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First Drive – Turbocharged Suzuki Swift Sport

This first drive report of the third-generation, turbocharged Suzuki Swift Sport carries with it a bit of a back story. If you’re interested, then read on, but if you’d like to get straight to the point, you can click on the relevant headings below:

TL;DR – Should I Buy the ZC33S Swift Sport?

A Swift Sport Fanboy is Born

Welcome to Turbo Town

Swift Sport, from then until now

Meet the ZC33S Swift Sport

Behind the Wheel – On Track With A Manual

Gymkhana With the Automatic, and Some Performance Figures

A Skeptic’s Verdict

I Want One – How Much Must I Pay?

TL;DR – Should I Buy the Turbo Swift Sport?

The third-generation Suzuki Swift Sport arrives with a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine producing 103kW, while torque increase by 44% to 230 Nm. But it weighs less than a ton, and Suzuki has retained the lovable character and playful nature that characterised both the previous generations. The shift to turbocharging hasn’t cost drivers the experience of the Swift Sport and handling is still a highlight.

The original hot-hatch recipe of moderate power, affordable price, and enjoyable dynamics are ever-present. But Suzuki has now added convenience in the form of touchscreen infotainment and a traffic-beating six-speed automatic gearbox. Priced below its rivals (prices start at R315,900), the Swift Sport retains its spot at the top of our recommendations list for small, fast fun. Buy one, and make sure it wears Champion Yellow or Burning Red paintwork.

A Swift Sport Fanboy is Born

Back when I was just starting in the motoring game, I managed to crack the nod for my first test car as a member of the South African motoring press. It was a big deal for me as it meant that Torquing Cars, and in turn, little old me, was generating enough of a buzz to warrant recognition from manufacturers. My first ever press car was a second-generation Suzuki Swift Sport, decked out in a horrible Ablaze Red livery that I despise to this day. It wasn’t my first date with a Swift Sport, as I’d already test driven one at a dealer when I was still stealing test drives to write about cars. But that week with the pintsized SSS cemented it in my heart and mind as one of the greatest hot hatches around. It wasn’t just because it was my first test car, either. It was because it was all the things a hot hatch was meant to be; small, light, chuckable, cheap, enough power to have fun, but not enough to kill you.

I’ve driven the Swift Sport several times since then, and instead of it losing its luster with every drive, the Swift Sport has only shone brighter. I’ve become a fan, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that motoring writers don’t earn a fortune, I’d have bought a Swift Sport in January instead of a 17-year old Mazda MX-5. So when the new, third-generation Swift Sport was revealed to the world, I wasn’t just excited, I was critical, too. The third generation had big boots to fill, and I wasn’t sure it could manage it.

The Swift Sport is a true hero car for the driving enthusiast and two of the key elements of that persona have been the naturally aspirated engine and the sweet-shifting manual gearbox. These are the components that have formed the spine of my love for the Swift Sport. Time and time again, rowing through the gears, dancing across three pedals, and revving the little naturally aspirated motor to high heavens, these two traits have made me fall in love with the Swift Sport every time I got behind the wheel.

You can read my ramblings on the old one here, and here, and watch my ramblings on track here. And I’m pretty sure if you type my name into Google you’ll find a ton of essays on social media all extolling the Swift Sport.

So when the new one, codenamed the ZC33S, was unveiled with a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, I wasn’t pleased. Suzuki had caved to a worldly convention, sold the soul of the Swift Sport to the devil who goes by the name of ‘efficiency’. The choice to go turbo didn’t sit well with me. To the extent that I remained a skeptic long after international media had reported back on the merits and demerits of such a powertrain. For as much as I could be called a fanboy, I was a fanboy for the way the old model drove and not just the badge on its boot. That meant I wasn’t automatically a fan of the new one. It also meant that I’d be arguably its biggest critic on South African soil.

Welcome to Turbo Town

Three weeks before the launch date, I’d received the save-the-date email from Suzuki Auto South Africa. Much to my wife’s disdain, I leapt around the house in a fit of excitement instead of cooking dinner. Three weeks would see Suzuki either exceed my expectations or live up to my skepticism – it was time for the reckoning.

