(Pocket-lint) - The old Suzuki Swift Sport was a bit of a cult car. It wasn't the fastest hot hatch around and it certainly wasn't the most luxurious, but its free-revving naturally aspirated engine and playful handling earnt it kudos with those in the know.
Inevitably, the new model has had to turn to turbocharging to satisfy ever-tightening fuel economy and emissions targets. It's also seen a step up in price that puts this 138bhp 'warm hatch' somewhat closer to the full-fat opposition, where power outputs are now exceeding 200bhp. So has it still got what it takes to challenge the big boys?
First indications are pretty positive. Unlike a lot of performance cars, the new Swift Sport is lighter than its predecessor, dipping under the magic tonne at a svelte 975kg.
It looks good in the flesh too – more so than the photos may even suggest – with chunky side skirts, muscular haunches and a smart set of 17-inch alloys.
The carbon fibre effect detailing might not be to everyone's taste, but it works well in the brighter colours, such as the retina-searing Championship Yellow of our test car.
What's it like inside?
Swing open the door and you're greeted with a cabin that looks much like that of the regular Swift. You sit a touch high, but the new sports seats look and feel suitably purposeful, while a set of red accents add a spot of flair to the dashboard.
The Swift's flat-bottomed steering wheel seems more at home in the Sport, where it's been re-trimmed in dimpled leather with red stitching and satin black inlays. It's a pleasant thing to hold, with bags of adjustment in both reach and rake.
Nestled in between the speedometer and the rev counter is a 4.2-inch LCD display, which now includes a boost gauge and a G-meter, along with the usual information like average speed and fuel consumption.
Infotainment duties, meanwhile, are handled by a 7-inch touchscreen display in the dashboard. It's not the slickest system around, but it's loaded with features including DAB radio, sat nav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
On the move
Prod the keyless start button and the new turbocharged engine spins quietly into life. The Swift Sport's 140PS (138bhp) output is warm rather than hot these days, as is its 8.1 second nought to 62mph time.
But that only tells you half the story. Small turbocharged units often suffer with noticeable lag, yet this one feels pin sharp and pleasingly linear, right up until the point the rev counter somewhat abruptly calls time at around 6,500rpm.
Aided by its featherweight mass, the in-gear pace is deceptively strong. In fact, the Swift Sport has more torque per tonne than the Fiesta ST or the Renaultsport Clio.
The Suzuki's chassis is a peach too. Even at low speeds there's a palpable 'wheel at each corner' feel to the way it changes direction, with the car seemingly pivoting about its centre. Suzuki is said to have evaluated over 100 different spring and damper permutations before settling on this setup, which also includes uprated anti-roll bars, revised suspension struts on the front and bespoke trailing arms on the back.
Part of the development work was carried out in UK and it shows, with supple ride that allows the chassis to breathe with the contours of our bumpy, cambered B-roads. There is perhaps a touch more body roll than you'd get in some hot hatches as a result, but on the sort of roads where these cars thrive it's a price worth paying.
The downside is that the Swift Sport's easy-going nature and unremarkable engine note don't initially scream high performance. But push a bit harder and it becomes obvious that it's still very much game for a laugh. The nose turns in keenly and the steering – mute at low speeds, as is the way with most modern cars – starts to give a modicum of feedback as the pace increases.
Get on the power early and you can occasionally sense the front wheels starting to scrabble like a terrier going after a rabbit, but there's never any sign of the torque steer that can sometimes blight more powerful machines.
Unlike a lot of warm hatches these days the Swift Sport's chassis is still happy to indulge in a spot of hooliganism. Trail the brakes or lift-off abruptly mid-corner and the back end can be persuaded to come round. In fact, the Swift's accessible limits and unobtrusive ESP calibration mean it's arguably more fun at real-world speeds than some of the more hardcore opposition.
Price and equipment
The new Swift Sport costs £17,999 (although it's subject to an introductory offer of £16,499 at the time of publishing). That's a substantial step up from the outgoing model, which cost just £15,249, but Suzuki has countered this with a generous standard spec.
There are no trim levels or options to consider either, which simplifies things. The only dilemma facing potential buyers is which of the six colours to choose – and even then the metallic shades are charged at the same price as the single matte option.
All cars come with adaptive cruise control, automatic air conditioning, keyless entry and a rear parking camera. The new platform also brings a host of driver assistance functions. There's autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning and a weaving alert function - which is designed to detect drowsiness from the driver's steering inputs.
Now this is where things start to get a little bit more complicated. On paper, the new Swift Sport is dangerously close to full-fat hot hatches like the Ford Fiesta ST, which starts at £18,995. But it's also facing stronger opposition from lower down the price range – notably from the new Volkswagen Up GTI, which has somewhat stolen the Swift's performance bargain status, at its price of just £13,755.
In reality, you'd need to throw another chunk of money at most of the established hot hatches to match the Suzuki's equipment levels, which does restore a bit of breathing space. Likewise, while the Up is only slightly smaller on the inside, and not a great deal slower than the Swift, it does fundamentally belong in the class below. Park the two next to each other and the larger Swift would still have more presence and a touch more attitude.
The fact it's now under threat from both sides does place the new Swift Sport in a more precarious position than its predecessors. On the other hand, it retains most of the same qualities and its appeal has survived the switch to turbocharging largely undiminished. It may be a slightly leftfield choice, but it's still a worthy contender.
The Ford Fiesta is the default choice for those in search of fine-handling supermini. If you can't quite stretch to the hot ST version then the warm ST-Line model is a good alternative. The most powerful of its three petrol variants matches the Suzuki's 138 bhp output, although it lags someway behind on outright pace due to a hefty 169 kg of additional mass. It's not an especially cheap option – the 138 bhp version starts at £17,965 before extras – but it does look and feel a good deal more expensive inside.