Suzuki's Swift has had a subtle makeover

Can you picture the Suzuki Swift in your mind? If so, you'll have little trouble imagining the new one.

The pictures on this page will help, although you might find them confusing because they appear to be of the car we've seen on our roads since 2005. But they are not.

You can tell they are not, because closer examination reveals vital differences. The rear door's quarter-window has a curved lower corner instead of an angled one, for example. The headlights and tail-lights are also more curved, and they flow further into the waistline. The rear bumper encroaches further upwards into the tailgate opening. By such vital details you identify an all-new Swift.

I wanted to ask the chief designer why the new one looks so much like the old one, but he had fallen fast asleep after the dinner that followed our test drive. Maybe it was jet lag, maybe it was the mental exhaustion of redesigning every single body panel just a tiny bit. Instead I had to get the answer from the marketing people, who said that the previous Swift had been much liked by its buyers so it made sense to give them an improved version of the same idea.

Well, this might work for a Mini, which by definition has to look something like a Mini has always looked, but the Swift is hardly in similar thrall to, er, iconography. That said, it is a neat-looking car with crisp, confident lines.

So, what else is new? We'll do it by numbers. Compared with the old one, the new Swift is 90mm longer, 5mm wider, 50mm longer in the wheelbase and its wheels are set 10mm further apart on their axles. The 1.3-litre, 75bhp turbodiesel engine is the same Fiat-designed unit, but its official CO2 emissions fall from 120g/km to just 109g/km. More significantly, the old 1.3-litre, 92bhp petrol engine has been ousted by a new, variably valve-timed unit of 1.2 litres which produces fractionally more power (94bhp) and a whisker more torque. And the point of this change? That the new engine's CO2 figure is 116g/km instead of 140, helped – as with the diesel – by a stop-start system.

Here's another figure, and it's a very encouraging one. The new Swift – made in Hungary, like its predecessor – is 20kg lighter than the old one, thanks mainly to higher-strength steels of which you need less to build a car. In fact the new bodyshell is stiffer, too, thanks partly to that reduced-size tailgate opening. Also stiffer is the rear axle's resistance, both to sideways movement and to the leaning of the body in a corner.

All of which means that the new Swift is a lot more different to drive than to look at. The new structure's reduced resonances make the diesel engine feel and sound considerably smoother, and the new petrol engine is a sweet, willing, well-mannered thing with a keen accelerator response and an energy which belies its small size and frugal nature. The optional automatic is probably best avoided, though. An engine this small and revvy needs more than just four gears.

Then there's the way it steers, now with a much more positive response. Here's a car which points tidily around bends, grips well and feels planted on the road; only the glutinous feel of the electric power steering's larger movements spoils the effect. The Swift rides smoothly and quietly over bumps, too.

Which brings us to the interior and its new air of precision and quality. It's a shame, then, that the old car's bold, simple, horizontal-look dashboard has gone. In its place is something neat enough but verging on the generic. It could come from any small car. It's a shame, too, that all the moulded surfaces are hard. They look fine, with nicely detailed, semi-matt finishes, until you touch them.

As for interior space, it's hard to see where the increased wheelbase has gone because the rear seat is still tight for legroom. The short tail makes for a meagre boot, too. All that said, the previous Swift was a likeable car and the new one is simply a better-honed version of the same thing. A three-door version and a 1.6-litre Sport model will follow, and all have the same advantage: they're as good as big-name mainstream rivals, considerably less obvious and, for around £10,000, considerably better value.

The Rivals

Ford Fiesta 1.25, 82bhp: from £12,035.

The keen driver's favourite supermini looks good, feels sharp, has a great dashboard, and is about to get a price cut.

Skoda Fabia 1.2 1V, 70bhp: from £9,865.

Three-cylinder engine has modest power but a great sound, style is quite Swift-like. Little equipment in lowest-spec version.

Hyundai i20 1.2, 78bhp: from £9,340.

Perhaps the best bargain of all, comfortable and entertaining with good looks, adequate pace and enough equipment.

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