Fast forward three weeks and I’m standing in the multistorey parkade at O.R. Tambo in front of a fleet of Suzuki Vitaras. These updated crossovers all feature turbo engines and would be our means of getting to and from Redstar Raceway in Delmas, the location for our first encounter with the turbocharged Swift Sport. You can read about my first impression of the Vitara Turbo in another article coming soon.

Upon arrival at RSR, a bike track known for its tight twists and compound corners, we’re briefly introduced to the Swift Sport in a business presentation. It’s taken two years for the turbo Swift Sport to reach South Africa, and it’s the first turbocharged model we’ve encountered from Suzuki. Why has it taken so long, when almost every other manufacturer sells boosted offerings in sunny SA? Not only has Suzuki been growing from strength to strength on the back of ultra-frugal, ultra-reliable naturally aspirated motors, but there were also concerns from the mothership in Japan that South African fuel wasn’t conducive to the longevity of the Boosterjet engine. Suzuki SA used a turbo Vitara S to prove HQ wrong and after tens of thousands of kilometres run on local fuel, Japan gave the nod, and the Boosterjet was on its way to SA. Welcome to Turbo Town! 

Last time we visited Redstar Raceway we put the Opel ADAM S against the Abarth 595 C, click here to see how that turned out.

Swift Sport, From Then Until Now

Also discussed in the business presentation was the history of the Swift Sport in South Africa. Introduced in 2005 as a three-door with only 92kW and 148Nm from a 1.6-liter engine, the first-generation (ZC31S) was brought to South Africa in limited numbers of just 100, each individually badged as such. They sold like hotcakes, and those who bought them adored them.

2011 saw the second-generation (ZC32S) unveiled, sporting familiar styling evolved to keep up with the new body. It shed nearly 50kg and increased power outputs from the 1.6-liter four-pot to 100kW and 160Nm while adding a sixth gear ratio to the manual gearbox. Available locally as a five-door, it quickly garnered a large following, selling more than 770 units in South Africa in the seven years it was on sale. Those figures could’ve arguably been higher had Suzuki sold an automatic version locally, but Suzuki SA refused to bring in the CVT automatic sold in some foreign markets, thankfully so.

Meet the ZC33S Swift Sport

Then in 2017, the world was introduced to the ZC33S – the third-generation Swift Sport. Based on Suzuki’s HEARTECT platform, the new Swift Sport shed even more weight. 90kg down from the ZC32S, the ZC33S dropped below the one-ton mark, tipping the scales at a featherweight 970 kg. The design was evolutionary, and much of the mechanical stuff remained the same as before. Suzuki had simply evolved the suspension and gearbox systems from the ZC32S, giving the six-speed manual a 10% shorter throw and retuning the Monroe suspension for the reduced weight of the new model. Signature styling was retained too, like the dual tailpipes and beefy body kit, as well as the signature colour, Champion Yellow.

But big changes lay in the engine bay, and the world was introduced to the first factory-boosted Swift Sport. Under the bonnet lay a Boosterjet 1.4-liter four-cylinder. 0.2-litres down on the old engine, the new mill was more compact and lighter, too. Power had grown incrementally, the figure now resting at 103kW, but the torque took a 44% hike to 230Nm. Peak power now arrives 1,400 rpm earlier at 5,500 rpm, while torque peaks for a brief period from 2,500-3,500 rpm, 900 rpm sooner than it did in the old model.

While the changes seem small on paper, Suzuki has followed an ethos established by Lotus’s Colin Chapman. “Simplify, then add lightness,” he was famously noted as saying – the theory that reduced weight mattered more than outright power. After all, why swing a sledgehammer when you can wield a katana instead? Just as deadly, but far quicker and more precise.

Of course, other details have changed, too. A new exterior sees LED projector headlights equipped, and the new bodywork sports faux carbon fibre bits and pieces. 16-inch alloy wheels attempt to fill the blistered arches (we raised the point of 17-inch wheels available in other markets and were told these are under consideration – Suzuki delegates from Japan were present to hear the interest and evaluate the market and road conditions), while colour-wise, buyers can opt for one of seven exterior hues. Champion Yellow carries over – a nod to Suzuki’s Junior WRC dominance in 2004, 2007, and 2010 – while newly added are Super Black, Speedy Blue, Premium Silver, and Burning Red. Mineral Grey and Pure White continue to remain on the palette, but unless you’re insistent on Champion Yellow, we’d recommend Burning Red – the striking pearl colour that the Swift Sport wears incredibly well!

