Suzuki Swift GTi
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 1
The Suzuki Swift GTi carved out an entirely new category of performance hatch. Being much smaller than the likes of the Laser/Corolla/Pulsar class there were few comparable with which to judge the car. The little 1.3 litre engine punched well above its weight, developing 100 bhp (74 kW). Unfortunately the “cheap-and-cheerful” Swift on which it was based did not result in a low entry price. In 1986 it had a sticker price just under $20K, which was a lot to ask for a diminutive 2 door hatch, arguably even today.
Not too many were enticed into laying down their hard earned on the car given the price, but while this was understandable, those that opted for the likes of the Pulsar ET and Corolla Twin-Cam would have been sorely disappointed at a set of lights. The Swift GTi was put together in such a way that it appealed to both the extrovert and the technophile. The little 1.3 litre 16 valve engine wound out its 74 kilowatts at 6600 rpm with the combination of what was then up-to-the-minute head technology (although it didn’t have the variable inlet tract design used in Toyota four-valves
-per-cylinder engines for better low-end torque) and full electronic management, including multipoint fuel injection.
The gearbox and final drive ratios on the GTi were revised so that the little mill was kept threshing away in its 4000 rpm-plus power zone as much as possible, but the low top-end gearing that resulted still made it capable of winding out to no less than 180 km/h in fifth, with prodigious acceleration available nearly all the way. Suspension
, apart from the by then universal adoption of coil springs
for the beam rear axle, was basically the same as standard Swifts, but you did get larger 13 inch wheels with low-profile 165/65R13 tyres. A disappointment was that these were steel, with plastic "aero" covers, rather than the nice set of stylish alloys you would have expected when spending 20 grand.
External modifications included a full front spoiler incorporating fog lights, moulded-in flares around the rear wheel arches and a small aerodynamic
extension above the rear window reminiscent of the twin cam Corolla. All this gear is colour-coded to the body, and gave, according to Suzuki, the GTi a Cd figure of 0.37 which was quite reasonable for such a small, abrupt body. Inside, the car was given a more luxurious atmosphere than your everyday three cylinder Swift. Seats were two-shade patterned cloth matching the door inserts, and there was thick, warm red carpet right through which was probably borrowed from the interior treatment Peugeot gave their wonderful 205GTi.
Behind the Wheel
The driving position, with an adjustable steering
wheel and adequate supply of legroom even for taller drivers, was quite good. Instrumentation was pretty complete with a tachometer
redlined at a conservative 6700 rpm (bearing in mind the engine's state of tune), a 220 km/h speedometer
, plus temperature and fuel gauges. Unfortunately the radio was only an average-quality AM/FM unit, sans tape, with four rather tinny speakers distributed around the Swift's extremities. We believe later iterations had better units fitted as standard. And while the car may not have been all that massive on the outside, it was definitely massive in terms of the amount of fun it provided. It was not merely fuss and fury without any properly measurable result.
Despite most road testers of the time being unable to match the builder's claims for a 0-100 km/h time of 8.6 seconds, most could match the twin cam Corolla’s 400m sprint in 16.9 seconds, while its response on the road was universally praised, usually classed as being “astounding” or “outstanding”. At 110 km/h the engine would be spinning at slightly over 4000 rpm which did ensure it always sounded busy, but there was nothing uncomfortable about the noise level. The only real giveaway of the GTi's humble origins was the typically Japanese habit of the front window seals popping open with rising cabin air pressure over 110 km/h. The car didn't sound like a product of the wind tunnel.
The driveability of the GTi was relatively without quirks. Like any high-power front-drive, it needed to be treated with some awareness when you were hammering away from a standing start, otherwise you would merely sit on the spot with the front tyres
wasting away your valuable tread pattern. But, with less bulk to move and a more favourable weight distribution than some larger front wheel drives from the time, it was not bad. The gearshift was light and easy to use, and only brutal treatment would beat the synchromesh. The low overall gearing meant the intermediates didn't stretch to anything more than reasonable speeds - although owners did claim they could find that 6700 rpm redline inadvertently, yet comfortably, and some adventurous types exceeding it to the point where the electronic cut-out stopped the action at around 7500 rpm.
On the Road
The main difference between the Suzuki 16 valve engine and Toyota's was that it didn't develop any real muscle until around 4500 rpm. The torque curve was not at all peaky, but you could feel a definite surge as the tacho needle moved towards its upper reaches. This meant the engine was perhaps a little less responsive at the bottom of the power band, and explained the ultra-low gearing. Still, by ignoring the red line, the lower gears could be made to stretch beyond the 48, 86 and 118 km/h suggested by the tachometer.
The Swift's over-the-road abilities seem well-enough matched to the pace of the power-plant. The ride was firm, but well-controlled, with a characteristic tendency to run wide in bends when pushed at all hard. The car's grip was good enough that it would continue responding to instructions past reasonable limits, although there was never any doubt what it would do at the bitter end. It was progressively and smoothly reactive to accelerator liftoff in mid-corner. The braking - ventilated discs up front, drums at the rear - was impressive on the road, bringing the car quickly and surely to a straight-line stop from high speeds, but the system did show its shortcomings by fading out under continued heavy use. For the average press-on driver though, it appeared to be a thoroughly competent setup.
For sheer performance, we cannot think of any other car from the era that could actually beat it for the same price. There was something else that has to be considered here though, other than the GTi's ability to cover ground. Peugeot’s 205 GTi was quicker and gave a similarly energetic driving experience, but it cost a lot more – which was a shame given it was nothing more than a quicker-than-normal 1.6 litre hatch. But at least that 205 GTi had some sort of pedigree to add to its natural charisma by being related - however distantly - to a successful, bona fide rally car. And it was also European. The Suzuki didn’t have either of these factors going for it.
The other problem was that two other Japanese cars, which both offered more passenger accommodation, virtually equalled the GTi in performance, but were priced significantly lower. As we said at the start of the article, unfortunately only a handful would get to enjoy the car. These lucky few would know just how good the car was, despite the lack of pedigree, and perhaps sub-par value proposition.