Three generations of the Maruti Suzuki Swift – The evolution of India’s favorite hatch

Three generations of the Maruti Suzuki Swift – The evolution of India’s favorite hatch

I bought a Maruti Suzuki Swift. My peers in other magazines bought Swifts

And that tells you everything you need to know about the Maruti Suzuki Swift. When a journalist puts his money where his mouth is, that’s the ultimate recommendation, and back in the day the Swift really was a game changer. In these days of TSI Polos and Boosterjet Balenos this might sound silly but, in 2005, if you wanted a fun-to-drive hatch the only option was the Zen, which I had already been driving for the past five years. Oh, there was the Getz that had just been launched but neither the styling, nor the motor, dynamics or even pricing made us smile. Nope, there really was nothing like the Maruti Suzuki Swift and soon after it was launched I went out and booked one.

You’re the fuel

I still remember the first media drive of the Maruti Suzuki Swift. It was a period of great turmoil at Overdrive, the magazine I started my career at. There was a new editor, I had just been promoted to second in command, and it was our first media drive in our new big-boy shoes. Those were also the days when Manesar wasn’t the bustling industrial hub that it is today and our drive was restricted to the deserted roads of the industrial complex. It’s hard to imagine wrapping up a shoot before breakfast what with photo, video, social media and what not these days but back then the Maruti PR people were so paranoid about the Swift being papped (by competition I’m guessing cause there were no car blogs), they made us wrap up our drive, testing, photography, everything by 7 in the morning. But that drive was enough to convince me to buy it.

“When a journalist puts his money where his mouth is, that’s the ultimate recommendation”

You see the concept of a premium hatchback did not exist back then. Heck, till the Santro and the rest of the new small cars arrived, the Zen was a premium hatchback. Hatchbacks were meant to be affordable, any driving pleasure they delivered was purely accidental. But with the Swift, fun-to-drive was front and centre. It got the Esteem’s 1.3-litre motor that, even today, is sweet as heck. It loved to rev and enjoyed screaming towards its redline. The gearbox had sweet and short throws. The chassis was a delight. And it did justice to that memorable ‘You’re the fuel’ tag line.

In 2005 ride quality wasn’t a very big deal

Though the Zen had got tall and skinny tyres to remedy some of its ride shortcomings, Maruti’s engineers weren’t all that obsessed with ride quality. Fuel efficiency, yes. Ride, not so much. In consequence the Swift handled really well. There was no float and bounce while body roll was surprisingly limited. Allied to the hydraulic steering, four-square footprint, stiff suspension and low seating position, the Swift was an absolute hoot to drive. There was an eagerness and excitement to the chassis that nothing, this side of a Honda City could match. And the seats were better than the Honda City, the benchmark for everything back then.

Age has done nothing to mellow its eagerness

The red Maruti Suzuki Swift we’re driving here is showing little more than 80 thousand kilometres, surprisingly little for a car this old, and that’s probably why it feels quite tight. After a few ginger kilometres, with the brakes and steering responding quite well, I give the G-Series motor the beans and am sent back to an age before emission norms and fuel efficiency requirements started throttling outputs. The Suzuki 4-cylinder motor revs so beautifully, and I say this in the present day context. Today’s engines just do not rev as eagerly and excitedly. It also feels quick and the chassis is planted and stable with quite an eager front end. Driven with serious vigour the Swift did have a bit of lift-off oversteer though that’s best not re-discovered on a 13-year-old car.

Discovering all that is probably why my Swift, which we sold after six years, felt considerably worse for wear. But of course the main reason was the tyre upsize. First thing I did after buying the car was slap on 15-inch rims with 215-section tyres. It looked awesome but all that weight slowed the car down requiring intake and exhaust work to free up some horses while the already not-so-great ride was utterly ruined. Which meant regular upgrades to the music system to drown out the rattles and squeaks.

“With the hooligan-spec exhaust and blow-off valves it sounded like a turbo rally car ready to smoke a stage”

I didn’t take my Swift on any driving adventures

But driving adventures we had in plenty with the Maruti Suzuki Swift. We took it to the Rann of Kutch, created a sort of dirt race track with a JCB and set a lap time in the unlikeliest of places. In 2006 I took it to the Raid-de-Himalaya and finished second in the Reliability cars category, but not before we blew both the rear dampers on the Kaza stage and limped to Leh where parts had to be airlifted for us. It was the Swift’s first motorsport outing in India and I can proudly say I was the first to take it to a podium finish. The more important award came a few months later when the Swift lifted the inaugural Indian Car of the Year, which it won unanimously and by an overwhelming margin.

