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Car reviews - Suzuki - Swift - GL 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Pretty much everything – but especially safety, value, fun, refinement, economy, and pertness
Room for improvement
Except samey styling, no cruise control option, telescopic steering adjustment and rear discs only available on top-line GLX, no standard Bluetooth, heavy loads and big hills make 1.4-litre struggle

14 Apr 2011

IN THE ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ television series, astronaut Steve Austin was an utterly changed person even though he looked the same after a fiery crash.

How? Big improvements in strength, athleticism and eyesight due to – you guessed it – about six mill’s worth (we’re talking the ‘70s here) of bionic implants.

Obviously you can guess where we’re going with this… the virtually identical Swift is a much improved machine over its extremely popular predecessor. To paraphrase TSMDM’s opening credits, the little Suzuki is better than it was before… better, stronger… but is it faster?

We had our doubts, as on paper the new AZ is down on power and torque – by 4kW and 3Nm respectively – while weight is up slightly (by 25kg overall – a commendably contained result considering how much bigger the latest Swift is) compared to the old EZ.

But in reality even this fact does not dampen our enthusiasm for the $16,690 GL five-speed manual model tested here, for the Suzuki is right up with the class leaders – albeit for different reasons than the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo.

However it looks almost identical to before. Why did Suzuki stick so steadfastly to the old Swift’s styling? Back-to-back new and old can be told apart, but otherwise even trainspotters will struggle. For the record, we prefer the cleaner, sharper lines of the original, although the newcomer’s rear is cleaner and crisper to the eye.

More differentiation is visible inside, and it is here that the Swift moves on from its predecessor. Suzuki has clearly infused some of the classier aspects of the very underrated Kizashi mid-size sedan.

If that reference means nothing to you, then what you are in for is a grown-up, T-shaped dashboard that looks the part thanks to a nice flowing symmetry and interesting attention to detail.

In the mid-spec GL you won’t find a finer set of white-on-black instruments, with gauges ringed my matt-silver rings and bright red needles so you know how fast you’re going and how hard the engine up front is revving. At night a red ‘afterglow’ follows the edge of the pointers for a smart techie appearance.

Top marks too for the elegant white trip computer graphics and lane-change indicator inclusion (with three winks at a tap of the stalk).

The driver sits on a large seat that supports in all the right places, holding a superb leather-lined steering wheel that feels lovely to the touch. It isn’t too small either. Too bad it doesn’t telescope as well as tilt though.

Nevertheless, getting comfy is child’s play, aided by surprisingly good all-round vision, a massive pair of exterior mirrors and a centre stack that a novice could operate blindfolded. In the early March mugginess the air-con worked a treat too.

Suzuki’s thought about the storage areas (lots), while nothing squeaked or rattled in our (admittedly fresh) test car.

There’s an unashamedly Japanese look and feel to the interior’s presentation and for some people the swathes of hard black plastic textures may come as a disappointment, but – ironically for a company that is now 20 per cent Volkswagen-owned – the Swift is not trying to be premium/German.

This is a mainstream economy car, Suzuki is one of the world’s most renowned specialists in that field and the Swift reflects both facts admirably.

So are the rear seats as good as the ones up front? We reckon they’re fine as far as light-sized hatchbacks go, with an agreeable amount of room for a car as squat as this.

Compared to the old car, this one is 90mm longer, 5mm wider, 10mm taller and 40mm lengthier in the wheelbase – with almost all of the latter dedicated to improving back-seat accommodation.

So it’s easy to get in and out of there is ample space for big feet underneath the front seats so taller rear-seat passengers can at least not feel too confined and the deep side windows do much to leaven the overly-black trim effect that Suzuki seems to be wed to.

Head restraints and lap-sash seatbelts for three, powered rear windows that fall all the way down (great for petulant kids and panting dogs), a pair of overhead grab-handles and a map pocket is just about all you could hope for in a sub-$17,000 supermini these days, and Suzuki duly delivers. A ‘takeaway hook’ behind the front passenger seat is another unexpected extra. It’s great for dangling bags.

