When my old faithful Liberty finally decided to succumb to the famous Subaru head gasket issue, there were really only a few criteria that I had nailed down for my replacement car. Fun (subjective, I'll admit), manual, under $10K, and no Takata airbag issues. Only four criteria, but boy did it narrow down the field.
Trawling through Carsales and Gumtree seemed to only show a myriad of dull ex-rental i20s, a smattering of Mazda 3s, and a somewhat eclectic mix of Europeans. I was beginning to lose hope in finding something that would be fun to drive, cheap, and wouldn't fill my face with shrapnel if I decided to crash.
Then a little yellow hatchback popped up, and my interest piqued. To be honest, I'd forgotten that the Swift Sport actually existed. I'd seen so few of them that it had vanished from my memory almost entirely, replaced only with sun-damaged, fake-wheeled and Supercheap Auto 'upgraded' Swifts driven at about 130km/h down the Ipswich Motorway.
Up until this point, I hadn't had much success with the cars I'd looked at and driven prior. A Clio 182 was super fun, but the interior felt like it was made from that plastic you get in a box of Cadbury Roses, and there were a concerning number of lights appearing intermittently on the dash. A Clio 197 proved to be much nicer, until the seller told me that he'd changed his mind on the price and would now try to command an extra $3000 on the original asking price.
Various Mazda 3 SP23s and SP25s were also good fun, with their steering being a particular high point. But at this price point, the kilometres were high and the general condition of the cars left a little to be desired.
This particular Swift looked almost too good to be true. Under 90,000km, well looked after, no modifications, a very attractive price, and a seemingly immaculate interior. There had to be a catch, surely! A car this nice was probably ages and ages way, well out of my reach. A quick snoop around the internet revealed that it was at a dealer only 10km from my house. I took it as a sign and immediately went to have a look.
Sitting amongst a sea of Kia Ceratos and Toyota Corollas was this little golden nugget, straight as an arrow, sitting proudly on display. The exterior was perfect. The interior was perfect. The log books were perfect. The test drive was perfect. The finance deal was perfect. Only 50 minutes after first laying eyes on this car, I signed on the dotted line and bought it, then immediately proceeded to have a small panic attack in recognition of my none too hasty decision.
So, two weeks on, how is the car and my existential angst? Well, the car is brilliant, and the angst has subdued to its normal level. I love the car. It's so endearing. First off the handling – it's phenomenal. It just grips and grips and grips, gradually pushing to understeer when you're really wringing its neck. The steering has a fantastic weight to it, is totally progressive, and while it isn't all that communicative (thanks electric power steering), it is dead accurate and you always feel in control. I loathe the term 'go-kart like', but in this instance it's applicable. The change of direction is snappy and just a barrel of fun.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the little Swift has got the performance to back it up too. Sure, it's only got a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre, but what a 1.6. With a super-strong valvetrain and forged pistons (!), the M16A engine is a delight. There's not an awful lot of low-down pull, but get it up to around 2800rpm and it just sings, all the way up to 7700rpm. It absolutely loves to be revved – something made even more enjoyable by the slick and short five-speed ’box. The engine is more than pokey enough around town, can comfortably overtake on a country road, and even with my lead foot averages 7.5L/100km. Driving it around Mt Glorious and Mt Nebo in Brisbane's west, the car just begs to be dropped back another gear to let you revel in the fizzy engine and delightful handling.
The downside to that wonderful drivetrain is that at motorway cruising speed, it's all a bit frantic inside the cabin. It's not uncomfortably noisy – the wind and road noise are what you'd expect from a small car – but you are constantly aware that at 110km/h the little engine is buzzing away in fifth at 3500rpm. A sixth gear (added to the later FZ Swift Sport) would be a very welcome addition, as would cruise control, seeing as the high rpm can make maintaining a steady speed a tad difficult.
Elsewhere inside the car, it's a very nice place to be. The red sports seats are very comfortable, the front of the interior feels very spacious thanks to the tiered dash design, and all the controls are simple and easy to use. To my eye, it also looks great for a car that launched in 2005, and has aged very well.
Any in-car technology comes courtesy of the dash-mounted AUX input, otherwise you're left to the single CD and AM/FM radio, with six speakers that have absolutely no right to be as good as they are. There's oodles of storage too, something that certainly couldn't be said about the Liberty, though a sunnies holder would be nice, and if I'm being picky, the seats don't go low enough for my tastes.
In the back, the Swift becomes a bit squishy. At 178cm (5ft 11in) I can sit reasonably comfortably behind myself, but anyone taller would struggle. The back seats are fine for short to medium journeys, but a two-hour trip to the coast would be an exercise in losing friends.
Not that you could take many friends regardless, because the car would be full of their personal belongings, as they sure as hell won't fit in the boot. It's absolutely pathetic. I know it's a small car, but even by class standards, it's miniscule.
The false floor/divider thingy is handy, and the seats do fold, but there's no escaping the Swift's lack of size – a criticism that could also be levelled at the fuel tank. Oh, and there's no spare tyre courtesy of the dual exhausts, just a can of get-me-home foam.
When all is said and done, though, those foibles are very minor compared to all the positives that the Swift has. It's quick, cheap, well made, efficient, spacious enough, and above all else, fun. It's a car that works its way into your heart, makes you smile, and purposefully take the long way home. Simple, uncomplicated, and unapologetically small, it's a car that truly emphasises that less is indeed more.