IAIN ROBERTSON
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Beset by Boxing Day snow, the sheer practicality of the compact and zesty Swift gave Iain Robertson a most fitting conclusion to a hectic 2014, as he outlines his ‘Cars of the Year’ and looks forward, with trepidation, to 2015.

Following a fairly dull 2013, expectations were not high at the start of the New Year for what can now be described as a near ‘classic’, in almost all respects. In fact, I have been fortunate to sample some of the most realistic, most frugal, most surprising and most enchanting of new models. In truth, there is no single victor, although one car did get very close to the pinnacle for me.

However, firstly, I want to tell you about the simply outstanding Suzuki Swift 4×4. Suzuki is one of those brands for which an immense amount of goodwill exists. Its cars are competent and dependable. Its dealers are friendly and non-pressuring. Even Suzuki drivers are amiable and empathetic.

The Swift has provided a backbone to Suzuki’s road cars for well over three decades. Although it has grown slightly in dimensions, at its heart lies a stoical sense of proportion and reality. The Swift can be and is compared with other compact models but it retains an independent value that few of them can touch. Although 4×4 has been a feature of the model range since the early-1990s, partly because, as a Japanese car, a lot of its domestic market sales revolve around technological advancements, of which four-wheel-drive is but one aspect, it is a system that also forges a link with its progressive but lightweight 4WD models, like Vitara and the Jimny.

To be frank, I am not a fan of the ‘Chelsea tractor’. I have never quite seen the point, whether your name is Jacinta, or Jamieson, of squandering thousands of Pounds on a monster 4×4 that never ventures further off-road than the flower-beds at Waitrose, even if daddy picks up the tab. Just because you are a member of the gin and fabric conditioner set, spending aimless hours entertaining at Groucho’s, if you reside in a city, make do with a city car, for heaven’s sake.

For every one of these hatefully immense, costly but poorly packaged barges registered, usually piloted by a sunglasses-wearing, bleached-blonde ‘Hooray’ of one denomination, or the other, the reputation of the motorcar takes another backwards leap. In fact, to those of us who believe that the role of independent transport should be sacrosanct, the impact of the ‘Land-Bruiser’, however relatively small in volume, has become incredibly damaging.

Yet, Suzuki’s compact equivalents need no justification. In the case of the Swift, it sips fuel (returning a regular 55mpg, without fuss), occupies only a small chunk of terra firma, costs pocket-money to live with, yet delivers greater mixed surface competence that leaves the steamroller-tyred Landies, X5s, ML-Classes and their ilk floundering and without traction. The Swift 4×4 is a veritable giant-killer that should claim the seasonal pantomime stage plaudits with Jack.

Riding a valuable 2.5 centimetres higher off the road than the standard Swift, with its wheel arches trimmed in fashionable black plastic, the 4×4 model looks as good in an urban, shopping, or commuting environment, as it does zipping along a moderately testing green lane, or extracting itself from a snow-blocked driveway. I even attempted to put the car into some really sticky situations, like a snow and icy hill-start, only for it to make slip-free progress with remarkable aplomb. Its only clue to those people abandoning their machines being the little 4×4 tag on the bottom right corner of the hatchback.

While the interior plastics might not share the desirable soft-touch advantages of VW Group products, at least they are easy to clean, following a mucky off-road foray, and are of decent assembly quality to last for the life of the car. The upholstery is tediously grey, although of high enough quality and comfort for the four-plus-one accommodation. Thanks to a fairly tall construction, there is leg and headroom in abundance in the four main seats and access to the five-door cabin is uncompromised, even for a two metres tall tester. All of the controls work fluently and, in SZ4 trim, a plethora of useful switches appear on the steering wheel spokes. Incidentally, sat-nav is standard.

However, I should like to dwell for a moment on that 4×4 system. Weighing in at just 65kgs, it features a viscous centre differential that drives the rear wheels of this normally front-driven hatchback, as soon as any ‘slip’ is detected. The effect is instantaneous and the driver needs to take no action, even were they noticeable. There is a slight downside, in that the exhaust emissions figure takes a small hike to 126g/km (which equates to £110 for annual VED; a small penalty compared with the king’s ransom demanded for the monster 4×4 truck).

