Monday, 3 December 2012

Realworld Rides: 1998 Suzuki Swift 1.0 GLS OH YES!

In 1988, when the Suzuki Swift was launched in its second-generation guise, it must have looked as if it came from some point in the near future; the outgoing model was about as radical as a side parting and starched collar. What we didn't realise then was that the next generation would still be with us in fifteen years time. In fact, the example you see before you, as a '98 example, comes from bang slap in the middle of its Hungarian production run. 

So, for a car to last for longer than some religions, it surely must be doing something right?

Well, this one has just washed up as a trade-in where I earn the several pence a week that keeps me in All-Bran and economy margarine. We've got three C63 AMGs and an S63 Biturbo in at the moment and none of those have tempted me to grab the keys. The Suzuki, though?

Let me at it!

My sister passed her driving test in one of these, only hers was a 1.3. That means it had an entire cylinder more than this one, with its one-litre G10 engine. Three cylinders is bad for performance, but good for eccentricity and character. 

Stepping aboard, having creaked the feather-light doors open, the eccentric theme continues with some of the most luridly hallucinogenic seat upholstery ever to have rattled out of a loom. It's terrific stuff, with a pattern that probably goes a long way to concealing whatever Pepsi, chocolate and urine stains the Swift's occupants might throw at it. Looking at the odometer with just 37 thousand miles elapsed gave me some comfort that I wasn't sitting in too much of the latter, but then the display does only have five digits, so the actual mileage could be ten times that.

A blank, unbranded steering wheel sits ahead of me, moulded from the most unappealing shiny grey plastic conceivable. Nevertheless it affords a clear view of the comprehensive dial pack, which includes a tachometer so you can scrutinize every oscillation of those tiny pistons. 

The equipment tally is a little uneven. There's no stereo fitted, nor even a mono for that matter, but there is a pair of electric windows: handy because the interior door handle is broken. The window motor runs out of puff about half way down, as I found when reaching out to adjust the door mirror, but I then most unexpectedly discovered a control for a pair of electrically adjusted door mirrors mounted just below line of sight. Thrilled by this news, I pressed the window switch to summon an upwards stroke, but the glass showed no interest in moving from where it skulked.

The omission of air-conditioning in a car of this age and power is heartily welcomed; I well know the detrimental effect that A/C activation has on a three-cylinder Smart ForTwo, so its imposition on a Vintage Swift would likely be cataclysmic. I poked the key into the time-worn ignition orifice and gave it a twist. Start-up was immediate. The idle was noisy, which I expected, but smooth, which I didn't.

The pedals all carry out the usual functions that one expects, but for all the feel you get from them they could be fixed to a piano. The one on the right is obviously attached to the engine, as it varies the latter's volume from moderate to deafening. Truth is, though, that the three-cylinder mill sounds absolutely wonderful. I enjoy the sound of most triples, but the low, coarse throb of this one appeals by being distinctly at odds with the pedestrian nature of the car itself.

Slow, though. Very slow indeed. Through the gears, the rev-counter's needle moves roughly four times as quickly as the speedo's. The gearbox is probably quite slick, but the long, spindly gearlever makes the quality of gearchange rather lost in translation. All five gears are definitely in there, though. There's a reverse, too.

The handling characteristics of the '98 Swift are, on this particular car, rather dictated by its tyres, which are of some exotic far-eastern origin and are presumably made from some advanced space-age composite of unparalleled durability. My research determined that rubber might have been a better idea, though and would certainly have led to more potency on the turn-in front. As it is, even maniacally sawing at the wheel in search of sensation is like reading the abstract to a PHD thesis, providing a rough idea of what's coming up soon, but not weighing you down too heavily with detail.

Perversely, all this sponginess works together rather well. Because no single control is any more direct or precise than any other, you can just go about your business in general ignorance of the facts. On these tyres, you just have to accept the Swift's low, low limits and hold yourself back a bit. Fortunately the tyres begin to wail like Lady Gaga with her head in a vice well before you bite off more than the car can chew.

As a driving machine for ardent thrillseekers, a 1998 Suzuki Swift can be crossed off your "I wonder if" list. Though the three-cylinder mill appeals in its  noise and durability, its performance and handling limitations demote it to the "motoring appliance" class. However, while it does little to reward the enthusiast, there's enjoyment to be had in its unfussy, white bread and jam adequacy. It drives every bit the sum of its parts.

Sadly, this particular example might not have many more miles of ruthlessly tolerable trundling ahead of it. After my investigative shakedown, on returning it to the compound the idle was all over the place and the car lurched embarrassingly as I botched an attempt to trickle it into its parking space. There's probably nothing mechanically amiss to worry about, but such behaviour was a dramatic change from the unexpected smoothness it had initially demonstrated. Anybody taking this car on would also need to repair the interior door release and the drivers electric window lift, and, if flushed with pride, might want to do something about the big holes that have been worn in the carpet near the pedals. There's also the small matter of the big dent in the drivers door. Sadly, it all might be a bit much for most sensible folk to even bother with.

The future looks bleak for this little Swift. But things are looking better for the Swift of today. Suzukis current Swift is a sharply styled little beastie in the mould of the MINI. It has infinitely more youth appeal than the old second-gen machine did, even back in 1992. I was always a little bit mystified, to be honest, why Suzuki chose to market their cars and their bikes to such totally different demographics.

Take the year 1998, for example. If you were a lunatic that drank chilled adrenaline by the bottle and wanted to kill yourself in the most thrilling way possible, you could buy a Suzuki TL1000. There were various varieties of GSXs, too, and even the most mundane of the brand's 50cc scooters was bang on trend. A look at their offerings on the car market, though, might have had you reaching for the Mogadon. You had the Swift and the Baleno saloon (another excitement-free offering) and a choice of 4x4s spun from the ageing Vitara platform, but nothing designed to set your pulse racing. Instead, everything Suzuki had in its portfolio was evidently designed to hit the spot among a clientèle who'd probably buy their next car from whichever dealership's ever-so-nice sales people made the best cup of tea.

Snark aside, a 1998 Suzuki was typically bought by somebody with no particular interest in the cutting edge, and who better appreciated an honest, drama-free motoring package at an appealing price-point. And for a car of such unpromising ambition, let alone conceived to have anybody hyperventilating, the old Swift does absolutely nothing to be ashamed about.