Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee

Our favourite new car of the moment has to be the Suzuki Swift Sport. It’s a triple S…and yes, that’ll probably make older readers think of the Datsun SSS.

Suzuki Swift Sport Interior with pretty girl
Three weeks at Red Star Raceway, and hot laps by a horde of media and dealer personnel, didn't reveal any chinks in the Sport's armour

There are, at face value, some similarities: the Dust Bins of the SSS era did have a reputation as solid, simple and authentic performance cars for the masses. The Swift Sport is much the same in spirit.

A performance version was part of the previous Swift range so a Sport-badged version isn’t new but there has been an about-face as far as the drivetrain is concerned. As is pretty much standard operating procedure nowadays, a revvy, normally-aspirated petrol engine has been replaced by a grunty and low-revving turbo, 1.6-litres of displacement giving way to 1.4.

Both a six-speed manual and a (conventional) six-speed auto are available and guess what? The two-pedal version is quicker. Which suits me just fine and if I never tramped on a clutch pedal again it wouldn’t be too soon.

I reckon the auto, convincingly faster from 0 – 100 km/h and also over the quarter-mile, is going to be better around a track. If, like I have done for the last 30 years or so, you drive an auto with both feet, it can also be more fun. With the transition from brake to throttle smoothed out and minimised (un-squeezing the one while the other is added progressively) the car can be kept better balanced. And as I always tell my Stigworx students, those transition zones are where the speed is to be found.

Back to the car: at R315 000 or thereabouts it represents great performance value. Sure, it doesn’t have the vault-like solidity and refinement (which makes it feel more like a C-segment hatchback) of a Polo GTI but there’s a 60K price difference. The interiors are some way apart – the Suzie feeling businesslike and functional in comparison to the lush and plush slush-mouldings of the German. But when it comes to conveniece and comfort, you'll want for very little.

The Boosterjet turbo makes 103kW and 230Nm and trust me, it's more than sufficicient 99 percent of the time...

An important consideration is that the Swift was deliberately engineered to be a sub-1 000 kg car – with all the benefits that entails. It is light on its feet, light on fuel, and quick away from the lights. On the launch I also saw it stand up happily to a fair amount of abuse, without any signs of complaining.

I’m probably a quarter-century outside their age profile but I can’t think of a better “city” car for an empty-nester who still likes a bit of fizz now and then. Heck, I might even opt for the extrovert Champion Yellow paintwork.


Toyota Corolla Hatch with sea and sky background
Does Toyota's new Corolla Hatch signal a return to affordable sportiness from the brand? Picture by AJMeraki Photography

Remember the Corolla RSI – not the sedan from the 1990s but the hatchback (Conquest) from the end of the previous decade? The one that was so successful, as was its boxier predecessor, in Stannic Group N racing in the hands of such talented drivers as Mike White, Serge Damseaux, Leon Mare and Steve Wyndham? Well, it’s back – sort of.

The Corolla, best known in previous-generation Quest guise as the wheels of choice for Uber drivers, has been joined by a Corolla Hatch, which replaces the unexciting Auris. The latest Corolla sedan is vanilla-flavoured but it seems the times they are a changin’ as far as Toyota's five-door offering goes and the new Hatch is a case in point.

Things are changing on two levels. The first is the actual products from Toyota. The Supra is a reality (launch is mid-year, with its roadster step-brother – the BMW Z4 – just having been introduced) and with the continuation of the 86 nameplate assured, Toyota’s performance credentials are looking – well - credible.

The second sign is a statement by Toyota earlier this year that there will be ‘tiered’ levels of sportiness for certain road cars and one of the first signs of this was the racy Yaris GRMN . The nomenclature denotes the top tier and will comprise serious performance credentials as well as uprated braking and handling, coupled to styling cues which makes no secret of its leanings. Apparently GRMN means Gazoo Racing Masters Nurburgring…

Gazoo Racing Products will be one of three distinct pillars of Toyota’s 2019 metalwork campaign; the other GR “tiers” below the all-out GRMN being GR (denotes a substantial amount of power), GR Sport (focusing on suspension) and GR Parts – a cosmetic-only package. The Supra is described in some Toyota literature as a GR-Supra, while a special Hilux (with trick Fox suspension) will wear a GR-Sport badge.

