VW Up GTI vs Suzuki Swift Sport (2019) twin test review: who let the pups out?

Published: 07 March 2019

► A little long-termer adventure
► Our Up GTI vs our Swift Sport
► Their keepers escape the office

Who on Earth approved this? Staff Writer Jake, with his VW Up GTI and Online Editor Curtis driving his Suzuki Swift Sport play hooky for a day to tool around in their pokey, punchy hatches to see which is the more fun car.

Our VW Up GTI: 'is it really a GTI at all?'

I might be a Geordie city boy at heart, but Thetford forest was the scene of many a bike ride, muddy walk and family picnic as a kid. This time around I'm aiming for fun of a different sort, because this is where I'll be meeting up with online editor Curtis Moldrich so we can compare my VW Up GTI and his Suzuki Swift Sport. Among the reasons for choosing this bit of Norfolk is that there's rarely a phone signal, so it should improve our chances of getting Curtis to abandon his usual digital habits and give the cars his undivided attention, or at least look up from his phone for an hour or so.

Up GTI front tracking

The real aim, though, is to learn a bit about both cars from the journey to the Forest, and then to have a good hoon around when we get there, hoping for relatively quiet midweek roads out of the tourist season.

Heading over there from Peterborough is enough to make you nod off in most cars. Much of Norfolk is flat farmland, with straight single-lane A-roads populated by tractors and lorries trundling along, acting as a rolling roadblock. Still, the brief moments of respite swinging around roundabouts and taking advantage of fleeting overtaking chances are what the GTI is made for, making me chuckle along the way regardless. Those sprinkles of enjoyment are enough to smooth over the jiggly ride on some of the East's less looked-after roads as I head toward our verdant meeting point.

Our first drive of the Volkswagen Up GTI

As I arrive at a muddy and heavily rutted parking area called Lynford Stag, the evergreen pines of the Norfolk hinterland are framed by near-frozen mud below and grey skies above, only our streaks of red-and-yellow lightning bringing some relief.

After several months in the Swift Sport, Curtis is well aware of its foibles but also sees its good sides. The Up is new to him, but he quickly starts to appreciate it. He likes its shove, which comes as a surprise, as he'd seen the on-paper stats and made some hasty assumptions. Compared with the Suzuki, the VW is missing one cylinder and 374cc; it's also down by 25bhp and 22lb ft. But on the road, the gap feels much smaller.

Up GTI wheel

Curtis quickly comes to share my view that the VW's seats are too flat and unsupportive to offer much comfort on longer journeys; a bit of lumbar support wouldn't go amiss. I'm also still miffed by the always-on traction control.

The light-ish steering is something I've become used to, but it's brought back into focus by my colleague, who finds it weird after the Swift Sport. The Suzuki's steering feels markedly heavier, although it's no more precise.

Then there's the question of just how legitimate a GTI the Up actually is. Some argue that there isn't enough to differentiate it from a normal Up; it might roll on 15mm lower springs and stop with larger front brake discs, but the rears are still drums and the engine is probably one of the most widely used units in the lower rungs of Volkswagen, Skoda and Seat's model ranges – albeit, in this case, employing a sound actuator to amplify some of the GTI's growl towards the passenger cell bulkhead.

But it's the simplicity of the Up that I really admire. Manual air-con, an actual key to twist, punchy power, and the assumption that if you want any fancy modern infotainment you'll provide it through your own smartphone. The controls are light and direct, making this an excellent car for (among others) those who haven't been driving long; its responsiveness should get you into some good habits, and will reward good driving.

Swift Sport Up GTI tree side static

It could, of course, be better equipped and plusher – but then it would also be bigger, heavier and more expensive, and waddle away from the agreeable simplicity of the Up idea. That simplicity is what makes the GTI shine – it's up for a laugh whenever you are, in the city or out in the sticks.

By Jake Groves

VW Up GTI: the second opinion

Despite the go faster stripe, the Up still looks like one of those funky kitchen appliances you can get in colours other than white, but inside, it pulls ahead of my long-termer. It doesn't try and do tech like the Swift Sport, it simply side-steps it, and relies on your smartphone for an infotainment screen. Aside from heated seats, there aren't as many toys here either but as a package it's more polished and just works. 

But what about the driving? Jump out of the Swift and into this, and the first thing you notice is the super light steering. Compared to the Suzuki, it's a little less confidence inducing which is a shame, as the rather firm brakes lend an air of precision the wheel just can't deliver. The engine is the star here though. Although an over-egged pudding in terms of sound – it's a victim of Wolfsburg's penchant for fake engine grumbles – it's strong at 3000rpm, and pulls you out of corners like a trolley with a speedboat motor. If only it looked better and had a little more tech.