Inside, trademark bolstered sports seats are present, upholstered in dual-combination cloth in black with contrast red stitching and embossed Sport branding. A new D-shaped steering wheel helps point the Sport where it needs to go, while sporty red and black accents decorate the cabin. New gauge clusters dominate the driver’s view, with red accents on the tachometer and a new boost gauge added to the color TFT information display. Perhaps the most welcome addition, though, is a new 7-inch touchscreen infotainment interface, which includes a rearview camera, as well as full smartphone integration via Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

Behind the Wheel – On Track With a Manual

Drive-time – the moment I’d been patiently waiting for, as before me in the pitlane lay five different hues of manual-equipped Suzuki Swift Sports, each with a turbocharged heart awaiting my judgment.

For the sake of full disclosure, not only was my time behind the wheel brief, but it was in isolation on the track and skidpan, where the competitive pressure of trying to set the quickest time on an ideal surface was ever-present. On real-world roads, the Swift Sport may present slightly different behaviour – but we’ll get to that at the beginning of September when we pit the Swift Sport against a comparable German rival from another one of my favourite brands.

Behind the wheel, a few things are immediately noticeable. The first is that the seats are snug, but the position is ideal. The old Swift Sport had the driver perched a little too high, but the ZC33S lets you sit low, and the sports steering wheel projects out more than enough to be sat comfortably in reach of all the crucial controls.

We’re ushered out on to the track, one by one, and the first impression is that the turbo motor has punch. The Swift Sport picks up pace rapidly, and by a combination of lightness and relatively low boost pressure engine responses are impressively quick to throttle inputs. The soundtrack isn’t half-bad either. There’s a depth to the growl of the four-pot, and while those on the aftermarket scene will undoubtedly seek out something louder, most will be happy with the noise emitted from the chunky dual tailpipes of the Swift Sport.

A few laps in and the Swift Sport is impressing. It hasn’t lost any of the nimbleness that made me fall for it all those years ago. Instead, with less weight, it seems even nimbler, quick to turn in and incredibly balanced, too. The front end has an immense bite, and the steering responses are immediate. As the Sport darts towards the middle of a corner, it seems composed, yet still light on its feet. This is good, better than I was skeptically expecting, and the chassis seems to respond in much the same way the old one did.

The wheelbase is longer on this model than it was on the last, which gives greater stability under braking, but there’s still the sense that the Swift Sport can rotate. Switching the stability control off – it does switch off completely, hallelujah! – confirms this; when trail-braking or lifting off the throttle mid-corner, there’s a gentle progression as the rear of the Sport plays catch up with the front end. It’s a gradual break-away, though, and it’s easy to manage. With a fistful of corrective opposite lock in hand, there’s a grin on my face – this is the sort of playfulness that made me love the old one.

On a prepped racetrack the surface is pretty smooth, but on the couple of occasions I cross the curb on corner exit, the Swift manages to nullify the rumbling corrugations without upsetting itself. It resists roll too, and under heavy braking, there’s a faint and predictable nose-dive – enough to communicate what the body is doing but not enough to make the experience unpleasant.

What’s perhaps the most awkward to get used to is the braking. With less than a tonne of mass, the Swift Sport sheds speed in an extraordinary fashion. The ventilated brake disks up front are larger than before and with each lap around the shortened Redstar circuit I find myself braking later and later, carrying more speed through corners than a 103kW ‘warm-hatch’ should be able to.

But my biggest surprise is the engine. This is the facet I was most concerned about – the naturally aspirated mill had been an integral part of the Swift Sport’s personality, and by adding a turbo that personality would surely be gone. But it isn’t. Yes, the Swift Sport is definitely turbocharged, and there’s a hefty slug of torque at the bottom end of the engine’s speed-range that screams turbo, but it feels more natural than other turbo motors of a similar size.

Beyond the 3,500 rpm torque peak, there’s a gradual drop-off rather than the cliff off which torque usually commits turbocharged suicide. While you can easily coast along on a wave of torque in fourth or even fifth gear, there’s still a joy to be found by wringing the motor out a little further. I hit the rev limited a few times too, the kind of thing that normally doesn’t happen in a turbo motor as they’ve long run out of puff by the time you get there. Sure, I’d love another 500 rpm at the top of the tach, but this isn’t bad, in fact, it’s pretty damn good!

