Before 2008 Suzuki was a motorcycle in the South African motoring psyche. Sure, a small number of Suzuki SUVs were imported locally during the 1980s and early 1990s. But for most of us, the sharp-edged “S” of Suzuki was intrinsically linked to the two-wheeled world.
Fast forward to June 2008, and the official launch of Suzuki’s automotive presence in South Africa. Spearheading that presence was the Suzuki Swift, a subcompact hatchback with a proud pedigree of sales success and a long list of international accolades behind its name.
The Swift was up against some tough and well-established competition here, including the VW Polo, the Toyota Yaris, the Renault Clio and the Opel Corsa. But it didn’t take long for SA motorists to catch on and by February last year sales had already passed the 4,000-unit mark.
Those figures may appear insignificant in the context of the 2 million-unit global sales total achieved by the Swift. But they do indicate a noteworthy, growing local fan base for the Japanese marque’s automotive products, of which the Swift is one of the leading examples.
This week, a brand-new Swift arrived on local shores – but in aesthetic terms, it reflects an approach that is so cautious, so evolutionary, that it’s not easy to tell old and new apart. In fact, one gets the sense that the Swift designers were almost scared to change what wasn’t broken in the first place, as the classic saying goes.
It means the New Swift looks very much like the old one – at least at first glance. It has the same cheeky grin, the same concise shape, the same agile presence. But if you really know your swifts from your swallows, you’ll also notice some very real differences.
The new Swift has grown in size: it’s taller, wider and longer than before, although its chunky, wieldy proportions have been retained. The tracks are wider, and the wheelbase is longer, allowing a more spacious interior and better overall packaging.
The exterior detailing is more distinctive, ensuring an unmistakably more contemporary appearance. The headlight and tail-light clusters are more pronounced, with stronger shapes and more brightwork, while the extensive colour coding creates visual cohesion.
Larger wheels with a fresh design, and wider, lower-profile tyres emphasise the new Swift’s more planted stance.
Swift regulars will immediately notice how much lighter, more accessible and fresher the cabin feels. The extra rear legroom is particularly welcome, although it’s still not generous by any standards.
The materials, trim and details are a definite step up from before, and the overall impression is of a luxuriously appointed space. The hues and textures aren’t particularly inventive or inspired, but they are smart enough for any occasion, and tangible quality is particularly impressive.
Dialling in just the right driving position is easily achieved, while the standard equipment list is comprehensive across both the baseline GL and more upmarket GLS models.
While the GL emphasises value, the kit included ranges from air-con and power steering to remote central locking, a trip computer and a height-adjustable driver’s seat. The GLS offers even more: Leather trim from the reach and height-adjustable steering wheel, a MP3-compatible CD receiver with USB socket and keyless entry and operation.
The exterior and interior treatment is only one aspect of the latest Swift package, however. In fact, the under-the-skin changes are much more extensive than the styling would suggest.
The wider front and rear tracks, as well as the longer wheelbase, suggest more stable, predictable road manners. But even more important is how much stiffer the monocoque chassis is, which benefits steering precision, cornering capability and overall response.
That’s certainly borne out in practice. The Suzuki loves to tackle the twisties and always feels tidy and composed, even when pressing on. The electric power steering has a crisp edge that can be too keen at times, but allows precise and effortless turn-in.
The ride comfort is a further highlight. The Swift’s development engineers have managed to create a suspension set-up that dials out most of the dips and bumps, yet still allows clear and unequivocal communication between car and driver.
The result is that elusive seat-of-the-pants driving experience so often blunted or numbed in modern cars. In the Swift it contributes to a dashing personality and rewarding motoring.
Does all of this presuppose a hike in power output too? Quite interestingly, the answer is no. In fact, this latest Swift has sacrificed a little bit of urge and twist in the interests of greener motoring. The all-new engine under the bonnet is cleaner, leaner and more fuel efficient.
Capacity has actually been reduced from 1.5litres to 1.4litres, but the high-tech powerplant’s enhanced efficiency and lower friction levels ensure the four-cylinder actually feels at least as zesty as the larger, but older, mill.
It’s also more fuel efficient – Suzuki claims a combined-cycle fuel consumption figure of 5.5litres/100km, and a CO2 emissions rating of 132g/km. Power and torque output have dropped slightly, to 70kW at 6,000rpm and 130Nm at 4,000rpm.
As before, the default transmission choice is a five-speed manual gearbox that features a smoother shift action. There’s also a four-speed automatic.
Frankly, the manual is the better choice here, simply because there are five ratios to make the most of the output on offer and because shifts can be timed to best suit the conditions. I would expect the auto’s shift action to be slower, which is likely to blunt reaction times.
The manual Swift’s performance is brisk in straight-line terms. It wraps up the 0-to-100km/h dash in 10.9 seconds, while top speed comes to 170km/h. The auto’s figures are 12.3 sec and 165km/h, which emphasise the self-shifter’s relative lack of sparkle.
In practice, the Swift is as adept zipping through treacly urban traffic as it tackling longer distances. At altitude, you’ll need to make enthusiastic use of the gearbox to keep the momentum going, but if anything, that adds to the overall driving experience.
The first Swift not only introduced the local market to the Suzuki brand, but also proved that subcompact, keenly priced cars can be fun, comfortable and practical too. The new Swift tries to improve on those attributes and manages just that.
It’s a feather in the cap of modern automotive technology that a larger Swift with a smaller engine can still be as entertaining and enjoyable to drive. It also begs the question whether we really need more in motoring terms than this latest compact Suzuki achieves?
In a world increasingly displaying the worrying effects of global warming and dwindling oil reserves, the buying-down trend is expected to gain momentum as demand for smaller, cleaner cars ramps up. Swapping that gas guzzler for a car like the smaller, sexier Suzuki may well be an inspired decision. DM
New Suzuki Swift 1.4 GLS
In-line four-cylinder, 1,372cc, DOHC
70kW @ 6,000rpm
132Nm @ 4,000rpm
5.5 l/100km (combined cycle)
In other news...
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The Pentagon has twice as many bathrooms than necessary due to segregation being in force when it was constructed.