Suzuki Swift RS: Refining a winning formula

The Suzuki Swift has been a big hit here … can the third generation car keep the magic alive?


For: RS drivetrain, safety spec, improved comfort.

Against: ‘Added lightness’ shows in driving and steering feel; RS sticker too rich for price-sensitive?

EVEN though Suzuki has been making useful gains with other product lines, there’s no doubt that the Swift remains the car upon which hopes mainly rest.

This one assuredly has big boots to fill. The previous two generations of this model have gone gangbusters; the type cemented as the country’s top light car since 2005 and the outgoing model was Suzuki New Zealand’s top-selling product right to the last, finding particular favour as a private purchaser pick.

All good for a distributor which is running hot, with 45 percent growth over 2016, itself a good year. And it could have been better: Stats showing that, of the estimated 77,000 examples of the two previous generations zipping around in NZ, only 32,000 were sold by SNZ, reminds that the biggest emergent threat to the NZ-new car isn’t its category rivals but Swift as a used import.

Time with the latest car, in its flagship $25,990 RS format, reminds why this Japanese tyke has potential to continue as a safe bet. It continues to reward with decent space, reasonable equipment and loads of cheeky, chic driving fun.

The modern trend among car makes is to enhance efficiency by reducing boy weight and engine capacity. Given that the Swift is already something of a poppet, you’d think the old car would have already been heading that trend. However, that’s not the case: the new Heartect platform, shared with the Ignis and Baleno, means the car sheds kilos (the underpinnings themselves are 30kg lighter than before, but there’s an overall 120kg reduction) and has gone to smarter, stronger but smaller capacity engines.

None has slimmed more than the RS. The new range leader until the Sport arrives next year, it barely weighs 900kg at the kerb and also has a 998cc three-cylinder engine so is very much the baby boss of this pack.

Customers might reasonably wonder whether it’s worthy as being a better buy than the cheaper editions with a 1.2-litre four-cylinder.

Before all that, of course, they might also wonder how much different this Swift is to the previous car. The answer, in short, is ‘more than meets the eye.’

Certainly, for all the talk about this being a wholly new car from the wheels up, this car represents something of a cautious development; the one abiding impression from this test is that a high degree of familiarity carries over.

That definitely applies to the revised styling. Suzuki says it has reprofiled the car to create more emotion and enhance its youth appeal, yet it’s hardly a clean sheet approach. This is evolution, but given that the old car still looks so ‘right’ – in fact, the one before that remains quite tidy - you can hardly blame Suzuki for not wanting to risk ruining things.

Is it as super adorable as before? There will be debate, but it does remain highly identifiable as a Swift. The black A-pillars and floating roof remain, but they are dressed up with pretty new LED DRLs and tail-lamps, carefully contoured flanks, and a matching C-pillar with hidden door handles. A design tweak that apparently addresses overseas’ concern about the lack of a three-door model this time around, the latter totally flummoxed one passenger to the point where I had to stop here trying to tilt-slide the front seat to gain access to the rear.

The uncluttered look is carried over in the cabin as well, with a new dash now dominated by an infotainment screen shared with Ignis and Vitara. It’s a big improvement over the old car, but still falls short of personal expectation.

Given that the car is designed for greater youth appeal, I’d hoped they’d might have been as adventurous as the design crew of the new Ignis was allowed to be; but even though the car is smarter than before, it’s also far more sober inside than the smallest hatch and there are still too many hard, black plastics. At least everything is intuitively laid-out and clearly labelled.

The Swift range has Bluetooth, cruise control, electric windows and mirrors and LED driving lights and, above the base manual, automatic headlights and adaptive cruise control.

Touchscreen sat nav and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto also come in all models save the entry manual … another reason why that car is expected to be ignored by 95 percent of buyers. Three variants have air conditioning but the RS is the only one with a climate control system.

Those who look to technology to make a difference should be impressed by the inclusion of what Suzuki somewhat clumsily calls its ‘advanced forward detection system.’

This builds around an automated emergency braking system (AEB) and uses a monocular camera and a radar to detect potential smash scenarios and auto-effects braking if needbe.

