7 / 10
If you play tennis, every 30 shots or so (if you aren’t Martina Hingis) you actually manage to engage the ball with the sweet spot on the racket. It’s a wonderful, if fleeting, moment. It’s meaningful eye contact and a red-lipstick smile. The (successful) sprint to the train as the pneumatic doors close. Standing on a glorified piece of foam with the humbling hydrodynamic power of the ocean all around … and not getting your face jammed into a sand bank shortly thereafter. In tennis, the ball reaches escape velocity effortlessly, without the racket reverberating your arm off at the shoulder. It kisses the net and screams into the back corner of the other court. Your opponent is, like, 404 – nowhere. Gotta love the sweet spot.
The outgoing Suzuki Swift is the automotive equivalent of hitting the sweet spot in the light car segment. That car managed to do everything right and even remain funky even in its twilight years – and who among us hasn’t dreamt of achieving that?
The new Swift is even better than that.
Of course, when a product isn’t broken this presents its own set of problems for the architects of its replacement. How do you fix it? Certainly not by provoking significant change – which is why, in the absence of side-by-side photographic evidence, you’d be forgiven for assuming the old Swift and its replacement were dizygotic twins. The stylistic differences are minor; you’d need to park the old and the new back-to-back to spot them all.
The outgoing Swift certainly kicked a major goal for style. The wraparound windscreen, oversized, elongated headlamps and assertive stance were – literally – the shape of things to come in light cars when the car was first introduced.
This new car might look the same, but it’s grown almost 100mm overall, with 50mm of that between the wheels, and it’s also slightly taller and wider. But you’d need to be a Suzuki trainspotting over-achiever to pick it. ‘An evolution and not a revolution’ is the old marketing chestnut trotted out by the spin doctors in this situation. In this case it’s a good-news story.
The Swift is a vital car for Suzuki in Australia. The automotive media might delight in the razor-sharp Suzuki Kizashi, and the Indians might love their Altos, but the Swift is the real bread and butter Down Under, accounting for just over 11,000 of Suzuki Oz’s 18,200 sales for the year to November 2011.
It’s a key car globally as well. The Swift is in its third generation and offers 1.65 million sales as evidence of its success – and that’s since 2005. Think of it like this: If Suzuki were Volkswagen, the Swift would be the Volkswagen Golf – with all the attendant evidence in mitigation about the brand’s identity.
Suzuki is no upstart. It’s been in the auto-building business since 1961, and is something of a virtuoso when it comes to making small cars, as well as supernova-esque two-wheelers and even marine engines. It does this very well.
What’s less clear-cut, perhaps, is what Suzuki is. Global financial meltdown meant the cross-shareholding with General Motors has disintegrated, leaving Suzuki just under 20 per cent owned by Volkswagen, while at the same time holding a corresponding share of VW itself. Still, incest is out of control in the automotive industry. At the coal face, inside a dealership and doing a deal, this counts for very little.
Suzuki hardly presents a full, one-in-each-segment entrant lineup. It doesn’t field a vehicle for everyone. Maybe it’s concentrating instead on the cars it thinks it can sell strongly on the world stage. Much of that is aimed at the burgeoning Indian market, where Maruti Suzuki is the biggest name on four wheels, and the halo car is the Alto … in inverse proportion to its size.
The new Swift will be available globally with a new 1.2-litre petrol engine and a 1.3-litre diesel built under licence from Fiat. We’re not going to get either of those engines in Australia when the new Swift arrives in February 2011. We’ll be getting an all-new 1.4-litre naturally aspirated four with 70kW at 6000rpm and 130Nm at 4000rpm – within a smidge of the outgoing Swift’s outputs but with significantly improved economy. That’s thanks mainly to a serious re-think of the engine’s internal friction, reduced by a range of engineering tweaks including an offset crank, lower friction rings and shimless tappets.
In the five-speed manual the official ADR fuel figure has dropped from 6.3 litres per 100km to 5.5, and in the four-speed auto the improvement is from 6.6 down to 6.2.
The 1.4 revs, flat-chat, to 6500rpm and features a wonderfully subtle soft rev limiter that maintains peak rpm until you wake up and decide to select the next gear. It does its best work over 3000rpm, delivering admirable mid-range urge. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the ‘1.4’ I start to think: ‘yawn’. Not so with the Swift – this engine is at the very least sufficiently engaging. It’s refined when you’re cruising and raucous when you’re punting. And it sounds alright, too. It’s not a WRX – but then, it will be less than half the price.
CarAdvice was given a sneak peek and test drive of the new Swift at Suzuki’s Ryuyo test track in Hamamatsu, Japan. Ryuyo, built in 1964, is the company’s motorcycle development skunkworks, offering a blindingly fast 6.5km circuit with esses and a hairpin, not to mention an epic 2.3km main straight. After 10 laps interspersed across four new Swifts I can tell you that in the real world of roundabouts, intersections, speed limits and traffic, most owners will never appreciate how seriously good the new Swift’s dynamics are. It sits supremely composed at speed up to 180km/h and behaves obediently in corners. It’s engaging but not malevolent, even when provoked. Many people won’t know for a second what they’re missing out on, but for those who do, the Swift is a tremendous car to punt hard. If you’re impressed with the Ford Fiesta or Renault Clio – or even the Volkswagen Polo – you’ll also find yourself having a ball in a Swift.
