This time, there was no Mochizuki-san. In fact, there were hardly any Japanese around save for a sole gent who seemed perfectly happy playing the role of a wallflower. In May 2005, at the test-drive programme of the Swift, there were many Japanese executives and engineers swarming around, including the famous Mochizuki-san, acknowledged as the ‘Father of the Swift.’ To ensure that it would be remembered for posterity, Maruti Suzuki made each journalist pose with him for a picture. That same image they had taken of me with the Suzuki chief engineer popped up in my inbox a few weeks back along with the invitation to test-drive the new Swift.
The confidence that permeates Maruti Suzuki today is apparent; the confidence that Indian engineers are as good as those anywhere in the developed world and the confidence gained by understanding the domestic market like no one else. That seemed to do away with the need to have senior Japanese engineers around.
The way the Swift has transformed a sleepy and easily satisfied quasi-PSU carmaker into an aggressive corporation that fights it out for each per cent of market share and each retail sale is a story for the history books. The car changed not just Maruti Suzuki inside-out, it also gave us Indians a taste of what joy grown-up hatchbacks can bring. We voted for the car with our wallets; so much so that the A2 segment can be called as the Swift segment. The Swift set the standards against which competitors like the Hyundai i20, Volkswagen Polo, the Toyota Etios Liva and others were judged. Six years later, despite the onslaught of competition, Maruti Suzuki’s order books for the Swift were still full. And then it pulled the plug on the car and is now replacing it with a new one.
Yes, that picture of the car you see above is indeed of the new one. It looks almost identical to its predecessor, but it’s actually new, ground-up. Here again, the manufacturer seems to be going against the trend — most carmakers change the look of their models regularly without changing what’s beneath the skin. But here, the Swift is based on an all-new platform, but the car looks the same! Reminds of me of the Volkswagen Beetle — hundreds of improvements but it still looked almost the same for over six decades. Whether that will give the Swift a classic status remains to be seen. However, what worked for the car in terms of its appearance remains virtually untouched. In terms of styling, the look of the new Swift is an evolution rather than a revolution. Again, though you cannot make it out just by looking at it, the Swift has grown up a wee bit. It is longer than the outgoing one by 9 cm and the wheelbase has increased by 4 cm. That translates to marginally better interior room. One of the bugbears of the earlier Swift was its lack of rear leg room — with the new one, Maruti Suzuki has addressed just that by giving you an additional 2 cm for your knees.
What’s remarkable is that though the new Swift is slightly bigger, it is lighter than its predecessor. This has been achieved by using a light-weight polymer fuel tank, a compact ABS system plus lots of high-grade plastics here and there, while weight savings have been also gained by improvements in the sheet metal. So the petrol Swift is lighter by 30 kg, while the diesel version weighs about 15 kg less than the older one. Savings in weight equals to something we Indians love — better fuel efficiency. And by tuning both the petrol and diesel engines to stretch the litre, the new Swift, according to the manufacturer, offers 18.6 kmpl and 22.9 kmpl (petrol and diesel respectively).
The quality of plastics used inside was an issue with the previous car. Not anymore. Sitting inside the new Swift, I am impressed with not only the overall design and layout of the whole dashboard, but by the quality and styling of the fabrics used and the improvement in the plastic quality. The new Swift borrows the styling elements from the upmarket Kizashi sedan and discreet touches of shiny bits enhance the look in the top-end variants. A multi-information display between the two good-looking dials plus other value-added bits like with the music system make the new Swift a nice place to live in.
Powering the new Swift are the same engines that were found under the rounded bonnet of its predecessor, but there are slight changes. The 1.2-litre K-series petrol motor now gets variable valve timing that allows it to breathe better and generally improves fuel efficiency and performance, plus there is a slight bump in power. The 1197cc inline-four now develops 86 bhp at 6,000 rpm and 11.6 kgm of torque at 4,000 rpm. Does that make it quicker? Well, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the September issue of the magazine for all the performance parameters, but let me tell you that the engine is a strong and refined performer. It loves to be revved; keep it around 3,000 rpm and above and you’re treated to a superb responsiveness that’s addictive. The 1248cc inline-four turbodiesel, on the other hand, offers 74 bhp at 4,000 rpm and 19.3 kgm at 2,000 rpm, and in this application, has been tuned to offer better efficiency. The engine of course is fundamentally a brilliant one and Maruti Suzuki has made it even more refined and less diesel-like. Which is a marvel, actually. Once you’re past the tiny lag at the beginning, the diesel motor drives just as good as a petrol one — but instead of a rev-happy nature, it’s comfortable cruising at a steady rpm all day long. The five-speed gearbox, which used to be notchy in the earlier version, shifts much better, thanks to the incorporation of what the manufacturer calls ‘detent pin technology’. Whatever it is, it’s working well.
The new Swift is just as effervescent as it always was, but now feels much more planted. The top-end ZXi and ZDi variants that I drove wore bigger 15-inch rubber and good-looking alloys — now that not only filled the wheel arches better (making it look Euro-chic) but also offered much better control. You can carry more speed around corners than before while the ride quality is vastly improved over the previous one. Though the ride comfort of the new Swift is not yet the benchmark in its segment (the Punto and the Polo are way better), it is nevertheless better than it ever was. The new steering wheel is good to hold, but it is clearly tuned to offer ease of driving and comfort rather than feedback. At higher speeds, especially in the petrol version, it does not tighten up as I’d expected.
Overall, the new Swift — despite its identical appearance to its predecessor — is a much better car. Still, I hope Maruti Suzuki will keep its price-tag as identical as possible to the earlier one when it gets launched next week. The benchmark just became the bench. Mochizuki-san, who has deservedly been elevated at Suzuki Motor Company, will surely be a happy man. The writer was on a media invite from Maruti Suzuki to test-drive the new Swift