AEB’s adoption enables inclusion of another core ingredient never previously seen on Swift, an adaptive cruise control. Also fitted are a lane departure warning and a ‘weaving alert’ function that calculates your driving pattern and issues audio and visual warnings if it detects a driver is wandering due to fatigue. All this might seem a bit too ‘big Brother’ for some, but assuredly even though the AEB tuning seemed a bit anxious for my liking, it is a package that is worth considering.

But buy in demands going for the RS, as it alone has it. That’s a real pity; the Swift attracts a lot of drivers from the extreme ends of the age spectrum, people whose reflexes have either yet to be tuned or have been dulled – either way, this system could reduce an ‘oopsie’ into a close call. Really, then, the detection setup should be standard across the range. A missed opportunity.

Provision to RS of a 360-degree surround view camera and a reversing camera are also eminently useful in that respect; the display screen is of a particularly decent quality, so there’s no real excuse for saying you didn’t see something.

The longer wheelbase benefits interior room, but extra space in the back also allows from Suzuki having lowered the seat base in the rear. It all makes just a few centimetres’ difference, and it’s still a cosy car for four adults, but entering and leaving the rear is easier for the tall and they’ll also enjoy having a bit more head and legroom. Meantime, the boot has grown 32 litres to 242-litres with all seats in place. Good in isolation; less impressive when compared to the Rio, for one. Suzuki maximises the space by equipping with a space-saver spare, and the rear seats will fold down flat for further goods-carrying volume.

 It has better seats than the old car and a superior driving position, too, though that would be better still with a reach adjust for the steering column. Suzuki has lowered the seat base in the rear, a simple change that make a lot of positive difference to ease of entering and leaving the car. The doors are large enough and there’s enough legroom in the rear even for fairly lanky adults, and though it’s still no Tardis, it’s roomy enough to suit those empty-nesters who have long favoured the Swift.

Does it benefit from losing kilos you likely never knew it had? The body shell has triple the high-tensile steel of the old one, so rigidity is increased. But it might be hard for salesfolk to convince that this is a better way: A friend of mine who was keen to trade her old car on the new subsequently went to another choice entirely because she thought the latest model was ‘too tinny.’ Suzuki could doubtless provide reams of data to demonstrate otherwise, but I doubt that would have changed her impression. And I can see her point: The new model is far from flimsy, yet it doesn’t feel quite as solid as it used to.

It does feel lighter, however, which obviously makes the already brilliant economy even better, but it’s to the point where you sense it is more susceptible to cross-winds than before. All the same, there’s no discernible impact on the body integrity.

At launch, I suggested the answer to whether it has the same intensity of flavour as the preceding car, which won kudos for its chirpy nature and almost kart-like cornering capability, would have to await a proper test.

Truth be told, I’m still not sure. Less weight and less power still brings better power-to-weight than the old car had in its mainstream formats. And it feels tight. Although the suspension is not exactly leading edge in comprising an independent setup at the front and a basic torsion beam at the rear, there's an agile road feel.

On the other hand, while it imparts as being nippy and zippy, it’s hard to say if it delivers any more fun than the preceding car. Certainly, it dives into corners exceptionally keenly, limits understeer to the barest minimum and controls body roll reasonably well. But one aspect that hasn’t improved is the steering feel; the now variable rate setup seems light and lacking a bit in feel and seems a little nervous at centre. But, then, maybe this is intentional, given that the Sport will be the range racer. The RS definitely dials back a bit on the ride quality, but I don’t thunk that can be seen as detrimental: It’s a plus when any small car can soak up, rather than rock across, road imperfections. There’s relatively good suppression of both wind noise and tyre roar, too.

I like this new Boosterjet engine. At 82kW, the power output is 18kW down on the old 1.6-litre, now out to pasture, but torque remains identical at 160Nm so it feels just as muscular; the change is that pick up is sharper and more immediate, which suggests its making better use of what it has, power-wise.

It has a highly appealing vocal performance, just enough to make it sound interesting, without ever becoming harsh or sounding like it is wheezing for the redline. Just as well because it seems to love being revved, which all helps to make the car feel so lively.

As oxymoronic as ‘same but different’ sounds, it really sums up this version of the Swift. There’s so much change and yet, when you drive it, the sense of familiarity is massively strong.

Could fans ask for anything more?