Pint-size economy car frugal with fuel.
by Bob Plunkett
Base Price $9,099
As Tested $10,499
Talk about economy: Suzuki's pint-size Swift hatchback coupe pulls impressive low numbers to the bottom line for an initial purchase, then delivers high fuel economy figures to save more money down the road on gasoline.
The base three-door Swift GA hatchback with manual five-speed gearbox, which happens to be the lowest-priced car in a line of economical Japanese minicars, delivers some of the best fuel economy figures of all gas-burning cars sold in North America.
Thus, saving money, it seems obvious from the outset, becomes an overriding concept behind Suzuki's small car.
That penny-pinching stance extends beyond the fuel pump because Swift offers highly competitive retail prices, beginning at $9,099 for the Swift GA. Even the top Swift, a GL equipped with air conditioning, cassette player and an optional three-speed automatic transmission comes home for about $11,200.
Suzuki's Swift divides into two levels of trim: GA ($9,099) and GL ($10,099). The base Swift GA does not include air conditioning or a stereo audio package, which come standard on the GL.
Each version uses the same modest four-cylinder engine. A five-speed manual gearbox comes standard. A three-speed automatic transmission is available as a $650 option.
Exterior styling for the Swift traces to a generational update which occurred in 1995, but the overall wedge-shaped form and aerodynamic sculpting of nose and wavy side panels continues to look fresh and contemporary.
The front hood slants sharply forward to a rounded prow accented by a narrow central grille and flanking pair of halogen headlamps, all underscored by a thick black sport bumper which extends around corners to the forward wheelwells. Curvy creases in the hood articulate the headlight clusters and put a bump in the hood's center dome, with all hood lines flowing upward and rearward until merging into the bold expanse of a canted windshield.
At the top of the windshield the roofline extends along in a flat line until interrupted by the quick descent of a forward-tilting hatchback lid that drops down to a thick back bumper in black. Side panels bulge in wavy undulations above the horizontal band of black protective molding, but black tires capped by full wheel covers measure only 13 inches wide and seem undersized in proportions of a toy car.
Still, a high wrap of tinted glass rings the passenger compartment and makes Swift look tall, although the roof actually rises only four and a half feet above the ground.
Swift's cockpit fits snugly like Spandex. Inside are twin bucket seats up front and a modest two-place rear bench. However, you don't feel crammed into subcompact confines of what otherwise could be a mobile sardine can because Suzuki's designers managed to deliver the impossible in a midget economy car: Elbow room.
The front bucket seats with firm side bolsters appear ideally placed to prevent shoulders and arms from bumping against either a fellow rider or the door panel. Headroom is generous for a small car, reflecting the high ceiling, although a long-legged rider will find the space left over for lower limbs only adequate.
In the rear, legroom diminishes further, making the back seat suitable only for children. When not needed for passengers, the rear bench folds forward to expand rear cargo space - the best configuration.
Front seats clad in stain-resistant fabric upholstery provide four-way directional adjustments and flank a central console with cupholders and the floor-mounted gearshift lever. Carpeting extends from front to rear, with each side door adding a vinyl insert and map bin. Overhead, a one-piece cloth headliner conceals extra insulation designed to dampen noise in the cabin.
The dashboard has a central section with controls for air management and optional audio equipment, and the straight-forward instrument panel adds analog gauges for speedometer, tachometer and water temperature, plus a trip odometer and warning lights for oil pressure and battery charge.
Driver sits in a high position and has excellent visibility through the tall ring of tinted glass.
Steering a Victory Red edition of the two-door Swift GL hatchback, we actually zipped up California's Pacific Coast Highway through that elite Mecca of Malibu -- home to movie moguls and the super-rich who drive some of the most expensive cars on the planet. While our economy car may have seemed incongruent among so many fancy fenders along PCH, in a quick-cut lane-changing maneuver it was able to dart ahead of a conservatively driven Porsche.
Our GL, with snappy five-speed manual shifter, popped off the line at each of the Pacific Coast Highway's infinite series of traffic signals. In second and third gears, it behaved aggressively when racking revs to higher rpms. By the time we shifted into fourth, that crisp response diminished somewhat, but by then -- and subsequently into fifth overdrive gear -- we were bumping the speed limit anyway.
An optional three-speed automatic transmission dims this liveliness only slightly but takes a bite out of Swift's fuel economy figures.
Navigating sharp canyon sweepers in the Santa Monica Mountains just east of the coast highway showed off the Swift's agility over a twisty road. Never mind that a Ferrari tailed us with its driver anxious to pass; we were able to power through the curves, hitting each apex as if we too drove an exotic.
Swift's good road manners stem from good mechanical hardware, such as a crisp rack-and-pinion steering system and four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts over coil springs plus front and rear stabilizer bars in place to check excessive body sway. The strut design does a reasonable job of smoothing out pavement irregularities, although the short span between front and rear wheels imparts more harshness to the ride quality than would a larger car with longer wheelbase.
A side benefit from the abbreviated wheelbase on Swift shows up when maneuvering in tight confines like a crowded parking lot. Its relatively brief turning radius allows Swift to steer circles around larger cars and easily work itself into the narrowest parking space. This trait makes it ideally suited for inter-city transit. Meanwhile, the thrifty fuel economy numbers point toward service as a commuter car.
Despite a meager 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine producing only 79 horsepower and equally tepid torque numbers, the featherweight scale of Swift actually counterbalances its puny power figures and results in rather lively throttle responses. While it won't win any speed contests, Swift does manage to run quickly through lower gears and has fortitude at highway speed to ensure confidence when passing other vehicles.
Through independent testing by the federal government, Swift comes up with fuel-economy numbers of 36 miles per gallon for city driving and as much as 42 mpg on the highway. For anyone who must commute some distance each day to work or school, high fuel economy figures like these could have a dramatic impact in deflating an annual fuel tab.
Driving a small car can invite feelings of insecurity due to the diminutive scale when stacked against larger vehicles in traffic, although for Swift a number of covert passive and active safety features help bolster driver confidence. For instance, the structure of this subcompact contains front and rear crumple zones as buffers to a steel safety cage which surrounds the passenger compartment, plus steel beams in side doors to check side intrusions. Each A pillar is made of a single strong, rigid piece of steel, while each B pillar has been strengthened for extra rigidity. Standard safety assets include dual airbags, an energy-absorbing steering column, front seat head restraints and firm anchors in the rear to secure a child's safety seat, with daytime running lights aboard so the small car can be seen better in traffic.
The Swift in present design has been around through six model years, yet it continues to look fresh and measure well against more recent competition. Attributes and limitations counteract one another in yin-yang fashion: It's tiny in overall dimensions, but easy to maneuver in the crunch of urban traffic; affordable for a tight car budget, but nicely equipped and quite comfortable; the small engine may lack power, but that accounts for the frugal fuel consumption.
In short, Swift still deserves keen consideration in the midget economy class.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.