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Suzuki Swift Sport vs. Mini Cooper

  1. We’ve all had our 205 GTI moments. Yammering about the place in a feather-light, bone-simple, screaming, little hatchback. Not giving a stuff for build quality or fancy equipment (at least, not beyond a honkingly loud stereo). And determinedly squeezing to the back of our minds any thoughts of the moment when bravery meets inexperience and tin-box Eighties supermini meets lamp-post. But it’s 2012 now, and, my, how we’ve changed. Oooh, get us, we’re all grown-up, full of airs and graces and refusing to get out of bed without soft-feel dashboards and chromed climate switches and park sensors and low CO2 ratings.

    But there’s still a nostalgia that gnaws away at us. A nostalgia fed and watered by the new Suzuki Swift Sport. The first couple of miles of pasting through the gears brings it all rushing back. Don’t come here in search of your ‘premium compact’ flummery and expensive refinements. It’s a simple, noisy, little box, determinedly fighting off the middle-age spread. It feels light, eager, keen to play. Its engine is a little terrier, taking a deep breath at 4,000 and panting its little heart out all the way to 7,000. The steering’s quick and natural, the handling sharp. The Swift wants to have a good time, and, even more than that, it strains its every sinew in pursuit of you having one, too.

    Words: Paul Horrell
    Photos: Lee Brimble

    This feature first appeared in the February 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. It’s not, by today’s measures, a hot hatch. The maths is rather neat: if the centre of gravity of the modern hot-hatch posse is £20k and 200bhp, then the Swift offers an almost exact one-third discount on each measure. It’s £13,500 and 136bhp. But, boy, it makes great use of every quid and every horse.

    So we lined it up against another little three-door with a non-turbo 1.6 that over-delivers on fun per horsepower, the Mini Cooper. But a Mini is a rounded talent, because its BMW roots serve up refinement and quality feel that’d be pretty alien to your old-skool Eighties hot-hatch pilot, and which prove beyond doubt that ‘premium’ isn’t just a fancy badge and a greedy price. Premium, in the Mini’s case, is in-depth engineering that justifies a higher price for less power: £14,840 for just 122bhp.

  3. It boils down to one crucial question: in adding refinement to the warm-hatch mix, does a Mini provide a nice extra suite of talents in return for the higher price, or does it merely dilute
    the magically simple focus of the Suzuki?

    On the outside, the Suzuki makes itself clear. It’s a normal supermini, souped up in the manner approved by generations of tear-aways. The clues are where you’d expect: bigger wheels,
    a bit of skirt-and-spoilery, twin pipes. Same goes for the inside: standard Japanese supermini dashboard, but big, excellently supportive seats with red stitching. (We all secretly know, even though it’s unproven by science, that red stitching in the seats is worth an extra 5mph through the apex of the roundabout onto the bypass).

  4. It follows that the Swift Sport has normal supermini proportions, too: it’s tall and upright, and you sit slightly hunched over the steering wheel to give rear passengers legroom, and the rear suspension is torsion beam, because that’s the cheapest and most compact way for a supermini and it’s good for boot space.

    The Mini throws away these supermini conventions, not only in its styling inside and out, but also in its packaging. In a Mini, you sit low with your legs straight ahead, behind a shallow windscreen. It’s a sporting driving position, uncannily like that of a 911. The multi-link rear suspension wasn’t designed for cheapness and compactness, but rather to serve handling. Its bulk makes the boot tiny. And anyone condemned to the rear seat will get their ankles crushed. The Mini is really a specialist coupe, not a mass-market hatch.

  5. Given its power deficit against the Swift, and the fact that it’s about 100kg heavier, you’re not a bit surprised when your first whizz up through the Mini’s gears feels a bit limp. The power delivery is smooth and measured, like some businessman’s low-spec BMW. It feels well-engineered and liveable with, but it doesn’t have the fizzy top-end get-away of the Swift. Its acceleration number is slightly but tellingly slower, taking a claimed 9.1secs to get to 62mph where the Suzuki arrives in 8.7.

    But the Mini tries not to annoy you. On a motorway, the engine sinks to a gentle hum, and there’s little tyre or wind noise. That comfy driving position means you feel relaxed, even after hundreds of miles in a day. At the same constant speed, the Swift’s engine keeps shouting, and it gets wearing after a while. The Mini’s gearshift feels better oiled and damped than the Swift’s, too. And its brakes are firm and more progressive, where the Swift has a sogginess at the top of the pedal that occasionally sends a little pulse of anxiety through your nervous system.