Of course, another potential trade-off lies with its 1.2-litre (1,242cc), 94bhp petrol engine. To obtain the best on-road performance from the unit demands some fairly determined revving, as its peak torque figure of 87lbs ft is at a lofty 4,800rpm. While ‘Swift’ might suggest greater potency, I am afraid that it is not present (unless you opt for the front-driven 136bhp Sport variant). Yet, if you just reflect on the agile, direction-changing elegance of the swift (apus apus), a bird that is known to sleep on-the-wing and to cover as many as 200,000 miles in a year, perhaps the model name possesses slightly greater merit.

The reality of the engine’s power delivery is somewhat different though. In some ways, it harbours a Jekyll and Hyde scenario. Eminently happy with being punted along at low speeds, changing up the five forward gears to a comfortable 55-60mph cruise, even better fuel economy can be eked from the car. Yet, give the engine its head and progress lives up to its bird namesake. It can be hustled speedily, resulting in surprisingly high cross-country averages that ensure it is never left behind.

Overall, the Swift is a most alluring small car. Its stock of standard equipment is also good at this level, in addition to the aforementioned sat-nav, there is Bluetooth, a most efficient climate control system, electric windows fore and aft, keyless go, underbody skid-plates and tinted glass. Yet, priced at £16,439, is the Swift 4×4 really worth £5,050 more than the entry-level front-driven version? You could save £2,280 by opting for the SZ3 alternative but you would lose some of the useful convenience factors. There again, the 1.6-litre Swift Sport offers a significant performance gain and is priced from just £13,999 (possibly the performance bargain of the decade and sat-nav is also standard).

Yet, given the adverse conditions of the test period, while my heart says ‘Swift-Sport-with-winter-tyres’, my head underscores that Swift 4×4 is the ultimate snowmobile, is great fun to drive (a factor all too readily ignored) and meets a broader range of everyday requirements more succinctly. Although it is not a BCingU CoTY contender, the Suzuki Swift 4×4 does figure quite highly in my list.

…and, now, without further delay…
Of the small cars that I drove in 2014, the new Vauxhall Corsa is the one that impressed me most. The dramatic changes wrought on an already most acceptable model warranted the ‘new’ designation. It is almost as if Vauxhall has finally awoken to its need to beat Ford on home ground. Better than the Fiesta in every way, the Vauxhall Corsa is the consummate Small Car of the Year.

By contrast, of the most advanced cars that I drove in 2014, the all-electric Tesla P85+ was unquestioningly the best. Diminishing ‘range anxiety’ to little more than an insignificant ‘blip’ on the life support equipment, the big Tesla outguns every premium luxury saloon, makes the Jaguar XJ look overblown and valueless and breathes new life into the upper echelons of the executive sector, albeit at a fairly hefty price tag. The Tesla is my Most Advanced Car of the Year.

While the Suzuki Swift does not make the final tally, its stablemate, the Suzuki S-Cross, proves that genuine 4×4 motoring can be both responsible and eminently enjoyable. My ‘around-UK’ trek more than highlighted its outstandingly cost-efficient and liveable talents. It is my Best 4×4 of the Year.

The highly popular C-segment that includes excellent cars like the Peugeot 308, VW Golf, Ford Focus and Kia c’eed turned up a winner in the new Nissan Pulsar, which is affordable, frugal and spacious. It is my Hatchback of the Year. However, Volkswagen gains two crowns in the offshoot segments, as the Golf SV is my value-added winner of the Most Practical Family Car of the Year, while the 4WD, 296bhp Golf R is my enthralling Hot Hatchback of the Year.

As far as serious off-road shenanigans are concerned, I could have chosen the Jeep Cherokee, or even the Fiat Panda Cross, as both models more than proved their capabilities to me in the past twelve months. However, my victor in this sector is the unassuming but truly excellent Fiat 500X, which lifts my honour as The Best SUV of the Year.

Finally, my overall BCingU Car of the Year is the simply stunning Mercedes-Benz C300 Hybrid. As a car that weaves intelligent fuel saving technology into a sensible performance package, it does have a growing number of rivals. Yet, its character, driving quality, comfort and technology combine to create a car worthy of the title. While I realise that 2015 is sure to be a tough year, any of the BCingU Car of the Year ‘winners’ can prove that they are the best models in which to survive on our roads.

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).