It's roughly thirty years ago now that the hot hatch craze hit Britain. The idea of a run-of-the-mill shopping trolley, such as the Volkswagen Golf or Peugeot 205, being equipped with an engine more powerful than the chassis could really cope with, grabbed the imagination of young drivers and the boy racer phenomenon was born. These days hot hatches are extraordinary – with the likes of the Focus RS and Renaultsport Megane comfortably exceeding 200bhp. One hot hatch that I think is a bit more back-to-basics is the Suzuki Swift Sport which, at about half of the price of the big boys, achieves a modest 134bhp from its feisty 1.6 engine yet provides plenty of smiles per gallon.

However, Britain's feeling the pinch, and most young drivers can but dream of affording to run even the Swift Sport. Gone are the days when a 17-year-old could razz around in a 205 GTI, nowadays driving anything is a privilege and many of us, while wanting the good looks of something like the Swift Sport, are happy to sacrifice performance for a few more miles to the gallon and a bit cut off the ridiculous four-figure insurance premium.
Suzuki has the answer in the form of the Swift SZ-L. It's a special edition based on the mid-range SZ3 - that means you get a 1.2-litre unit with low emissions of 116g/km CO2, resulting in road tax of just £30 a year, and a claimed 56.3 miles to the gallon. But you also get some nice features nicked from its sporty counterpart, such as a rear spoiler, privacy glass and red stitching on the steering wheel and gearshift surround. I'm a massive fan of the red stitching and wish it was more common on all cars – it can make the must mundane interior look interesting. I wouldn't class the Swift's interior as mundane, however. It's a comfortable place to sit and it feels fairly well built, however a few interior features, such as the handbrake, feel a little flimsy. It's not the most practical either – the boot is small compared to rivals and its massive lip makes transporting bulky objects a chore. The back is lacking legroom and, with small rear windows, it's not the nicest place for an adult to pass time. However, for young drivers with nothing but themselves and a few mates to carry, the Swift is more than adequate.
The question is, is fitting a 1.2 to a sporty hatchback like this a sacrifice too far? I decide to take the SZ-L for a swift (sorry) tour of North Yorkshire to find out. At first I find the engine  disappointing. It seems to seriously lack grunt and doesn't seem as nippy as its rivals. However, after a few days, it's growing on me. It needs working hard – you get used to dropping down a gear on even the slightest bend or incline and you feel a real sense of pride after successfully completing an overtake. A one-in-three hill on a single track road has me dropping to first and considering asking passengers to get out to help the Swift to reach the top but we make it eventually. And what the Swift lacks in power it makes up for in handling.

Any driver can drive a fast car, slowing down for a poorly anticipated hazard and then accelerating hard to get back up to speed, but a few days in the 1.2 Swift, with its 0-60 time of 11.9 seconds, can teach you a lot about keeping momentum. Fortunately it handles marvellously – keeping body roll to a minimum and only hinting at understeer if you enter a bend at a horrendously optimistic pace, in which case it’s easy to control. This allows you to keep speed up well so you don't have to hold traffic up accelerating back up to the speed limit on straight stretches of road. The feedback through the steering wheel is also good, although it can feel a bit artificial at times, especially when it noticeably becomes heavier when you increase your speed. When I hit a patch of mud and nearly end up in a farmhouse, the steering feedback means I know exactly what the wheels are doing and I manage to control the resulting slide. Which is nice.
On the motorway – once up to speed – the Swift is a capable cruiser. You feel perfectly safe in it thanks to its seven airbags and stability control as standard, which meant it scored a top five stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests. The cruise control, fitted as standard on this model, allows your right foot a chance to relax and the seats are very supportive. On the first day of my Yorkshire trip I covered over 400 miles and happily jumped into the Swift early the next morning for another motorway journey. However, the Swift sits at 70 mph at about 3,500 revs meaning that engine noise is noticeable and long motorway journeys don't help fuel economy. Over one tank I averaged a disappointing 40.7 mpg. Admittedly, as well as motorway, some of these miles were spent working the Swift hard on challenging North Yorkshire country lanes but that's a long way from Suzuki’s official figure. Honest John managed an average real world mpg of 50.4 showing perhaps how hard the Swift had to work in these conditions.

However, this is not the Swift's natural territory, which is why I decided to head into York city centre to explore the cobbled streets and stop/start traffic. For this the Swift is very good, squeezing down narrow streets like a pro (although the large door mirrors, while being great on the motorway, make me a little nervous). As I park up on a cobbled street with the impressive York Minster in the background, I can’t help but be impressed at how good the Swift looks. It's a really cool little car and, in the white of our test car, it gets more than one envious glance, despite being caked thick in Yorkshire dirt.
Ultimately the Swift is never going to be the most practical choice. If, however, carrying a bootful of shopping and a car ful of passengers isn’t high on your wish list, it’s definitely worth considering. Personally, although I wasn’t expected hot hatch levels of performance, I can’t help but feel it’d be perfect with just a touch more power. If it did it'd sit comfortably at slightly lower revs on the motorway increasing fuel economy and comfort, and you wouldn’t have to work the gearbox quite as hard to keep the speed up. But for people who want something cheap to insure and tax while being a fun car to own and drive, I would highly recommend the Swift SZ-L.

Suzuki Swift SZ-L 1.2 3 door

Recommended retail price: £12,719
Current offer price: £10,599 (until 31/03/13)
Top speed: 103 mph
0-62 mph: 12.3 secs
Official combined fuel consumption: 56.5 mpg
Average fuel consumption during test: 40.7 mpg (over 320 miles including motorway and through North Yorkshire)
CO2 emissions: 116 g/km
Insurance group: 11E
Road tax: Band C - £30/year
Servicing: 12 months/10,000 miles
Warranty: Three years/60,000 miles
I liked: Impressive handling, cool image, good interior.
I didn’t like: Lacking power and not the most practical hatchback.

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