  6. On a back-road thrash - which is what we came for - there are times when the Mini’s special proportions and suspension pay dividends. Because you sit low, when you hit lumps you’re not pitched about so much. Besides, the more sophisticated suspension geometry means that you don’t get knocked off-course by bumps and cambers, like you sometimes do in the Swift. That’s not to say that the Mini goes placidly over a bad road: the suspension doesn’t have much travel, so the ride has to be firm. In the Swift, you’re bobbed about more, because you’re perched higher. It looks a high, narrow car, and that’s sometimes how it feels.

    But the Swift is a proper laugh. The steering’s very natural in its gearing and weighting, and it gets results. There’s not much nose weight to support or torque to transmit, so the front tyres aren’t exactly stressed out. So they can nudge it into a corner with playful ease, and the back wheels follow urgently along. It’s grippy and sharp and exact. You’re always kept engaged, working your course, making sure you’re in the right gear to keep the cammy engine on its mettle.

  7. And through the first few snaky bits, the Mini does feel a little grown-up. It’s not just about that engine, which seems to be holding something back at the top end of its revs, but the steering too. It’s a bit artificial, jinking away from straightahead but then going a fraction numb, like electric power systems always seem to, and losing its directness too. (In fairness, the car was on winter tyres).

    Anyway, once you put some more load into the system, it shows its talent again, the steering coming to life, the chassis staying planted and progressive, and even letting you use the throttle to trim the angle. So the Mini will come out to play. You just might not think so at first.

  8. But the Suzuki is more fun because it’s quicker, and feels it, by a margin that matters. That’s partly the extra power and partly a weight advantage. The Mini is about 100kg heavier, but you never feel that weight in corners. You feel it in good ways, not bad ones: it sticks to a straight line better, the sound insulation is better, the controls have more heft, the dash feels more solid and the doors have more of a thunk. And the engineering expense shows through in another way. Despite the weight, it’s efficient: its fuel figure is 52.3mpg versus 44.1 for the Swift. Correspondingly, its CO2 is better, too - 127g/km plays the Swift’s 147. Thank the Valvetronic engine and the stop/start system.

  9. So we’ve come this far and found, when the chips really are down, the Mini isn’t only more refined, it’s pretty much as much fun as the Swift. A bit slower, but a bit less beaten around by the lumpiness of an average B-road. Given that we’ve always held the Mini is such high regard, it’s quite an achievement for the Suzuki to match it move-for-move.

    If you put these cars in order based on the driving alone, you’re ignoring other, bigger differences. Style, for a start.

  10. The Mini’s design is highly individual, and that makes lots of people want one, even if its success perversely undermines the individuality, because there are three Minis in your street. And you’ve probably formed a view of those other owners and decided whether you want to be identified with them by driving the same car. I say: if you like the car, go ahead and buy it, even if they’re not your type - why let people you don’t like have all the fun?

    The Suzuki is a simple proposition, setting out to cram a lot into its little body. As much space, as much performance, as much spirit, as much value as it possibly can. Good on it. Nostalgia always takes a simplified view of the past, and the Suzuki is obeying most of the simple, old-school, hot-hatch rules. And the rules it breaks are ones we’re happy to see go by the board: it isn’t sparsely equipped, and it has five NCAP stars. We love driving it down roads where we can let it off the leash. It paints a smile, and we salute its generosity in giving so much fun for so little money.

  11. The Mini is more complex. It’s significantly less practical and more expensive. Yet the reasons are compelling. When you’re not hooning about, its refinement is a joy, and, when you are, the sophistication does show through.

    There’s something more, too. The basic Cooper is brilliantly at ease with itself. It was the first new Mini, and it’s the most rounded. An S is faster, but it can’t always use the power. A Clubman is wilfully eccentric, a Countryman bloated, a Coupe contrived and unnecessary. Just as the S-Class is the car that Mercedes is born to build, the Cooper hatch is the Mini. It’s been around a while now (an all-new one comes next year, point of fact), but we could live with it for a good while yet. Even if, every so often, we’d be looking back over our shoulder at our younger selves in the Swift.

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