A new, 50 per cent stiffer body reinforced at key stress points with high-tensile steel up to six times stronger than the regular construction-grade stuff has helped, as has numerous suspension revisions and an upgrade to 15- and 16-inch wheels, depending on spec. (The outgoing Swift runs on 14s or 15s, depending on model.
Steering is new, too. It’s electric, but the feel is great and the gearing is set up to offer not much assistance close to on-centre, and less at the lock-to-lock extremities.
The five-speed manual is excellent, although the light car market must be on the cusp of accommodating six speeds with three pedals, and thankfully a full torque-converter four-speed auto, not a constant-velocity transmission. In terms of absolute performance, the manual is ahead by a nose. The auto won’t disappoint, but the manual is better.
While it’s a relatively safe bet that many owners won’t ever appreciate the Swift’s decisive handling, there’s a sweet spot with dynamics, too. And Suzuki has hit it. See, with cars, there’s a middle ground between cars that want to kill you, dynamically, and cars that seek instead to bore you to death. The new Swift is in a great place between these polar extremes. It rides on MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion-beam setup at the rear, but these are merely descriptions of the underlying engineering. The bottom line is that you heel-toe to third and lift the throttle into a corner at 5000rpm in a Swift, and the nose tucks in just perfectly. You’re bullseyeing the apex – minus the terror you’d experience in, say, a Lotus – and the steering does a pretty good job with feedback as well. You’re not exactly overwhelmed with urge on the way out, which is a good news/bad news story. You can’t gloss over your cornering mistakes with monster torque in a Swift the way you can in (for example) a Ralliart Lancer – but if you’re quick in a Swift, you’re … er … swift.
You are also the beneficiary of four-corner disc brakes on the top-spec GLX models, although the GL has drums at the rear. Brake pedal feel is pretty good, with either setup, too. Even when you’re working them hard. The rear drums on the base car don’t seem to comprise a singular disadvantage.
Inside, the cabin has had only half a makeover. There is iPod integration and a USB input. The upmarket GLX model gets reach adjustment on the steering (tilt-only on the GL) plus a proximity key and stop-start button (conventional ignition key on the GL). Unfortunately, although there are substantial improvements, some of the materials are cheap and still feel harsh. The old car was like this too; the execution is better with the new car, but the materials are similar. The minimalistic four-instrument cluster is excellent and remarkably free of tacky gimmicks. The front seats are comfortable enough and provide adequate support, even on a high-speed motorcycle development track. And the car is a very relaxed drive – even at the kinds of speeds that would get you arrested in Australia.
Boot space? There isn’t any, statistically. If you’re thinking about swinging a cat or getting into body disposal, the Swift still won’t suit. At least not with the rear seats upright. You’ll have to do without passengers if you need a couple of golf bags transported about the place. (The rear seats offer 60:40 fold.) With the rear seats face-planted, however, you’ll almost certainly have enough room for even unwieldy items like pushbikes.
Safety is another area in which the Swift is a big winner. There are seven airbags standard across the range: 2 x front, 2 x side and 2 x curtains, plus a driver’s knee bag. Electronic stability control is likewise standard. The new Swift has already achieved the coveted five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP, and Suzuki Australia is confident the local car will achieve five stars as well; another advantage of the stronger, stiffer body structure.
Second car? First car? The new Swift is probably a lot better than that, but the Swift is certainly ideal as both, or either. The new Swift is better – maybe not such a departure visually, but 15 per cent better all around. And that means it scores 11 out of 10 when rating the best light cars on the market.
If you’re in the market for a light car like the Swift, drive a Mazda2, a Ford Fiesta and a Polo at the same price point for comparison. All four are excellent cars – and don’t forget that the devil often isn’t in the detail with cars. The prime differentiators are often less related to the specifications than the practicalities. You might be a golfer, a bushwalker, a dog lover, a gardener, a paddler or a cyclist – and in these cases as well as a thousand shades of end-use in between it pays to see how well each of the cars in the short-list manages to accommodate your lifestyle. Specifications for Australia are not yet forthcoming (we’ll keep you apprised as information is available).
Prices, likewise, are yet to be announced – the safe bet is slightly more but still “sharp” according to insiders. Currently the rrp on the outgoing Swift ranges from $16,290 to $23,990. That latter figure is for the 1.6-powered Swift Sport, the successor to which Suzuki won’t comment on – for now. Reason? Not wanting to impact on sales now. You might infer from this comment that the probable new Swift Sport will be substantially sportier than its soon-to-be predecessor. The outgoing Swift had the singular distinction of being the most affordable car on the market where the ‘sport’ badge wasn’t just a cynical marketing exercise comprising a decal kit, a badge and a body kit. It was under $25k and actually sporty. So there’s almost certainly something affordable and good in the wings for Sport fans.