The new 2017 Suzuki Swift aims to keep the charm that made its predecessors so enduringly popular, while adding a veneer of modern tech and safety. Job mostly done.
Suzuki is on a roll. New cars such as the Ignis, Baleno and Vitara are giving the humble Japanese brand more exposure than it has had in years.
But a new-generation Suzuki Swift is the big one, because it's the company's most popular vehicle. More than 130,000 have been sold in Australia since 2005, and about five million globally.
In fact, the only rival that lures more private buyers here is the Mazda 2, so it's pretty obvious who Suzuki is targeting. Both are bywords for small, nimble, cute and curvy, more so than a practical Jazz or predictable Yaris.
The key for Suzuki in developing the replacement for its outgoing seven-year old Swift was to keep those attributes that made it great – the light weight, nimble dynamics and charm – but blend in modern features.
Helpful is the fact this iteration of the Swift remains cute as a button with its anime nose, sculpted side profile, hidden rear door handles and tiny overhangs. Speedy Blue, Burning Red and Mineral Grey with black roof paint colours look particularly good.
At 3840mm long, the Swift is actually a tiny bit shorter than its already minuscule predecessor – a Mazda 2 and Kia Rio are more than four metres long – though the wheelbase is longer and the body wider, improving cabin space.
The price kicks off at $15,990 plus on-road costs for the base GL manual ($16,990 drive-away), the same as the outgoing model and $1000 more than the Mazda 2 Neo.
Standard features include a 1.2-litre petrol and five-speed manual gearbox, six airbags, Bluetooth/USB, cruise control, daytime-running lights, steering wheel controls and steel wheels.
Like the Mazda, it lacks a touchscreen or rear-view camera, and the cynic in us suggests Suzuki Australia actually doesn't want you to buy one.
That's because the MY17 Swift is much more appealing, one rung further up in CVT automatic-only GL Navigator spec at $17,990 drive-away, a few grand cheaper than a Mazda 2 Maxx or Kia Rio Si.
For the extra $1000 over the GL manual you get said automatic transmission, plus a 7.0-inch touchscreen with satellite-navigation, rear-view camera to address the huge blind-spot thanks to that big C-pillar, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and 16-inch alloy wheels. See?
Next is the $19,190 drive-away ($18,990 MSRP) GL Navigator with safety pack that adds laser- and camera-based autonomous emergency braking (AEB) that works below 140km/h, adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning.
Rivals such as the Mazda 2 Maxx ($21,690) and Skoda Fabia 81TSI ($19,490) come with AEB, the big screen and a rear-view camera too, but the Swift is alone in offering radar cruise below $20k.
Atop the range is the GLX Turbo auto flagship at $22,990 drive-away that uses the spunky little three-cylinder turbo engine from the bigger but same-price Baleno GLX.
Other GLX extras include paddle-shifters for its standard six-speed auto gearbox, polished alloys, auto high-beam, climate control, proximity key and full LED headlights. It's the range-topper in lieu of a new Swift Sport.
We should note we've generally referred to drive-away pricing (what you actually pay) here rather than State-based list pricing because Suzuki Australia is nationalising and subsiding them as listed.
On the value front it's clear that the Swift GL Navigator and the GL Navigator with the safety pack are the sweet spots. If you want a manual like us? Tough luck.
We touched on the improved cabin packaging earlier. Cargo space is now 242 litres, up 32L but still modest. Occupants sit a little lower than before, but have a few centimetres more legroom and headroom.
All variants also get a decent glovebox, front door pockets, rear bottle holders and 60:40 folding seats. Though interestingly, the funky Suzuki Ignis ($17,990-$19,990) offers vastly more space and clearance. The enemy within...
Where the new MY17 Swift really improves is up the front. All versions, bar the GL manual, get the aftermarket-looking but effective touchscreen used in the Vitara and Ignis, and having both sat-nav and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto is excellent.
All versions also get a really great little leather steering wheel, sporty red instruments (albeit missing a digital speedo), plenty of seat adjustment and good ergonomics despite base cars lacking telescopic steering columns.
There are also enough cool contrasting trims to make the cabin feel modern, and the build quality is typically robust. Letting the side down are the cheap-feeling hard plastics that don't improve as you walk through the range.
