the balance of chassis and power is near perfect, while the price reflects excellent value, too. The result is great little machine that delivers driving fun with a capital F.
By Deon Schoeman
Suzuki Swift 1.6 Sport
In-line four-cylinder, 1 586 cc, DOHC
92 kW @ 6 800 rpm
148 Nm @ 4 800 rpm
7,0 l/100 km (combined cycle)
Carbone dioxide emissions