MUMBAI, India - In 2017, Suzuki Automotive South Africa broke its monthly sales record no fewer than three times. By year’s end, the company could be proud of a whopping 57% increase in sales, selling 8 847 units (up from 5 628 units in 2016). That meant an increase in market share from 0,9% to 1,6%.

But even that impressive improvement pales when compared with what the brand does in India. Over the past few years on the sub-continent, Suzuki has been able to up its market share from round 30% to the high-40% mark. From 1983, when the company sold its first car in India, to 2018, Suzuki is on track to gain an unheard-of 50% market share. You can see it, too. On a launch route that took us from Mumbai through to countryside, there were Suzukis wherever you looked. Clearly, the company is doing something right over there.

As it is in South Africa. Currently, right at the end of its life cycle – the current Swift is already 10 years old – it sells more than 300 units per month. To put that into context, it’s a lot more than the Toyota Yaris and Honda Jazz … combined. Which bodes well for this next-generation Swift, an all-new vehicle that uses the Japanese company’s Heartect platform (now in its fifth generation), meaning the Swift’s basic architecture is the same as that used for the Baleno hatchback, as well as the funky Ignis crossover.

What's new?

Although mildly tweaked, says Suzuki, the 1,2-litre powertrain has been carried over from the previous generation and offers equivalent power and torque figures. The five-speed transmission has also seen some mild revisions.

Although boasting a wheelbase increased by 20 mm, width by 40 mm and length by 10 mm, the new, bigger chassis is claimed by Suzuki to be 85 kg lighter. We’re used to hearing of that kind of mass reduction in a new SUV, but it’s rare in small hatchbacks.

In the flesh, the new Swift is visibly bigger, but still within class limits. The familiar design DNA is still clearly there, but this new execution is a more modern, sportier incarnation, with a sharper nose and headlamps, and cinched C-pillars that give it more muscled haunches. LED daytime-running lights emphasise the aggressively shaped headlamps, while the rear door handles have moved to the C-pillars. The result is that the rear quarters are now just that little bit smoother.

Behind the wheel

Climb inside and the exterior’s evolution is reflected in the cabin. The multifunction, flat-bottomed steering wheel (with a glossy plastic insert) matches the Swift’s youthful nature, as does the infotainment system with its 7,0-inch touchscreen. Mounted below the air vents, it offers the usual functions such as Bluetooth and satellite navigation, along with smartphone integration and an SD-card and USB port.

In terms of layout, the rest of the cabin is not a huge departure from the outgoing model – think of it as more of an evolution – with materials that have a solid feel and controls designed with the simplicity that’s such a part of Suzuki’s design ethos. Don’t go expecting Volkswagen-level squishy plastics however; they’re hard throughout.

The redesigned cloth seats are particularly comfortable and, together with the rake-and-reach adjustable steering wheel, allowed me to find a good driving position. Sitting behind my driving position, I had enough legroom but, not surprisingly given the design of those C-pillars, headroom felt more at a premium, Even though luggage capacity has increased (by a claimed 28%), a 60:40-split rear seatback may not be available on all models (more about spec later).

Our actual time spent behind the wheel of the new Swift was disappointingly short, unfortunately; our hosts didn’t want us spending too much time in India’s challenging traffic conditions. Despite this, however, I got a good feel for the Swift’s ride quality and handling ability thanks to roads offering variety in terms of surface quality, as well as a stint along a short mountain pass.

There were at least two adults in the car at all times – and four on the return leg of our test route – but, somewhat surprisingly, this extra mass didn’t deter the Swift’s little 1,2-litre DualJet engine from revving with vigour to the 6 300 r/min redline. Even if you don’t go exploring that far along the rev counter, there is enough power and torque between 3 000 and 5 000 r/min. As before, the gearlever shifts with ease between the five gears. For the moment in our market, it’s unlikely that the new Swift will be offered with Suzuki’s 1,0-litre BoosterJet engine, which is a pity; it would have offered competition to similar offerings from VW and Ford.

The new car’s ride quality is another noteworthy feature. Equipped with 15-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 185/65 rubber, our test unit took all the roads’ undulations in its stride while offering enough cornering grip for some enthusiastic driving. I’d wager a guess that entry-level models on 14-inch steel wheels would ride even better.

Summary

Fortunately, the fun-to-drive dynamics – such a hallmark of the outgoing Swift – remains in this new chassis and is an element that most of its competitors lack. Similarly, the Swift has never been as spacious, nor as luxurious, as its competitors from Toyota and Volkswagen, and this remains so.

Suzuki has yet to finalise the spec for SA-bound models and this will undoubtedly be an important factor in terms of how it fares against that competition. At least we do know there’ll be no major compromise on safety and all derivatives will offer ABS with EBD brakes, dual front airbags and Isofix child-seat anchors.

I’d prefer to wait until we drive an SA-spec derivative to make any definitive statements, but first impressions of the new Swift are positive. Rather than trying to be a totally different car, Suzuki has stayed true to the concept of its predecessor. And, like that car, this new, fifth-generation Swift should enjoy a healthy slice of the local small-hatch pie.