If you want maximum practicality, the Honda Jazz or even Suzuki's own Baleno wins out, and if you want a luxury feel the Mazda 2 or Volkswagen Polo win. But the Swift has lots of tech, a cool look, and is sharp value.
Under the body is a new platform that cuts the weight in this area alone by 30kg. The new Swift rather remarkably weighs only 870kg in base form, climbing to 915kg for the GLX Turbo. Most rivals are more than a tonne.
This architecture also has triple the high-tensile steel of the old one, which improves rigidity, and the design allows a tighter turning circle (just 9.6m). Suspension is an independent setup at the front and a basic torsion beam at the rear, and there's new variable-ratio steering.
The Swift remains a terrific little car to drive, with an agile road feel, eager turn-in, and light but responsive steering. The suspension absorbs sharp hits pretty well, making the little Japanese hatch exactly what a city car should be.
The company has also added sound-deadening materials, and the stiffer platform theoretically reduces drivetrain vibrations. The Swift is a few per cent quieter at highway speeds than before.
We don't have an ANCAP rating, but Euro NCAP gave the Swift with AEB only four stars under its tough regimen – 88 per cent for adult occupant protection but let down by 44 per cent for safety assist.
There are two engines to choose from. The GL, GL Navigator and GL Navigator with safety pack get a 1.2-litre four-cylinder with a weedy 66kW of power at 6000rpm and 120Nm of torque at 4400rpm.
Not only is this 1.2 engine 4kW/10Nm less powerful and torque-laden than the old Swift, but it's also a fair bit weaker than the 79kW/139Nm Mazda 2's 1.5 and the Kia Rio's 74kW/133Nm 1.4 – on paper.
What helps is the Swift's weight, given most rivals weigh 100kg more at least. This offsets the engine's low outputs rather well, and it's a willing and rev-happy little number that uses less than 5L/100km on the combined cycle.
The rubbery five-speed manual 'box needs a taller sixth to help cruising refinement, but is much more engaging and suits the cheeky demeanour of the car. The CVT auto is also actually quite good – refined, filling in torque gaps and keeping engine revs to 2000rpm at 100km/h.
Meanwhile the GLX turbo gets a characterful, thrumming and vibration-happy 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine with a turbocharger that pumps up the outputs to 82kW at 5500rpm and 160Nm from 1500 to 4000rpm.
This gives it a power-to-weight ratio of 90kW per tonne, which is almost the same as the outgoing 100kW/160Nm Swift Sport – which will itself be replaced by a 1.4 turbo version, hopefully in 2018.
The engine has a distinctive three-pot burble, and noticeably more low-down torque to pull you from low speeds, tucking into gaps or overtaking. It compares well to a 140kg heavier Mazda 2 GT''s 81kW/141Nm engine.
Suzuki is only offering the engine with a six-speed automatic gearbox with torque converter and paddle-shifters, which is generally well-behaved – though the ECU will ask the 'box to upshift once you hit redline even in manual mode.
We might be dinosaurs, but a manual gearbox would really improve the engagement factor. We also miss out on the UK's mild-hybrid and all-wheel drive options. Market demand has spoken, but we can rage against the dying of the light.
Like all Suzukis, the 2017 Swift gets a modest three-year/100,000km warranty – though the company's reputation for reliability is second-to-none – and six-month or 10,000km servicing intervals. Costs TBC.
We walked away from our first drive in the 2017 Suzuki Swift range generally satisfied that it played to the brand's strengths: humility, solid engineering and an increasing ability to roll out good infotainment tech. These, plus the Swift badge that everyone knows and most love.
Negatives: the GL manual's cabin is phoned-in, there's no AEB on entry cars and some rivals feel more premium and special. We're also not sure if the step up the GLX Turbo is worth it, or whether you'd be better off jumping into a bigger Hyundai i30 Active.
But the mid-range cars are excellent value for money, there's now more cabin space, extra tech, familiar dynamic nous, cute design language and city-friendly proportions. As ever. It all makes for a worthy follow up to a well-regarded predecessor.
Keep an eye out for more detailed reviews on the Swift GL and GLX turbo range as we get them through our Sydney and Melbourne garages on longer-term loans over the next month or so.