An instant classic? We thrash the new Suzuki Swift Sport
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I should've been more explicit.
Due to a slight communications goof, the pick-up of this little Suzuki began with a rocky February 9 flight through stormy weather over Tauranga's coastline.
That was followed by a five-minute taxi ride with a man named John, who was extremely proud of his skanky 400,000km Toyota Prius.
Irony is best when it blindsides you, and February 9 happened to be the fourth anniversary of the date my first car arrived in New Zealand. That first car was a Suzuki Swift Sport.
It was a 2012 model in “Boost Blue” — imported independently out of Japan with no CD player and some deeply kerbed wheels.
It immediately attracted the hatred of friends who simply couldn’t understand why a grown man who supposedly loved cars would voluntarily spend his own money on such a “mum mobile”. The notion of “driving a slow car fast”, the idea that curly B roads are more fun than racing between traffic lights, and the fact that it was arguably the last “pure” hot hatch made were all often-cited rebuttals; and possibly topics for another day.
I tried hard, very hard, to stay “professional”, but waiting in the crowded showroom for the 2018 variant took my heart right back to the excited anxiety of my first car's arrival.
“Apologies for the wait, our valets are just finishing cleaning it now,” they said. Whether they registered that the car was set to drive from Tauranga to Auckland via a four-hour drive in the wrong direction to Feilding — a trek almost guaranteed to render its shiny yellow paintwork disgustingly bug-spattered and filthy — was another question entirely.
A question I duly ignored for my own safety.
First impressions leave a lot to process with the 2018 Swift Sport’s visuals; inside and out. While the old car was subtle, almost apologetic about its sporting credentials, the new car screams from the rooftops that it’s ready to pounce for the hot hatch jugular.
It’s best viewed on a front three-quarter. A tighter snout features grille-work deeply set into the fascia; as if pushed inwards by G-forces. The big puppy-dog eyes of the old car are gone; replaced with smaller, angrier, beadier examples.
A front splitter of sorts frames all of these shenanigans, before extending down the sides of the car and prompting a more aggressive rear diffuser with dual protruding exhausts popping out the back. The skirts are fashioned out of fake carbon fibre (boo), though the contrast they bring to the party is complimented by the black 17in wheels (yay).
It's not lacking in kit, with the standard fare that impressed in the Swift RS making a welcome return. Satnav and a reversing camera compliment a reasonably comprehensive suite of safety tech including dual-sensor brake support, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure assist that can occasionally be ropey — particularly when dealing with yellow lines.
The rest of the interior is much clearer than before about this car's intent to be frantic. The bucket seats come with sharper bolstering and integrated head rests, the sports pedals are in a better position for heel-toe foot work, and the amount of red has grown to include big slabs of coloured panelling on the doors, centre console and dashboard.
However, it's all well and good dipping the innards of such a vehicle with cute race-car tropes, but it all means diddly squat if the car doesn’t feel like a race car. And here the Sport struggles.
You sit high ... too high. Even with the seat shifted into its lowest position, it feels like you're craned over the top of the steering wheel. Those side bolsters I mentioned before are tighter than on the previous car, and will be a bit of a squeeze for the “generously proportioned”. Because of the high seating position, the gear knob is taller and subsequently has a longer throw. It also feels too far back, especially if you're driving it back-to-back with its dad.
Which is exactly what we did.
The biggest changes to the Swift Sport are all under the skin — a hallmark of any decent aspiring fun machine. It's built on the all-new HEARTECT platform, which means comprehensive weight savings while also improving stiffness. Combined with cheapo plastics inside and a length that's 10mm shorter than the old car, it adds up to a bubbly hatchback that packs a feather-light kerb weight of 970kg as tested.
Stiffened, too, is the suspension: Macpherson struts up front, and torsion beam at the back. A beefed-up brake package sits behind wheels wrapped in Continental ContiSportContact5 rubber.
It's the engine we have to talk about, though.
Suzuki has utilised a version of one of its Vitara motors, a 1.4-litre turbocharged 16-valve BoosterJet unit that creates 103kW of power and 230Nm of torque.
Sure, none of that jumps off the page, with an increase of 3kW over the old car looking almost pathetic on first reading. But, with torque up by 70Nm and 90kg less heft to hurl around, the revised engine completely changes everything. Power peaks at 5500rpm, but the Sport is clearly at its best between 2500rpm and 5000rpm.
In the old car, there was almost no torque low in the rev range, but in the new car it's present in abundance. It’s subsequently much fiercer car off the mark (it’ll hit 100km/h in 7.2 seconds); and with power delivery remaining pleasantly linear, it makes this the easiest Swift Sport to live with yet.
In corners, it feels sharper, too. The enthusiastic “like a go-kart“ methodology of the old car is maximised by wheels closer to the corners and steering that, though electric, offers a surprising amount of morse code communication from the front wheels.
It’s incredibly impressive, and incredibly quick. And priced at $28,500 for the manual variant, it’s by a mile the most fun you can have for under 30 grand ... even 40.
Yet, there’s a problem.
The old Sport had no torque, instead making all its power at the very top end. In order to extract the most from it, you had to gamble, take risks, and hit all your markers with precision.
It might have been “just a Swift”, but when you had it percolating, it was a white-knuckle experience that would suck the colour from your passenger’s faces and have you craving the next set of apexes.
I’m not saying the new Sport isn’t fun. It is — it’s huge fun, an instant classic. But with almost no reason to rev it out to its maximum and all the boogie coming on so soon, it simply isn’t as fun as its forefathers.
In a shrinking market, it sticks out as an obvious yardstick and a wonderful car. But if it’s satisfying, rewarding motoring that you hero ... consider turning back the clock.
2018 SUZUKI SWIFT SPORT
Price: $28,500 manual, $29,990 automatic
Pros: Lots of kit, better inside, low weight and big torque takes it to the next level...
Cons: ... but less fun at the limit than the old one; awkward driving position