Monday, 3 December 2012

Driven:- The 1998 Suzuki Swift 1.0 GLS OH YES!

 In 1988, when the Suzuki Cultus was launched in its second generation guise, it must have looked as if it came from some point in the near future, mainly because the outgoing model was about as radical as a side parting and starched collar. What we didn't realise then was that it 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 the Hungarian production run. So, for a car to last for longer than some religions, it 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.

Stepping aboard , having opened the feather-light doors, the eccentric theme continues with some of the most luridly hallucinogenic seat upholstery ever to have been pumped out of a loom in a Mumbai sweat-shop. It's terrific stuff and probably goes a long way to concealing whatever Pepsi, chocolate and urine stains you wish to 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 to scrutinize every oscillation of those tiny pistons. 

Equipment level is a little uneven. There's no stereo fitted, nor even a mono, but there is a pair of electric windows which is handy because the interior door handle is broken. The window motor runs out of puff about half way down, as I found when making a bid to adjust the door mirror, whereupon I most unexpectedly discovered a control for a pair of electrically adjusted door mirrors mounted just below line of sight. Thrilled by this revelation I pressed the switch in a bid to close the window. I failed.

The omission of air-conditioning is heartily welcomed, I know the detrimental effect that A/C activation has on a three-cylinder SMART, so its imposition on a Vintage Swift would likely be cataclysmic. I poked the key into the somewhat worn 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 volume from moderate to deafening. Truth is that the three-cylinder engine 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 pootly nature of the car. It's easy to forget that diminutive Japanese cars (or even European built versions thereof) were often fitted with three-bangers and thus often enjoyed this soundtrack. But compared to the zillions of forgettable fours on the market this sounds infinitely more interesting.

Slow, though. Very slow indeed.  Through the gears the rev-needle moves roughly four times as quickly as the speedo. The gearbox is probably quite slick, but the long, spindly gearlever means that the quality of gearchange is 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 unprecedented durability. Unfortunately, rubber might have been a better idea and may have led to more success on the turn-in front. As it is, maniacally sawing at the wheel works rather like the abstract to a thesis, giving 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. You just have to accept the 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, though, a 1998 Suzuki Swift can be crossed off your "I wonder if" list. Though the three-cylinder mill appeals in noise and durability, the performance and handling limitations demote it firmly into the driving school class.

Sadly this rather diminishes the life expectancy of the stunning example in these photos. After my investigative shakedown I returned it to the compound; the idle was all over the place by now and the car lurched embarrassingly as I tried to trickle into its parking space. Probably nothing mechanical to worry about, but a far sight from the unexpected smoothness it had initially demonstrated. Anybody taking this car on would need to repair the interior door release and the drivers electric window lift. They might want to do something about the big holes that have been worn in the carpet near the pedals, and there's the small matter of the big dent in the drivers door. Sadly, it all might be a bit much.

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, 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 their 50cc scooters was bang on trend. Look at their offerings on the car market, though, and oh dear. There's the Swift and the Baleno saloon (another excitement-free offering) and a choice of 4x4s spun from the aging Vitara platform. There was absolutely nothing to set your pulse racing and everything they could offer seemed to have been designed to hit a price-point rather than to be in any way alluring.

For now, though, the '98 Swift is a treasure from a bygone age, when weight, technology and fashion were yet to make their defining impact on every single car on the market.