First Drive: New 2012 Suzuki Swift Sport

Major Waffle New cars Suzuki
PetrolBlog heads out to Barcelona to test drive the new and 'improved' Suzuki Swift Sport. Here are some thoughts...

Location: Barcelona, Spain

Date: 31st October 2011

I'll get straight to the point. The new Suzuki Swift Sport is a better car than the old model. There you go, I've said it. PetrolBlog's Car of the Year in 2010 simply wouldn't stand a chance in a playground game of Top Trumps. The new car is quicker, lighter, faster, bigger and more powerful. It's also more fuel efficient and produces less CO2 emissions. Job done then? We should be congratulating Suzuki on the new car and asking them to prepare an acceptance speech for PetrolBlog Car of the Year 2012? Well no, not exactly.

New Suzuki Swift Sport Barcelona AirportLast week I was fortunate enough to fly out to Barcelona to test drive the new car and was greeted with a line-up of Swift Sports at the airport taxi rank. Carlsberg don't do taxi ranks, but if they did, I have a feeling they'd look something like this!

The first thing that strikes you about the new Swift Sport is how different it looks from the standard car. The transformation is reminiscent of the EP3 Honda Civic Type-R, where a few subtle tweaks manage to take the car from humdrum hatchback to B-road warrior. The appearance of the new Swift Sport is dominated by the large honeycomb grille, front fog lights, side skirts, rear roof spoiler, twin exhausts and 17" alloys. The overall effect gives the Swift Sport a perfectly proportioned and suitably aggressive appearance. Once again, it's Suzuki who can teach more mainstream rivals a thing or two about styling. No trinkets, no fuss and no clutter. Yet already, the Suzuki Swift Sport can make a case for being one the best looking hot hatches on sale today.

At the airport, each car was fitted with an aftermarket sat nav unit with a pre-programmed route along the coast to our lunch stop. Once out of Barcelona, the route took in the kind of roads we daydream about when at work. A ribbon of beautifully smooth corners and hairpin bends that zig-zag along the Mediterranean Sea coastline - perfect for test driving the latest junior hot hatch to hit the streets. At least it would be if the road wasn't filled with slow moving camper vans and Dutch tourists. Never mind, a few impromptu stops and some strategic 'slowing-down and speeding-up' manoeuvres ensured that fun driving prevailed.

New 2012 Suzuki Swift Sport in SpainAfter lunch, the sat nav was reprogrammed to take us into the hills above Barcelona, a 90km route expected to take a couple of hours. Sadly for me, the sat nav decided to take a direct route back to the airport and a mere 30 minutes later, I found myself back at square one. Despite a valiant attempt by a Suzuki chap to programme a suitable alternative route, the sat nav unit refused to play ball and following an audible request to take the fourth exit on a roundabout that had only two, I switched the device off and headed for the hills. Fortunately I found some delightful roads on which to test the new Swift - no thanks to the sat nav. With fading light and a ticking clock, I could finally have some fun in the new Swift Sport.

Suzuki has been working hard on the new Swift Sport and as hinted at previously, the 2012 model comes with a host of improvements. These include increased spring rates and the addition of front suspension rebound springs to give greater roll stiffness. The steering-gearbox member and suspension-frame member have also been modified which, when allied to increased overall body rigidity, help to make the Sport feel more composed and stable when cornering hard. Fortunately, the company has resisted the urge to fit a turbocharger and have instead remained faithful to the normally aspirated 1.6 M16A Variable Valve Timing (VVT) engine. Good news.

New 2012 Suzuki Swift Sport in Spain with graffitiThat isn't to say the engine hasn't been improved. By adding a variable intake system, optimising the intake VVT and increasing the valve lift, the bhp figure has risen from 123 to 136. Maximum torque is also available lower down the rev range, with 160Nm at 4,400rpm as opposed to the previous car's 148Nm at 4,800rpm. The result is that the car will accelerate to 60mph in 8.7 seconds and go on to a maximum speed of 121. Like the old Sport, to get the best from the engine, it needs to be pushed hard and most of the fun can be found above 4k revs.

But outright speed and acceleration aren't the Swift Sport's forté. Instead, you need to revel in the the car's handling and delight in the new 6-speed gearbox. This new 'box has a clever triple-cone synchromesh which, despite sounding like an expensive ice cream, actually allows for quicker first and second gear changes. It certainly feels slick and does help you get off the line a little quicker. Every millisecond counts in the traffic light grand prix.

For many people, the old Sport's lack of a sixth gear was a huge turn off, diluting the car's everyday appeal. It wasn't a problem for me, but now I've experienced the sixth gear at motorway speeds, I can see the attraction. The new Swift Sport is more comfortable at higher speeds and with the standard-fit cruise control, it makes the car a more realistic long distance mile muncher. The gearbox retains the short-shift nature of the old car, but for some reason doesn't like being rushed quite as much when in the higher gears. The old Swift Sport's gear change felt suitably retro and the new car has lost some of this appeal. Shame.