What’s most remarkable is how quickly the engine picks up from hibernation. Turbo-lag is inescapable, but for a small-displacement turbo motor, you can barely catch a whiff of it here. Row through the gears – the shift 10% shorter now and feeling as sharp as ever, the clutch action as quick and predictable as it ever was in the old model – and the engine is ready to spring to life, catapulting me out of the corners with all the urgency of a Jack Russel pursuing a tennis ball.

It puts the power down skilfully, no fuss and far more grip than there should be for something without high-tech differentials or torque vectoring systems. Sure, if you tackle a corner too hard and fast there’s loads of tyre-scrub and understeer to be found, too, but with measured inputs, the Swift Sport seems to punch way above its flyweight division – at least in isolation.

Gymkhana With the Automatic, and Some Performance Figures

In a bid to get a bigger slice of the pie, Suzuki has brought in a new six-speed automatic option for the ZC33S Swift Sport. In the business briefing they swear it’s good, but I’m a fan of a manual, and this is a good ol’ fashioned slush-box, not a dual-clutch automatic.

On a gymkhana circuit, the auto ‘box will need to be quick to downshift and select an appropriate first or second gear, and it’ll need to manage the Boosterjet’s torque appropriately without lighting up the tires of leaving me with a handful of nothing when all I wanted was a dollop of torque.

It duly obliges, snapping up downshifts quick enough to leave me suitably impressed, while the chassis of the Swift Sport performs here as well as it did on track. Understeer is more prominent when I’m too stupid into a tight turn, but the front end is keen, and the turbo engine quick to deliver the goods.

Further proof that the automatic is quick comes when we look over the Vbox data for acceleration runs. Suzuki officially claims a 0-100 km/h time of 8 seconds, and with 103kW/230Nm on tap, that’s relatively slow. But the Vbox data shows otherwise, with repeated runs returning sprints of 7.2 seconds with the automatic and the manual achieving a best time of 7.8 seconds.

A Skeptic’s Verdict

I arrived at Redstar Raceway skeptical. A car I’d grown to love had been replaced by something turbocharged, and international reports had been hot and cold as to whether the successor was worthy. My time with the Swift Sport was short, and admittedly, Suzuki SA placed us in an environment that framed the new Swift Sport beautifully.

But truth told, the third generation Swift Sport continues the legacy set by the first two. The chassis remains playful, the steering sharp, and the manual gearbox intact. We can lament the loss of a high-revving NA motor, but the turbocharged engine is an impressive replacement. Less weight, more power, and the same underdog attitude combine in a package that I’m finding hard not to love. The added convenience of a seemingly impressive automatic transmission and a touchscreen infotainment system with all the connectivity mod-cons means the Swift Sport finally offers the contemporary touches buyers have been yearning for.

A full road review and a shootout with the Opel Corsa GSi looms just 5 weeks from now, but until then, my love affair continues…

I Want One – How Much Must I Pay?

You’ve got this far and you’re clearly a fan, but in a world where cars are getting pricier by the day and value for money is hard to find, the Swift Sport’s affordable price tag has always been a key factor, giving buyers performance value for money. The new one has improved performance, levels of specification, and retains the goodness of the old model, but Suzuki SA has retained the competitive edge when it comes to pricing.

Suzuki Swift Sports equipped with the six-speed manual gearbox start at R315,900, while opting for the six-speed automatic will set you back R335,900. At launch, all Swift Sports are sold with a 5-year/200,000km warranty and a 4-year/60,000km service plan, and Suzuki SA reps assure us the pricing is going to stay where it is for some time to come.

Relative to rivals, the Abarth 500 starts at R327,900, while the auto-only Honda Jazz Sport is slower and is priced from R332,500. A less powerful Mini One starts at R334,000 while looking at genuine hot hatches sees prices rise to R398,400 for a Polo GTI or in excess of R450,000 for both the Renault Clio RS and the Mini Cooper S. The Swift Sport’s most direct, the similarly powered Corsa GSi, is priced at R365,900.

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