Short and sweet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2005, 12:00am


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SUZUKI HAS AT last made an affordable compact that doesn't look awful. But there's a caveat with the latest Swift: the Hong Kong models of this runabout were made in Japan, without the side airbags of the European-made versions that earned a four-star rating in New Car Assessment Programme crash tests. So, until I learn otherwise, don't be influenced by test-drive reports of the Swift on western websites. Treat the Gloucester Road models as a separate car.

Even so, the Suzuki Swift is still worth a look, because it's an engaging integration of Japanese rally technology, European design and a tradition of making affordable, basic cars.

Unveiled at last year's Paris Motor Show and launched in Hong Kong this summer with the slogan, 'Wanna play?', the curvy Swift seems a long way from the cheeky, boxy Wagon R+ ($119,900) and the aesthetically different Kei-Works ($108,000).

The Swift retains its laddish Suzuki roots with two models: a 91-brake-horsepowered (bhp), 1,328cc five-speed manual version and the test car, a 110bhp, 1,490cc four-speed automatic. Both models have 16-valve, variable valve timing engines, with multi-point fuel injection, MacPherson strut (front) and torsion beam (rear) suspension, and 15-inch wheels.

But the Swift's been to a European finishing school. Its body seems like a cross between the high-waisted Nissan Tiida and the Renault Megane, but it's a hot little looker in supreme red pearl. The bonnet curves like the Audi TT, the grille seems to grin like the Volkswagen Golf GTi, and there's something about the BMW Mini in its flared rear. Suzuki's eight-shade colour scheme seems to be a cheeky nod at other marques' tried-and-tested shades.

There's plenty of room for a couple of six-footers with the seats back, and headroom's impressive, but you'll have more room in a BMW Mini Cooper. The dashboard looks cheap and nasty if you're 48 and have just driven a Jaguar XJ6 stretch, but if you're a youngster out on the prowl on the Tai Po Road, it's functional, with easy and effective air-conditioning controls and plenty of space up top for action figures. A light tray behind the back seat can hold tissues, a Snoopy or two or your toy car collection.

The stereo's excellently loud and takes one CD at a time and you can control volume and radio tuning on effective steering-wheel buttons.

The instrumentation is easy in a triple-gauge instrument cluster - the Swift's tribute to Suzuki's biking roots, with the '0' of the rev counter at six o'clock. The digital dashboard display of the time, fuel consumption and outside temperature is a competitive highlight.

Access is tight in the back but easy in the front, and you enter by pressing a door-handle button that recognises an electronic fob that also works with the keyless start.

The seats are comfortable, tastefully covered in a subdued pattern and are easily adjustable to the front and back. The front seats recline, all the way, to a semi-flat 160 degrees.

The rear seats are cramped for four and tight over the transmission column for five, but adequate for youngsters wanting a lift home. If you push the front seats all the way back, the back seats are about as spacious as in a Peugeot 206cc.

Suzuki has thoughtfully designed plastic ashtrays that you can insert into the fore and aft cupholders, take out and open at any angle and then clean.

The boot opens with a magnetic switch. You get only 213 litres, but it's adequate for four plastic bags of shopping and trips to the beach. Fold the rear seats down and you get 562 litres of space. The spare wheel and tool kit are well-stowed underneath and look easy to lug.

The bonnet reveals a refreshingly accessible engine that could minimise labour costs (a basic service is about $2,000 with labour) and should be fun to tweak.

The Swift drives a lot better than my trusty, rusty 1968 Austin 1100 did in the steamy summer of 76, and you get a hint of Suzuki's rally credentials with an oomphy accelerator and harsh brakes designed for 'urban driving situations and on winding country roads'.

The Swift feels at home in Hong Kong traffic, darting in front of buses and somehow finding the fastest moving lane, as in a Mini Cooper. But the gearbox needs practice if you plan to impress on a date up The Peak. With a two-adult load up Cotton Tree Drive, the box begins to flag by the Squash Centre, so I advise you to slip back into D2 until MacDonnell Road and then gently ease the high-rev L into gear for the steep bits past Bowen Road.

This box can be a little jerky, but it's bearable by the end of Magazine Gap Road. The Swift would make a fine learner's car and a good Mid-Levels runabout. It parks well at the Hong Kong Cricket Club, and, if the steering feels stiff, you get used to it. The visibility's excellent up front, but the Swift's high waist restricts window space for views or suction-applied Garfields on the sides, and the car feels dark - although the young like the lair look.

The Hong Kong cars seem to make do with front dual airbags and side door impact beams (see At a Glance below), but the Swift socks local car snobs in looks and performance, if not on safety. Its engine can sound tinny and the gearbox can be a shocker at first, but the Swift's a fun drive that makes boyracing presentably mainstream, yet is kind to mums.

Local dealer Island Motors (tel: 2332 0091), a Sime Darby unit, has just sold 30 models, and, if fuel prices continue to rise, it'll probably sell more.