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First drive: New Suzuki Swift comes of age

Still got it: The new Swift offers as much fun as its predecessor.

Suzuki improves its redesigned Swift in all key areas – and adds even more mojo

14 Dec 2010

By MARTON PETTENDY in JAPAN

SUZUKI’S Swift has grown up, but remains as sharp as ever.

Slightly bigger and more refined, as well as safer and better equipped at base level, the resurgent Japanese small-car brand’s new-for-2011 Swift will land here in February with marginal price increases and even better steering and handling than before.

Already one of the best dynamic packages in the burgeoning light-car class, the outgoing Swift has been a stellar sales performer both globally and in Australia, where it has long been consistently a top-five seller behind established nameplates like Hyundai’s Getz, Toyota’s Yaris, the Mazda2 and Holden’s Barina.

That’s why Japan’s Kei-car king has decided to play it safe with the third-generation model, which made its world debut at October’s Paris motor show – before going on sale the same month in Europe and in November in Japan – dressed in a five-door bodyshell that can only be described as evolutionary yet remains as cheeky and distinctive as ever.

30 center imageBeneath the instantly recognisable exterior, however, lies a comprehensively overhauled chassis featuring revised suspension, retuned electric power steering and 15 per cent better torsional rigidity due to increased use of high-strength steel, while a concerted weight-saving program has limited kerb weight gain to just 25kg despite increases in all key dimensions and increased standard safety and equipment levels.

The all-new Swift’s headline act, however, is a new 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine – downsized from the current model’s 1.5-litre four – that return’s mainstream class-leading fuel consumption of just 5.5 litres per 100km and CO2 emissions of 132 grams per kilometre in five-speed manual guise.

That is a 13 per cent reduction from the outgoing engine’s 6.3L/100km and 152g/km figures and makes the new Swift more efficient than all but Volkswagen’s new Polo – which is priced close to $20,000 in five-door form – in Australia’s smallest vehicle category. It also makes the 2011 Swift almost as economical as Suzuki’s smaller Alto, whose 1.0-litre engine returns 4.7L/100km.

The downside of the more frugal Swift engine is slightly lower performance, with peak power of the 1372cc K14B engine dropping marginally from the current 1490cc M15A engine’s 74 to 70kW at the same 6000rpm, and maximum torque falling by a similar degree from 133 to 130Nm at the same 4000rpm.

Offsetting this, however, is the fitment of electronic throttle control as standard across the range. Previously fitted only to the range-topping Swift Sport, the drive-by-wire accelerator system sharpens throttle response discernibly at all revs and makes the new 1.4 feel a little punchier than the 1.5 where it matters – at low engine speeds.

Also helping the new Swift feel slightly more tractable down low – while still revving cleanly beyond 6000rpm and producing a noticeably lumpier exhaust note to boot – are a higher (10:1 versus 9.5:1) compression ratio and longer-stroke cylinder dimensions of 73x82mm (compared with the former engine’s square 78x78mm design), but it must be said the new 1.4 still does its best work above 3000rpm.

GoAuto drove the first Australian-specification versions of the new Swift, which is now in production in Hungary and Japan, from where our version will continue to hail, at Suzuki’s original Ryuyo proving ground outside Hamamatsu south of Tokyo this week.

Matched with an upgraded four-speed automatic transmission, which comprises a simple but effective overdrive-off button that locks out top gear for improved engine braking around town, the Swift easily accelerated to a top speed of almost 180km/h on the 6.5km handling circuit’s 2.3km main straight, while the five-speed manual version proved slightly quicker and faster.

The diminutive Swift has built its reputation not on performance but handling, however, so we were relieved to find that the changes made to the new model’s steering and suspension will keep it at the pointy end of a highly competitive light-car pack.

While a back-to-back comparison with the classy new Polo and facelifted, better-value versions of the similarly slick-steering Mazda2 and Ford Fiesta will be required to make a definitive pecking order judgement, it’s clear that steering remains the Swift’s best dynamic attribute.

Effortlessly light at parking speeds yet firm and consistently weighted at speed, the Swift’s variable electric power steering is more precise, more responsive and super-stable at speed, yet almost completely devoid of rack rattle or kickback. It may lack the ultimate finesse of the Polo and Fiesta, but Suzuki has taken no backwards step in terms of the Swift’s steering.

Complimenting its pin-sharp steering is the sort of chassis balance and grip and progressive handling usually found only in more expensive European offerings.

