Swift Sport: It's your softer, harder hot hatch

Is it a good thing that the latest generation of Suzuki’s legendary pocket rocket has become more comfortable?

IT’S the teensy twin cam tearaway that transformed into a giant killer of rallying and circuit racing, the baby blitzer that nabbed a NZ title or two then for three seasons from 2009 was the star of a distributor-backed series to identify emergent talent.

You’d have to think the latest, gen five edition of the Suzuki Swift Sport, here in $28,500 manual and $29,990 automatic formats, has been configured with intent to continue that sizzling trophy-winning run.

Not only has it gone at last to a zesty turbocharged engine, which alone is well worth worth the $1000 price lift over the outgoing car, but picks up bigger brakes, wheels and tyres (now 195/45R17s) and delivers a full gambit of Sports exclusive body parts and performance bits. The auto gets more into the action side of things, too, having dumped the previous constantly variable set up for a proper six-cog shifter with a quasi-manual mode and paddle shifters.

So, yeah, there’s a lot about it that suggests it’s begging to be taken to the nearest race circuit … and, certainly, having seen that the prescribed drive route from Queenstown to Wanaka then return would take us right past Tony Quinn’s Highlands Park, I fully expected we’d be invited to hook into the high-octane fun park for at least a couple of laps.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be … while the track was down as a treat for dealers attending their own soiree today, we media were asked to drive right past.

What seemed to be a cruel turn (well, non-turn) was also reinforcing a point that Suzuki wants to make about this version being of different character than its forebears.

As much as all that competition cred has undoubtedly built the image of one of Japan’s most-loved pocket rockets, and regardless that the switchover to the super BoosterJet 1.4-litre has given it significantly more sizzle, they’re actually saying that this car has changed. It’s become – and this is their word – more ‘comfortable.’

It’s a word with big connotations in this sector, so an assurance: This isn’t an abdication from all that it has previously stood for.

Assuredly, as our brief run demonstrated, this car still has plenty of trophy-winning spunk in it. The brand talk about wanting to ruffle some significant and established hot hatches – including the Ford Fiesta ST, Volkswagen Polo GTI and Renault Clio RS200 – if not on outright power (the competition all has more) then at least on power and torque-to-weight (in respect to the latter, they claim virtual equivalence to a Focus RS), price and equipment presentation is no idle bombast.

Even though a precious few hours on tourist-congested highways left a lot of questions unanswered, it was enough to lend some understanding of what the Japanese maker is also now contending. Namely, that what we’re getting is a more rounded machine than its predecessors.

And less feral? Gotta say I had a moment of panic before the drive when local boss Tom Peck voiced opinion that this was now the car many owners might never compelled to push hard, let alone test on any track.

This from the man who engineered that famous Aussie V8-slaying 1991 NZ production car title (one trick, he revealed during the event, was to fit motorcycle pistons, “because the book simply cited the use of original parts – the way we saw it, these were”)? If I wasn’t already sitting down, I would have had to!

He’s wrong and he’s right. The car still has, thankfully, an emphatically sporting feel; there’s fairly direct, consistently weighted steering, a confidence-boosting driving position. It loves to dive into – and run flat through - corners and, though the engine is less rev-happy, it has lots of pull – the turbo’s assistance is prompt and in enough broad abundance it’ll immediately lay down oomph in sixth gear at 100kmh.

But yeah, at the same token, at legal pace at least, it’s a more relaxed operator. The greatest single difference you can almost immediately lay a finger is in respect to suspension tune. For sure, a Sport is a lot firmer than any standard Swift, yet this one seems to have a greater degree of compliance and absorbency to it than any previous evocation.

Are fans ready for this? They should be, because every change is in tune to customer feedback, especially about the ride, which so many found a bit too edgy and harsh. Bunch of girls? Well, yeah, actually in New Zealand, that’s a fact – more than 60 percent of Swift buyers are female. But keep it real fellas: They’re also still car fans and you wouldn’t want to get offside with their champion, highly-rated rally star Emma Gilmour.

This car was always going to deliver a different feel, anyway, simply on the strength of having switched to the latest ‘Heartech’ light-car platform, whose benefits include much improved structural integrity, through increased rigidity, plus significant weight reduction. The Sport evidences an 80kg drop in kerb weight, to just 970kg (auto adds 20kg).

The suspension work, on the other hand, is more about redefining than redesigning. Suzuki still retains with a conventional MacPherson strut front and a torsion beam arrangement in the rear. But considerable effort has gone into improving it, on multiple fronts.

The one continuation is the employment of high-quality Monroe shock absorbers all round. The front anti-roll bar is thicker, its mountings Teflon coated and it gets a new rear trailing arm that better resists deformation for more precise control.