A huge part of the Swift’s initial appeal to us enthusiasts was the G13BB motor, a motor so strong that tuners around the country slapped turbos on to it. The first turbo-Swift I drove was former rally champ Vikram Mathais’ car built by Red Rooster Performance in Bangalore and that thing just flew. Imagine 50 per cent more power with the same weight. Full throttle in first gear was a useless exercise, the wheels would just spin to glory. Full throttle in second gear also delivered alarming wheelspin. But the mid-range was insane. When it came on boost the thing accelerated like a beast. And with the hooligan-spec exhaust and blow-off valves it sounded like a turbo rally car ready to smoke a stage. Even today there are a fair few of these turbo’d Swifts running around what with parts for the G13 being cheap and in abundance, and they’ll easily smoke a Polo GT TSI and Baleno RS. Just don’t ask about emissions or fuel economy.

The diesel motor was so good it still carries on today with only tweaks for emissions compliance

Of course the turbo’d Swift that we are all familiar with, the one that took Swift sales into the stratosphere, was the 1.3-litre diesel. This motor, sourced from Fiat, marked the beginning of the inexorable march towards diesels. To keep the headline price in check Maruti did not offer the diesel in the top-spec variant and, with the weedy 165-section tyres, this little diesel Swift merrily spun its wheels on anything less than proper grippy tarmac. Again, back in the day, there didn’t exist a small car with a small diesel engine that you’d drive willingly and happily – and no I did not forget the horrible Zen D with the TUD5 diesel. The Swift diesel was truly excellent, even with the turbo lag, and the motor is so good it continues to this very day with only tweaks for emission compliance.

Udaipur to Udaipur

In 2011 we had this crazy idea. Pick up the second-generation Swift from the launch event at Udaipur, drive it across the breadth of our country to Guwahati where it will be joined by all its segment rivals and drive all six cars down to Udaipur – the one in Tripura with a lake palace inspired by the Rajasthani Udaipur’s. It was a crazy idea but back then Overdrive was all about the crazy ideas; just a year prior we did a small car comparison test in… Ladakh. I did the launch test drive in Udaipur, met Aniruddha and Byram at Udaipur airport and caught up with them three days later in Guwahati. They still curse me for pulling off a fast one, not that the drive down to Tripura from Guwahati was any less arduous than crossing UP, Bihar and West Bengal. Remember, seven years ago the G-Quad existed only in bits and bobs. As for roads in the North East, well, the team staged a riot at Agartala, refusing to drive back up to Guwahati and eventually a truck was organised to get the cars back up to civilisation.

At least the Maruti Suzuki Swift had markedly improved ride quality

Which is a blessing really on those roads. It was the biggest area of improvement on the Swift along with the engine. Actually I don’t know if you can call the engine change an improvement. Sure fuel efficiency and emissions did improve but the K12 didn’t have the zing of the G13. It still revved but now it needed to be revved even harder to get it going. It was down by 100 cee-cees and it felt it. It didn’t have the strength of the 1.3 which meant tuners didn’t bother with turbos on the second gen and continued to work on the first-gen Swift.  Today we have two pristine examples of the second-gen Swift and both feel miles better than the first in terms of the interiors, the ride, the comfort and even space and refinement. In terms of handling there is more body roll and the steering is not as sharp but, to be honest, it is still fun to drive if a bit lacking in the engine department.

The thing about age is that your waist size increases

Not just the Swift’s, but your writer’s too. Not a good thing in my case but a good thing for Maruti Suzuki Swift buyers because there’s more space inside the car now. And much like my outcrop of facial hair, the Swift too rocks a grown-up goatee. It’s not universally admired – my beard and the Swift’s goatee – but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no? With the interiors, there’s nothing to complain because it is much, much better than the cars gone by, right up there with the class benchmarks. And the refinement too is much better – our test car for the next twelve months is a diesel AMT and there’s very little of the grating grumbling for the venerable 1.3 motor (though there is the AMT’s innate head-toss which a sensitive right foot can eliminate for the most part).

The big question though – what’s it like to drive?

First let me reiterate what I said in our first drive. In this segment, with the exception of the Figo S, nothing else is as much fun to drive. The steering – now electric and lacking in feel – is still quick and eager, the front end reacts with immediacy, and most of all that playfulness of the Swift, that ability to slide it around at not-ridiculous speeds, yank the handbrake and throw it sideways, basically have fun – it’s all still there. Driving it back-to-back with its forbears reveals that it also rides much better and will make a recreation of the Udaipur-to-Udaipur drive much less arduous. But that gen 1 Swift, oh boy, that flat body control, the response and feedback from the steering, the zing of the motor, it still puts the widest smile on our faces…

Age has mellowed the Maruti Suzuki Swift

Its humongous popularity has taken away some of the band-baja that you’d expect an all-new Swift to arrive with, and its rivals are far more accomplished than 13 years ago. That said, by ticking so many of the boxes, the Swift will continue to sell in eye-popping numbers. As for buying one, well a little patience, for I hear a Swift RS is in the pipeline.

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