Vintage Views: Suzuki Swift


Story by Alan Cesar

Suzuki’s North American operations just rang their death knell. The producer of many a widow-making sportbike never could quite get its four-wheeled vehicles to gain as much recognition in the broader American market. Its last significant effort was the stylish, mid-sized Kizashi sedan. There hasn’t been much in the brand for car enthusiasts to latch onto.

We’d say it’s not for lack of trying, but really, it is. While the Samurai has its own cult following in the off-road community, Suzuki only brought one pavement performer to the U.S. in recent memory—something small enough that maybe it didn’t seem too foreign to its sportbike people. It was the Suzuki Swift GTi, sold from 1989 to 1994.

You’ve seen its sibling around, usually in the hands of a hypermiler or merely being neglected. The Swift GT—known as the GTi for only the first year, thanks to VW’s trademark lawyers—is the Geo Metro’s faster brother. That’s a low bar to leap, but that doesn’t make the GTi a poor performer.

The Swift is swift because it’s light. A cool hundred horsepower come out of its high-revving, 1.3-liter engine, and there are just under 1800 pounds to move around. Unassisted steering means more power to the ground.

It’s one of the champions of the drive-a-slow-car-fast ethos (but it can make tons of power—see the tips on the next page). It’s tiny. It’ll squeeze anywhere in traffic, it revs to the skies, and it’s a hoot to wail on, even if all that wailing means you’re still side by side with that minivan you just drag-raced from the stoplight. Keep the revs up; this engine has a sportbike’s spirit and a 7500-rpm rev limit. Stiffer springs and four-wheel disc brakes round out the chassis package.

It’s unique from the Metro in cosmetic ways, too: Flush aero headlights and different bumpers give it a sporty look. Suzuki tried to make this a significantly nicer car than the Metro, so it has better—and heavier—interior materials and racier bucket seats.

If you’re looking for the nicest one in the States, $5000 is about the top of the market. Decent runners can go for $1000 or less, but the sweet spot appears to be about $2000 to $3000.

Buy the nicest one you care to afford, and put a little effort into keeping it looking good. The community will thank you for not letting another one of these little toys descend into disrepair, and maybe you’ll earn some good karma for keeping the four-wheeled Suzuki torch burning after the brand departs our shores.

Shopping & Ownership

Mike Cove is a longtime Swift enthusiast and the owner of 3Tech, a company that specializes in the Swift and its rev-happy engine. Jen Imai won first place in the Performance Stock class in the 2011 California Rally Series with a Suzuki Swift GT. We mined their minds for these tips.

The Swift community is small, but active and resourceful. Look to the TeamSwift message board to answer your questions and help you find high-performance parts. Group buys come around regularly for custom-made bits.

The engine is remarkably robust and can make a lot of power on stock internals; It has a forged, nitrided crank, flat-top pistons, robust connecting rods and great head flow. A set of hotter camshafts—available through 3Tech—will let it rev to 9000 rpm without problems. The intake manifold, header and pistons from the overseas Suzuki Cultus GTi are the hot commodities for naturally aspirated horsepower, but the easy upgrades are a larger throttle body and a cone air filter.

Ready to blow your mind? Add a turbo. These little 1.3-liters can handle lots of boost and push 200 to 250 horsepower. Using pistons from the 1998-2001 Swift/Metro 1.3-liter drops compression to a boost-friendly 8.5:1.

Expect to break transmissions with high power or off-road abuse. Third gear is weak, and the second-gear synchro tends to wear out. Don’t be surprised by a one-two crunch on a high-mileage car. Rally racing tends to bust the differential’s spider gears, but a robust limited-slip is available from Gripper. If you’re adding a turbo, the whole box has to go (though as of this writing, a group buy on straight-cut gears is available on TeamSwift). A stronger transmission from a 1.6-liter Suzuki Esteem can be adapted.

Most chassis components and body panels will interchange with the Geo Metro. The GT’s unique bumpers—which changed for 1992, too, along with the interior fabric—can be hard to find in some areas, but Metro parts are plentiful in every junkyard.

For a great street suspension upgrade, pair the KYB GR2 shocks with H&R springs. The cost is low, and the combination works very well. If you want to go racing with a hardcore setup, Hot Bits sells a full coil-over package. Rear pillow-ball suspension mounts from an Eagle Talon can be adapted to the rear shocks.

The four-wheel disc brakes are capable enough, but good brake pads can be hard to find. Lucky that Honda CRX front brake calipers are a direct replacement for the Swift’s. Upgrade to the CRX calipers—they fit with the stock Swift rotors—and a world of pad options open up.

Look for rust on the rocker panels and on the front frame horns near where the lower control arms attach. It can be hard to spot. The chassis is rather flexible, too, and cars with weak frames can exhibit cracked windshields. Look carefully.

The driving experience is very sensitive to weight; what’s great fun alone becomes a chore with a passenger. Likewise, weight reduction is the easiest way to gain noticeable performance. The spare tire, jack and back seat weigh a combined 100 pounds.

Avoid fitting heavy wheels. The stock alloys are a mere 9 pounds. Getting heavy rolling stock only adds rotating mass, which will make the car feel sluggish. Still feeling sad off the line? Consider using a 4.39:1 final drive from a ’95-or-newer Metro. It’ll feel a bit better than the Swift’s 4.10:1 gear.

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