Besides the lack of cruise control availability (a confounding omission, as is standard Bluetooth phone connectivity), our only real quibble is a rear seat cushion does not fold forward, so a dropped backrest isn’t quite as low as it could be. Yes it gets flat, but the floor is higher than ideal. And the boot isn’t exactly bountiful to begin with (200 litres – extending to 900 litres in ute mode).

But the Swift rises above most of its baby-car rivals by having child-seat tether hooks located immediately behind the backrests, as to not foul that tiny cargo area. There’s also a Polo-like fake floor to hide stuff beneath (like laptops) as well as to make the load floor as flat as possible. For this iteration Suzuki has also made the aperture a lot wider to aid loading. A space-saver spare is included.

So the boot is small and so is the engine, but it’s also better, sweeter and more frugal.

We’re living in the Techno Tenties, so out goes the old Swift’s rorty 74kW/133Nm 1.5-litre twin-cammer, for a more compact, lighter, cleaner and – yes – less powerful K14B 1.4-litre equivalent, which comes complete with variable valve timing.

Outputs are now 70kW at 6000rpm and 130Nm at 4000rpm. Both are slight drops only, but the upshot is absolutely class-leading fuel economy. Suzuki says 5.5L/100km (before it was 6.3), while carbon dioxide pollution plummets by 30 grams per kilometre to just 132. In the rough and tumble of town driving we averaged just 5.8L/100km.

The reality is the small performance shortfall is a welcome trade-off if you really want an economical city car. Driving the GL with the five-speed manual gearbox – surely one of the easiest and slickest of its type available today – we were reminded that a terrific trannie with smart gearing can overcome those mythical cubic inches.

On the flat streets of Melbourne, with two or three people on board and the air-con on, we simply do not think this car “needs” more power. Acceleration from standstill is lively, and once on the move the engine seems to do the rest.

Suzuki claims a new electronic throttle control helps sharpen response times across the rev range, while top and bottom-end performance is helped by a higher compression ratio (10:1 v 9.5:1) and a longer stroke, and we tend to agree.

Yet the Swift lives up to its name on the open road too as long as you are willing to rev the engine as you must in most Japanese cars. Again, we didn’t mind. This car has a lusty little heart that loves to beat fast (6500rpm is no sweat), and so as long as it is not dipsomaniacal then who cares?

Some critics have complained about the lack of oomph in hillier terrain, especially loaded to the hilts with kids and luggage. Have they driven the competition? Again the Swift performs more than admirably within its class confines, and does so with sweetness and elan. At 100km/h and this thing is singing.

And then there is the electric power steering. The old model was renowned for its agility and verve, and the AZ edition does not let the side down. Indeed, we were delighted with the sheer naturalness and sharpness of the helm, combined with the eagerness for the little box on wheels to whiz through corners – and all the while remaining composed and upright.

Words like ‘rock solid’ on the road crossed our minds more than once during our time with it. So the fact that this car has one of the smallest turning circles around almost seems miraculous.

The 2011 model is also quieter, with less road noise to upset the peace. The company boasts of a 3dB noise reduction at 120km/h. We still reckon a Polo is more refined, but the Suzuki is not the aural assault it once was.

Throw in a supple ride (incredible for a car so stout) that – while firm-ish – still lopes over the larger stuff while soaking up the smaller irregularities found in the inner urban jungle, as well as strong and effective brakes (discs up front, drums out back), and the Swift’s range of talents becomes crystal clear. A stiffer body, combined with softer suspension tuning, seems to have done the trick.

The Fiesta is no longer the default driver’s choice in the light car class, folks. Truthfully we preferred it to the (hard-riding 17-inch wheeled) Audi A1 that followed it immediately afterwards. And that cost twice as much.

So where does this leave the Swift in the light-car pecking order? If you are after an automatic, the four-speed clunker option is not a patch on the equivalent Ford and Volkswagen’s dual-clutch transmissions.

But the five-speed manual Swift – find the extra $700 and buy the GL instead of the GA, if only for residual values’ sake – is now rubbing shoulders with the Fiesta and Polo.

The Ford is gutsier, roomier and better equipped, the VW is more refined, but the Suzuki is a great all-rounder anyway with lashings of spunk and charm thrown in.

It may not appear very different, but the fourth-generation Swift is significantly more able. We’d happily recommend one.

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