The MacPherson struts’ wheel hub and bearing carriers are now manufactured in one unit and the bearing carriers themselves are wider – all to boost camber rigidity during cornering. The rear twist beam axle has been strengthened, increasing toe rigidity by 40 percent, and camber rigidity is almost three times greater.

The Sport takes larger disc brakes incorporating ventilated 16-inch items (actually, they’re not that big – the descriptive applies to the smallest wheel size that can fit over them) up front and 15-inch solid rotors out back. The tyre supplier has changed, too, with Continental taking over from Bridgestone.

Bumping out the high-revving 100kW/160Nm 1.6-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine (dubbed M16A), in favour of a variation of the K14C ‘Boosterjet’, as found in the Vitara and S-Cross Turbo SUVs was overdue. Power is up by a touch; the significance is from the oodles of extra torque.

For sure, in the wider scheme of things, the optimums of 103kW at 5500rpm and 230Nm (10Nm more than in this engine’s other applications) between 2500-3000rpm are not huge; the Fiesta ST packs 134kW/240Nm, Clio RS 147kW/240Nm and Polo GTi 141kW/320Nm.

Yet, as Suzuki reminds, their car positions ahead of all those models on power/torque to weight measurement, as every one of them weighes more than 200kg more.

In isolation, you sense this Sport has a reasonably decent chance; it just demands a different approach – rather than revving the snot out of it, you drive it more on the torque than the power now.It’s not a lazy engine, by any means, but you do find it unleashes much earlier in the rev range than the predecessor - there’s a lot going on around 3000rpm, a point at which the previous engine was just beginning to wake up.

The result of which is that, even on a modest throttle opening in the lower trio of gears, the Swift surges forward with an easy, uncomplicated zest.

Which gearbox? Suzuki expects a relatively high update of the auto; those who go there will find it has a decent and relatively intuitive action. However, there are reasons for liking the manual more.

The latter still seem to be the transmission that taps deeper into the Sport’s soul and it has a good feel; there’s that trademark snickiness, still, but it has a cleaner, more positive shift than previously. Of course, with such a richer vein of low-down torque, you needn’t have to work it quite as frantically as once was the case.

The one enthusiast issue with the auto is that the manual mode – which as the bottom setting in the straight shift pattern is surely too easily set to be accessed in error – is not exactly that. The box will still not fully hold a gear, but instead shift up if it detects potential for over-revving.

Both variants return combined-cycle fuel economy of 6.1 litres per 100km and a CO2 emissions average of 141g/km. Aiding the latter is the Boosterjet turbo’s wastegate valve, which controls boost pressure by opening or closing the gate.

Trying to find anywhere to unleash the car’s full entertainment was a pointless task; sadly, even the best route in terms of layout to exercise the car, the Crown Range road, was chokka with meandering tourist traffic.

On any winding road, you’ll soon discover that the lane departure alert becomes a severe annoyance as it needs but a whiff of a white line to chidingly intervene with a vibrating wheel rim. Fortunately, it can be turned off; so too the traction control.

Out of necessity to achieve a market-pleasing five-star ANCAP score, it also adopts autonomous emergency braking (AEB) – which, again, is a touch trigger-happy - and also adaptive cruise control, high-beam assist and a system Suzuki calls ‘weaving alert’ that warns the driver if the vehicle is wandering due to operator drowsiness.

Also smart is the look. Even if you don’t peg that the car has been lowered by 15mm and the body widened by 40mm, it’s not hard to distinguish the Sport from the rest of the range.

The exterior treatment starts with a more protuberant nose and runs to LED headlights, a much wider grille with honeycomb motifs, larger foglight housings, aero-optimised under-spoilers, carbon-fibre-style elements for the grille, lip spoiler, side skirts and rear diffuser, fresh 17-inch alloy wheels and wide-spaced dual tailpipes.

The cabin also outfits with a competition-themed decor – bucket seats that have been widened this time round to suit bigger export market butts, petite alloy pedals, a thick-rimmed and flat-bottomed steering wheel, racier instrument dials with revised markings and red hot décor. The finishing touch comes with a palette of racy paint colours, the hero being ‘Champion’ yellow, inspired by the hue of the Swift Sport that contested the Junior World Rally.

In terms of equipment, sophistication and ride quality the Swift Sport has definitely matured. The limited time at the wheel and the driving conditions were not conducive to finding answers to the bigger questions. Past history suggests the full strength of this derivative’s character only comes out when push truly comes to shove. Which is why, I guess, all previous Sport events I’ve been to have involved time on a race track. Just saying.