Johannesburg - The first two generations of Suzuki’s Swift Sport were more warm than hot, if we classified them within the general performance hatch hierarchy, but their revvy normally aspirated engines and sporty personas nonetheless attracted a loyal and passionate fan base.

Generation three has just pounced into South Africa and it’s a whole new ball game in performance terms, thanks largely to a new 1.4-litre direct injection turbopetrol engine, which Suzuki calls ‘Boosterjet’. The company is also offering a six-speed torque converter automatic transmission for the first time, in addition to the regular six-speed manual.

Sure, with 103kW on tap, the new engine only produces 3kW more than the old 1.6 NA, but there's a lot more to this story. The turbo advantage not only means virtual immunity to altitude, but the new engine produces 44 percent more torque, with a wholesome 230Nm available at a low 2500rpm. On top of that the car is 90kg lighter, with the kerb weight listed at 970kg, adding up to a power to weight ratio that’s not too far shy of the latest Volkswagen Polo GTI. Against the clock, both the manual and auto versions of the Swift Sport will dash from zero to 100km/h in eight seconds flat, according to manufacturer claims.

But characteristically it’s a very different car, and that revviness that fans revered in the old version is now gone, the 1.4T producing its peak power at 5500rpm rather than 6900. 

But is it still fun to drive?

To find out we accepted Suzuki’s invitation to sample the little critter at Redstar Raceway, where short circuit laps and a gymkhana event awaited us.

The circuit stint showed us that this new Sport delivers everything it promises in performance and dynamic terms. Not only is it brisk, but impressively responsive to throttle inputs, providing a satisfying punch from just about anywhere in the rev range. It’s agile and hugely chuckable, thanks to its meagre weight, stiffer structure and beefed up suspension that includes custom Monroe shocks and thicker anti-roll bars. It’s still prone to understeer at the limit but it is easily controllable and the car's overall performance on a twisty circuit, that’s ideally more suited to go-karts than cars, was impressive.

But it’s not only the performance and handling that give this Japanese-built Sport model a completely different driving sensation to the Maruti-sourced 1.2-litre Swifts that are selling up a storm in South Africa - in that the clutch, manual gearbox and steering all have a more solid feel to them. 

I also took a brief spin in an auto model and although it’s not quite 'DSG sharp', the gear changes were reasonably quick and there is a pair of flappy paddles on the steering wheel for when you’re in a more controlling mood.

Given that only smooth tar surfaces were encountered, we can’t vouch for the Sport’s ride comfort, so that verdict will have to wait for the regular road test.

There’s a lot else that makes the Sport stand apart from its humbler Swift siblings. For instance, Suzuki has done a far more comprehensive job on the design front, the performance model now coming with a more distinctive and angrier-looking front bumper that houses a deep-set honeycomb grille. You’ll also notice its unique ‘diamond cut’ 16-inch alloys, carbon-look under-spoilers all round, new diffuser-dominated back bumper with twin exhaust outlets and the obligatory roof spoiler.

The colour choices cover the full spectrum between glow-in-the-dark and blend-into-the-scenery, these including the signature Champion Yellow, as well as Burning Red, Speedy Blue, Pure White, Super Black, Mineral Grey and Premium Silver.

Cabin stylists have chosen red as the colour to run with, and you’ll find that in the dashboard and door panel trims as well as the stitching on the gear lever, steering wheel and Sport-specific ‘semi-bucket’ seats, which are upholstered in black cloth with red patterning.

Unique instrument dials and alloy pedals complete the inner garnishing. As for features, the Sport ships with a 17.8cm touchscreen infotainment system, with CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, a reverse camera, multi-function steering wheel, automatic climate control and cruise control. 

The safety spec sheet lists six airbags and ESP stability control, and the aftermarket deal includes a four-year/60 000km service plan and five-year/200 000km promotional warranty.

Pricing, at R315 900 for the manual model and R335 900 for the auto, might feel uncomfortable for some fans and it is by no means a bargain, but it still offers decent value in the greater scheme of things, undercutting the Corsa GSI by R30 000 and the more upmarket Polo GTI by R62 500.

IOL Motoring