If anything, however – as far as we could tell from our brief drive at the high-speed Ryuyo test track – the new Swift is slightly softer and more compliant than before, offering better bump absorption and improved ride quality across the board, perhaps at the expense of some bodyroll.

Suzuki says the Swift’s increased body stiffness has allowed it to make the suspension slightly softer without affecting handling, by revising the anti-roll bar and coil spring layout of the MacPherson strut front-end to increase roll stiffness and rigidity, while reducing damping rates.

Similarly, Suzuki says the Swift’s revised torsion bar rear-end offers 50 per cent better lateral rigidity, 25 per cent better roll control and improved toe control, while being 2kg lighter.

Weight-saving was a major goal for the new Swift, says Suzuki, with a plastic radiator shroud and cylinder-head cover saving a respective 1.5 and 1.2kg and a smaller muffler shedding 350g, although the larger, stiffer body and increased specification ups kerb weight by 25kg to between 980 and 1050kg.

Overall length increases by 90mm from 3760 to 3850mm, while width is up from 1690 to 1695mm, height increases from 1500 to 1510mm and wheelbase expands from 2390 to 2430mm. Biggest beneficiary in terms of interior space is rear legroom, which appears to be noticeably greater and although headroom is plentiful front and rear, the centre rear position is restricted by a heavily humped seat base.

The driver’s seat comes standard with a manual height adjuster, but the entry-level GL variant makes do with steering wheel height adjustment and drum rear brakes.

The new Swift has scored a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating and Suzuki expects it to receive the same maximum crash rating from ANCAP in Australia, thanks primarily to the fitment of seven airbags and electronic stability control as standard across the range.

Matching the Polo (and bettering the Fiesta) by now also comprising a driver’s knee airbag along with twin front, front-side and curtain airbags, all versions of the 2011 Swift will also come standard with traction control, ABS brakes, electronic brake distribution, brake assist, five adjustable hear restraints and five three-point seatbelts The entry-level Swift GL will also come standard with larger (but still steel) 15-inch wheels with 175/65 R15 tyres, air-conditioning, a full-function trip computer, a solid AM/FM/CD sound system with remote controls on the faux leather-clad three-spoke steering wheel, a USB iPod jack, one-touch lane-change indicators, side mirror-mounted repeater lights, remote central locking, power mirrors and windows – auto-down for the driver.

Apart from a telescoping steering column and rear disc brakes, the GLX variant adds 16-inch alloy wheels with 185/55 R16 tyres, front foglights, keyless push-button starting, climate-control and Bluetooth phone connectivity.

Unfortunately, cruise control appears to be the one glaring omission from an otherwise highly specified interior that is markedly improved in terms of fit, finish and material quality and, although the current model’s ugly passenger airbag outline has been dispensed with, soft-touch surfaces remain few and far between.

As with ride quality, overall refinement and noise suppression is noticeably improved (although there is still some A-pillar wind noise at 100km/h), while cabin amenity is enhanced via a large (but unlockable) glovebox, four huge door pockets with bottle holders, three extra centre console cup-holders, four overhead grabrails and highly legible (200km/h) speedo and tacho dials separated by a neat LCD trip computer display including a clock and outside temperature.

The Swift continues to offer a space-saver spare wheel beneath a double-deck boot floor, which combines with 60/40-split folding rear seats to offer an almost-flat load space.

GoAuto understands the Swift, which is currently in run-out at a starting price of $15,990 drive-away but had a long-running list price of $16,290 plus on-road costs, will be accompanied by price increases of about three per cent across the board.

Despite that and a host of upcoming new entrants in a light-car segment that is up 18.4 per cent so far this year, Suzuki Australia managing director Tak Hayasaki expects the new Swift’s larger dimensions, broader colour palette, increased standard equipment, unrivalled safety levels at this price and outstanding fuel economy to appeal to an even wider audience than the 1000 customers per month it currently attracts.

“We are looking for more sales overall with the new Swift,” he said.

Further bolstering the booming light-car class in 2011 will be replacements for less accomplished dynamic performers including the Yaris, Barina and Kia Rio, plus at least three Chinese debutants from Chery, Great Wall and Geely, and Hyundai’s new Accent/i25 sedan.

Australians will not have access to the 1.2-litre petrol, 1.3-litre diesel or all-wheel drive Swift models available in Europe and nor is there yet a successor for the former 1.6-litre Swift Sport.

As it stands, however, beneath the slightly more mainstream but still uniquely cheeky exterior styling of the new Swift lies an equally more mature, more refined chassis that deserves to continue to make Suzuki’s accomplished light-car an even bigger success.

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