Curtain Call

Team OD Published: August 26, 2011, 04:28 AM IST

Seven excruciatingly long months. That's how long we waited for our Swift and boy was it worth the wait. When she finally arrived ours was the first champagne gold Swift ZXi in town. Attention was drawn to the Swift like fat kids are drawn to cake; we just couldn't avoid it. For that first month my family owned the car we (well actually the car) were the talk of the town. Life couldn't have been better.

In retrospect it's quite easy to question the logic of a seven month waiting period for something that was essentially just another Maruti Suzuki hatchback. And it's quite easy to ask that question in today's scenario where the Swift is one of the main ingredients in the spicy curry that is Indian traffic. Back in 2005 though the Swift was the car to have. It was revolutionary in every sense of the word. First off was the styling that blew everyone's socks off. The Swift was also the first Maruti to polarize opinions, the first Maruti to have a love it or hate it design. No one had ever imagined a properly conservative company like Maruti Suzuki who'd been churning out inoffensive but dreary designs like the 800 and Alto for decades could come up with such a striking design. From the swept back headlights to the floating roof to the very chic and pert rear end every angle on the car grabbed attention. Whether you're a fan or not, the Swift was a design classic.

It didn't stop there. The Swift packed a goodie list that was unheard of in the small car segment. ABS with EBD, airbags and climate control were all part of the ZXi package. Fourteen inch alloys with proper 185/70 R14 tyres were standard on the ZXi model. Looking back, the Swift was the country's first true super mini. Sure Hyundai had their Getz out by then but that car never really caught on with its plain Jane styling and standard levels of kit. The Swift had practically blown the competition straight into the weeds.

The good news kept coming. Maruti Suzuki didn't just plonk in a standard 1000cc engine into the Swift like they would with any other small car. No they went the whole hog and shoe-horned the excellent G13B engine from the Esteem into the hatchback. The 1.3 litre fuel injected engine produced an excellent (for the time) 87PS. The result was a car that was excitingly quick and with handling prowess to match. Maruti may have gambled with selling a small car with a large engine in a highly sensitive market where mileage was everything. But it paid off and how; the Swift set sales charts on fire and broke sales records by selling over three lakh units in just three years and nine months. This was one of the few cars whose demand overwhelmed supply throughout its lifecycle.

Almost everyone has owned or driven the Swift at some point of time. The first thing that hits when you drive it is the perspective of being in a larger, more expensive car. There was none of that budget small car feel and the Swift cabin was a genuinely nice place to be. So much so that you could easily overlook the cramped rear seats or the abysmal lack of luggage space. The climate control provided us endless entertainment and there were multiple arguments over the perfect temperature settings. It wasn't just that, the little things like the doors locking after you cross 20kmph, or the height adjustable driver's seat or just the knowledge that you had ABS, airbags and seat belts with pretensioners keeping you safe made all the difference.

Like every Indian I grew up driving the Maruti 800. Graduating from that to the Maruti Zen wasn't a huge jump. Moving from the Zen to the Swift, now that was quite an upgrade. Everything was just so much better. The engine was addictive, steering deliciously communicative and the brakes; oh the brakes! Crisp with excellent bite, they goaded you into driving faster and faster because you knew that you could brake harder and harder. Long drives were made at the drop of a hat. Some of our excuses bordered on the ridiculous like the times when we used to drive 3 hours to Goa for an authentic seafood lunch! But that's the thing about the Swift; it made driving so much more than just a chore.

Like anything that sounds too good to be true the Swift did have its drawbacks. While it has decent highway manners it's not a car you'd want to take the family out for anything more than a weekend. With my family of four there were invariably bags on the back seat and in the front footwell on account of the tiny boot. Leg room at the rear for anyone remotely tall was at a premium and in true Maruti tradition a sound system was only on offer after the first facelift model (identified by the new tail lamps and alloy wheels) went on sale. The Swift also had build quality issues with rattles creeping up after a few thousand kilometers of running but Maruti's excellent service network and the speed with which they reacted to problems ensured these issues didn't snowball.

Three years after the Swift was launched Maruti squeezed in a diesel engine. And sales skyrocketed. Again. The 1.3 litre unit was essentially a Fiat Multijet diesel engine and was a perfect match to the peppy Swift. Performance was nearly on par with the petrol and was phenomenal for a diesel. Fuel economy was hugely impressive and in terms of economy-to-fun ratio nothing came close. Funnily enough the DDiS engine performed and still performs better than the engines Fiat makes and is used in the Punto and Indica! The Swift DDiS immediately went on to be the best driving diesel hatchback in the country and even today, four years down the line when the current Swift is being phased out it is still the drivers pick in the diesel hatchback segment.

Maruti is not a company known for making frequent changes to its vehicles but they sure can recognise an opportunity when it comes knocking. In 2008 Maruti slapped on a boot onto the Swift (taking cues from the Indica-Indigo experiment) and created the questionably styled but immensely successful Dzire â€" the top selling sedan which still features among the country's top five selling cars.

An equally big change came in 2010. The Swift got a heart transplant and it was a rather traumatic phase for Swift fans all around. Word was out that the company was now going to sell the car with a downsized 1.2 litre engine and the mood was tense. Here was a company messing with such a good formula, it could have been so easy to ruin the equation. But they'd done it again. The 1.2 litre K-Series engine was 3PS down on the old G13B but you'd never know it. It may have lost some of the manic top end of the old engine but made up for it with a meatier bottom end and a quick revving feel. The result was a car that was more or less as quick, easier to drive in city and far, far more fuel efficient.

Tuners though still love the old 1.3 litre engine. The Esteem had proved the strength of the engine and its ability to handle considerable modification. Turbocharged Swifts that produce over 150PS and do sub eight second 0-100kmph times are quite common these days, particularly in Bangalore. In fact we recently tested a turbo Swift prepared by Red Rooster Performance and it had power to put German luxury sedans to shame. I've driven one of these Swifts and it was one of my most entertaining and memorable drives yet. But you needn't spend that much cash â€" most enthusiasts slapped on bigger wheels (15 or even 16's), painted the roof white and put in a fruity exhaust can to make for a distinctive car.

The only blot on the Swift's copy book was that it never did any serious motorsport in India. No one has raced it and it's never seen a rally stage in the INRC. That's surprising considering all of Maruti's 'driver' cars like the Esteem, Baleno, Gypsy, 1000 and even the Zen have seen some form of motorsport, be it tin top circuit racing or rallying. Sure there are the Formula Swift open wheel racers but the only relation those cars had to the road going Swift was that they run the same engines. Come to think of it one of the few times a Swift won in motorsports was when OVERDRIVE came third in the reliability category of the 2005 Raid De Himalaya.

Today six years after the launch of the Swift we come to a pivotal point in its legacy. Production has stopped and final stocks are being cleared off. It's a shame to see such a gem of a car go off the showroom floors but the old must make way for the new. Our initial drive report in Europe already suggests the new car will be better than the current one in nearly every area. It looks very similar to the current model but with Maruti's midas touch and the solid-as-gold value of the Swift name plate the new car could very well chart a whole new chapter in the Swift's history.


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