New 2012 Suzuki Swift Sport interior dashboardThe interior of the Sport will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has come into contact with the standard Swift over the past year. There are a number of design features that set the Sport apart, including the leather steering wheel and gearstick gaitor, both with red stitching, plus exclusive Sport seats. These seats are comfortable and supportive, although they perhaps present a feeling of being 'sat on the car', rather than being 'sat in the car'.

But then, it is a great car to be sat in! The level of standard equipment is excellent, with Bluetooth, USB connection, climate control, cruise control, steering wheel buttons, seven airbags, keyless entry and stop/start button coming as standard. If Suzuki GB can keep the Sport under the claimed £14,500 when it is launched in January 2012, it'll be a highly tempting proposition, purely on the basis of the standard kit alone.

Incredibly, despite the level of kit, at 1,045kg the new Swift Sport actually manages to weigh 60kg less than the old car. The weight saving started with the exclusive 17" alloy wheels, which are 1kg lighter than the old car's. The Sport's weight loss diet goes some way to ensuring that the car is more economical than before, with a combined MPG figure of 44.1 representing an increase of 4MPG over the last car. But given the Sport's lust for life in the high revs range, you're unlikely to see figures anywhere near this. But if you are going to drive the Sport like Miss Daisy, then treat yourself to the 1.2 SZ4. Think of that as a junior hot hatch's little sister!

New 2012 Suzuki Swift Sport exteriorSo that's the theory over and done with. How does the new Swift Sport perform in practice? Does the extra MPG, sixth gear, lighter weight and improved performance actually make the new Sport a better drivers' car than the old one?

The emphasis here is on the word drivers'.  I've already established that the new Swift Sport is a better car than the old one, but that's not enough. Will the new Sport tempt you out of bed at silly o'clock for a dawn raid? Will it entice you into taking the long way home...just because?

Well, the new Suzuki Swift Sport retains many of the elements that made the original car so great. It's a joyous thing to chuck about, with sweet handling, a composed ride and a wonderfully buzzy engine. Combine these factors with a throaty exhaust note and you have all the ingredients for a great hot hatch. Like the old car, there are no headline grabbing figures or features to propel the Sport to instant greatness, so instead, Suzuki's flagship Swift once again has to do its talking on the B-road. And what the car lacks in genuine steering feel and feedback, it makes up for with a constant willingness to entertain. You just can't stop yourself from accelerating to the redline and shifting down through the ratios as you approach a bend. Once into the corner, the Swift Sport digs in and is completely free of any hint of body roll. It's an addictive mix of frantic fun and sophistication.

New 2012 Suzuki Swift Sport white frontBut with this new found sophistication, the new Swift Sport may have lost some of its appeal. Granted, an afternoon in the sun can't match a week in deepest, darkest England when it comes to a rounded review, but I can't help feeling that the new car has lost some of its playfulness. As I made my way back to the airport, I searched for a conclusive verdict on the new car. For sure, the Swift Sport has grown up. But with this new found maturity, the Swift Sport has developed a conscience. It's kinder on the wallet, kinder on the environment and, on long distances at least, it's a more comfortable place to be. But the improvements may have come at a price.

The old Sport had a raw and undiluted spirit about it and my first impression is that the new one can't quite recreate the magic. I'll reserve judgement on whether it can achieve this until I've driven the car in the UK though.

Suzuki admits that it's looking to target a wider market with the new Sport and I have no doubt that they have built a car that can achieve this. According to the company, the original Sport was bought by a young male audience, but it's hoping for a 60/40 male/female split for the new car. That's quite a shift. But regardless of who buys it, Suzuki can once again claim to have one of, if not the best, junior hot hatches on the planet. I only hope that Suzuki sees sense and brings out a stripped-down, 'Cup' version of the Sport. I for one would love to see a hardcore version that's totally aimed at the enthusiast. Embrace the wider market for sure, but surely there's enough scope for a 'Cup' edition?

I'll leave you with this thought though. It's still possible to pick up an original Suzuki Swift Sport with only delivery miles on the clock. The price? Under £11,000 - an absolute bargain. Keep this under your hat, but if it was my money, I'd be opting for the original. The new car's very good, but I haven't yet seen enough evidence to suggest owners of the old car 'upgrade'. Personal opinion.

I have a sneaking suspicion that in 20 years from now, PetrolBlog will be remembering the original 'MK1' Swift Sport with great fondness. A future classic in the making.

In the meantime, the new and slightly improved Suzuki Swift Sport will be available in showrooms from January 2012. Not a bad way to start the new year.

Update 7th February - I'll be spending a week with the new Swift Sport in April. It will be interesting to drive a UK car on UK roads. Full report to follow in April.