Which brings us back to the Corolla and the fact that it is now available sans bootlid. A hatchback configuration immediately conjures up a sportier approach and Toyota has done a great design job with the five-door Corolla to convey that message. Styling is sassy with a bunch of sharp edges, creases and folds which give the longish nose a degree of menace. Then Toyota has kept the overall height nice and low and the track widths wide so that proportionally it’s easy on the eye.

I drove one down to KZN recently, delivering it to the team which looks after the brand’s press fleet in the province. Not only did I take it down but kept it for a week before handing it over. Short answer? It is an extremely impressive car with crisp steering, very tidy road manners and a six-speed manual ‘box which clicks precisely from one cog to the next.

The overall impression is of a car which provides more sensory feedback than I expected with none of the controls feeling over-assisted – not even the brakes, which rewarded a firm, progressive action. The gearbox has a rev-matching function so throttle ‘blips’ on downchanges are part of the fun. The 1.2-litre turbo is zesty.

So, it isn’t a wild stretch of the imagination to see a Corolla Hatch massaged by Gazoo Racing in a local Toyota showroom soon, with uprated suspension, bigger wheels, form-hugging seats with contrasting stitching and a suitable selection of carbon fibre exterior pieces on the menu.

If the GR-Sport Corolla hatch displayed at the Geneva Show (below) is anything to go by, life is going to become a whole lot more exciting for Toyota fans soon.


What matters most: great product or great dealers?

Toyota Fortuner wins Adventure SUV category at cars.co.za
Toyota's Riaan Esterhuysen collects the Fortuner's silverware. And yes, that's Victor Matfield with him, who is quite the celeb nowadays. The lady is event MC Pearl Thusi

That’s what I’m tinkering with in my mind in the aftermath of the cars.co.za awards, a COTY-type (Car Of The Year) competition which chooses winners in various categories and also chooses a brand of the year. The former is based on actual testing by a group of motoring journalists (with public input via an on-line voting system) while the latter is based exclusively on owner surveys.

The brands which dominate the South African market – Volkswagen and Toyota – dominated the awards too.

Volkswagen won four category prizes, so I’m assuming they have the best products and Toyota was the brand of the year (also winning a category). Toyota seems to take a more holistic approach and the aftersales experience is hugely important. Untroubled ownership is the essence of Toyota and while I don’t own one (and never have) I have experienced this philosophy in action both at a dealer and OE level.

Let’s face it, a Yaris isn’t a match for the very latest Polo (it was barely a match for the previous VW Supermini) and an Auris not the equal of a Golf but if you want a life partner that’s going to keep on giving, then a Toyota it must be.

In the (albeit short) history of the competition, VW tops the pile with 10 category wins but it has never won the Brand award. Toyota has now been Best Brand twice, as has upstart, Suzuki – this is a statistic which should worry local VW executives as this result is determined entirely by market and customer data.

Other stand-outs from the evening were two awards for Merc - which is crafting fantastic interiors and exteriors nowadays – and the Honda Civic Type R winning the hot hatch category, recording the brand’s first cars.co.za award in the process.

Ultimately, it is interesting that the ownership experience plays such an important role and once the new car thrill has worn off all most people want is a reliable car that is affordable to own, and when something goes wrong, a dealership nearby that doesn’t make you feel like you’re being a nuisance. Interestingly, in no fewer than 5 out of the 13 categories the judges’ favourites did not win, due to the impact of the ownership satisfaction aspect.

This of course is not unique to franchised dealers, where it can make or break a brand and applies to all products and most services. I’m sure every reader of this will have a story – or many stories – to tell in this regard!

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