Piloting a modern hot hatch is nothing like driving an old-school pocket rocket. The speeds are higher but with ever improving levels of tyre grip and sophisticated drivers aids, they actually feel slower. Hot hatches just seem so grown up these days – they ride well, cruise serenely and are loaded with luxury features. They’re also a lot safer, both in terms of avoiding crashes and protecting the occupants when the ESP is finally overwhelmed. Which makes them less thrilling and less involving, I think. Often have I said it – we will never see the like of the 205 GTI again. Well, spank my arse and call me a liar. I totally forgot the Mini Cooper! The perky little hatch from Oxford has just had a major upgrade and is one of the few cars left on sale that really captures the spirit of the old-fashioned hot hatches. It’s not blessed with an abundance of power but it’s small and light enough to do a lot with 120bhp and 1.6 litres.
As for riding smoothly and cruising … well, the Mini is nothing like the daddies of the hot-hatch fraternity: the Golf GTI and Focus ST. BMW has tried to make the Cooper ride better and steer with more vigour but it hasn’t really succeeded. It might be a wee bit better over low-speed bumps but on bigger undulations it still tries to buck you out of your seat and make your head loll around like a rag doll’s. Although the Mini’s steering is just as quick as the old model’s, it’s much lighter now, which creates the illusion of a faster rack. However, it has also lost an awful lot of its once abundant feel so it’s not as engaging as before, which is a real pity.
A carlike the Mini needs to be taken by the scruff of the neck and lashed down a favourite road, but because the new car is less connected with the driver it’s more difficult to exploit and, consequently, less fun. In fact, I got so tired of the Mini Cooper’s sudden, heart-stopping bouts of unannounced understeer that I eventually gave up trying, wound it back to seven tenths and simply coasted home. My first order of business before setting foot in the Suzuki Swift was to check the tyres. In contrast to the economy-orientated tyres wrapped around the Mini’s 15” alloys, the Swift is booted in 17” Goodyear Eagle F1s, serious rubber for a budget bucket. Sure enough, within a few hundred feet, the difference is apparent.
Whereas the Mini steered sharply but communicated scantily, the Swift’s somewhat slower rack offers oodles of bite and an abundance of communication. You can sense the limits of adhesion approaching and adjust accordingly, even when the road is rough. It might ride firmly but body control is exemplary, unlike in the Cooper, which is suppler over minor imperfections but gets bounced offline in bumpy corners more easily. And we have a lot of bumpy corners here in Ireland. Lift off mid-corner in the Mini and it behaves impeccably, though. It tightens its lines and cancels that understeer immediately. In faster bends it will even pitch itself sideways nicely but at no point does it threaten to let go and sling you into a field. It feels much the same as the car it replaces, in fact, just without the same levels of driver involvement. Perform the same mid-corner lift in the Swift, however, and be prepared to dial in lots of opposite lock.
The Swift will get its backside out faster than an English teenager on a package holiday. Turn off the ESP (which involves holding the button down for five long seconds – are you sure you want to do this, sir?) and it will happily fling itself ridiculously sideways and remain there for as long as your entry speed and the laws of physics will allow. Even if you’re not feeling that brave, the ESP will allow a decent amount of lateral movement before kicking in, so unless you’re actually trying to get the Swift crossed up you really don’t need to turn it off at all. I mean, with just 125bhp from its 1.6-litre engine, you’re not exactly igniting the inside front tyre out of every corner.
It doesn’t need much reining in. It’s not just in terms of handling that the Swift reminds me of a mid-80s hot hatch. It’s also got the same interior décor, with simple yet supportive sports seats, a thick leather steering wheel, aluminium pedals, a little splash of red here and there and nothing more. The Minis much glitzier, looking more like a small luxury car rather than a sparky little hatchback inside, although for all its upmarket pretensions, it lacks the essential features that the Swift has as standard, such as air conditioning (the Swift actually has climate control), keyless entry, front foglights, ESP and remote stereo controls. Bring a Mini Cooper up to Swift levels of spec (including 17” alloys) and you push the price beyond €28,500, more than seven grand above the standard price of the Suzuki.
Engine: 1,587cc, 120bhp, 160Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Acceleration: 0-100km 9.1 seconds
Top Speed: 203km/h
Economy: 5.8 litres/100km
Boot Capacity: 160 litres
Weight: 1,140kg Price: €24,400