By Curtis Moldrich

Swift Sport Up GTI curtis jake

Our Suzuki Swift Sport: 'it's built to be ragged'

Just what you don't want when you've got a 90-minute drive to Thetford Forest ahead of you and you should have set off 20 minutes ago: this morning, of all mornings, the Swift Sport has suddenly announced that all four tyres are now at a sub-optimal pressure, and does this by continually flashing red tyres on a graphic. There's also an orange hazard light and a more traditional tyre-pressure sign if you miss the blinking. It's too much to ignore, and for reasons of safety – and sanity – I give them the tiny top-up they don't really need.

To be fair, it's the first time the Swift has pulled this trick on me, and compares favourably to the Honda Civic Type R I ran last year, which spent six months incorrectly telling me my tyres were at the wrong pressure. I should count my blessings.

Tyres sorted, Apple CarPlay engaged, and it's time to rendezvous with Jake and the Up. The journey start off with a lot of dual carriageways – always a mixed bag in the Swift.

Swift Sport Up GTI twin side pan

Adaptive Cruise continues to impress, and has become a feature I used at some point on almost every trip. It just works – although its relatively large gaps in distance settings mean more opportunistic motorists will cut between you and the car in front. On one drive, I found myself shuffled back at least three spaces in traffic before I took matters into my own hands.

Longer trips like this always get me reaching for the seatback adjusters, because unfortunately the seats aren't remotely comfy. They're too high to really invoke a sporty feel, so you often feel like you're in some sort of speedy high chair, but they're firm and super-stiff too, and that's less easy to forgive. Come to think of it, even short journeys often find me fiddling with the reclining settings. There's no sweet spot – I'm just trying to vary the back pain.

Swift Sport head on tracking

This car is noisy at motorway speeds, and I often find myself checking all the windows are closed. Still, that din is better than anything you'll get out of the speakers. If you're using CarPlay, or have the patience to fiddle with the infotainment system, you'll find the Swift Sport's sound system to be something along the lines of 'lads' holiday Bluetooth speaker' at best. It's fine at low volumes, but if you turn it up to a good level, things go south very quickly. Bass is present but incorrect, treble is harsh – and when you approach louder volumes distortion rolls in at an alarming rate. Although it's important to remember this is a budget car mainly designed for driving pleasure, it's really not very good on any terms.

Our first drive of the Suzuki Swift Sport

But let's go back to what this car is actually for – ragging it on low-grip roads. Get past the duelling lorries and tailgating vans, and the narrow, cold and greasy roads closer to our destination really play to the strengths of the Swift. It's a fun car to play with on the limit.
When you're driving in a more spirited manner, wheelspin appears regularly in second, the traction light flickers every time you exit a roundabout, and power understeer is routine. You can play it more conservatively, but on roads like these, holding the gear to the redline and bullying the chassis is a lot of fun.

Where driving the Civic was more about chipping away at my own driving skill and confidence, driving the Swift seems to be about juicing every millimetre of its surprisingly zesty performance. Either way, it's enough to make me forget about the back pain.

Swift Sport rear pan

Jake has to admit that Suzuki's steering feels meatier and the damping is far superior. But he insists the Up has the more entertaining power delivery. Although an over-egged pudding in terms of sound – it's a victim of Wolfsburg's penchant for fake engine grumbles – it's strong at 3000 revs, and pulls you out of corners like a trolley with a speedboat motor.

Parked next to the Suzuki, Jake's Up looks like a nippy washing machine; the Swift Sport is a little more grown-up and aggressive. At the rear, those double exhausts and the fake carbonfibre give it a bit of on an edge, and the front end has the great merit of not looking like a Hotpoint. Swapping between these two cars is a reminder that the Suzuki is not particularly small; at 6ft 3in I can sit reasonably comfortably in the back, which isn't the case in the VW.

The more you drive both these cars, the more you realise they're both far from the complete package, but there's plenty about both that you can enjoy.

By Curtis Moldrich

Suzuki Swift Sport: the second opinion

There’s no missing it, is there? Before Curtis was introduced to it at our Hot Hatch of the Year test back in September 2018, the Sport was a magnet for bugs. Thetford in winter was no different. Other than that, though, the whole look is pretty attractive (to me, at least). Save for the fake carbon, the tank barrel exhausts, two-tone honeycomb alloys and angry expression really set it apart from the ‘regular’ Swift I ran for almost a year.

Swift Sport badge

Then I climb in the Sport, and remember how naff the cockpit materials and infotainment still are. Waves of smugness wash over my face knowing that, yes, my Up might be a little more basic in terms of tech but it’s a far more robust place to spend time. All I yearn for is the Sport’s beefy bolsters – I almost tried hacking them off and gluing them on the tartan-clad chairs in the VW deep in the forest when Curtis wasn’t looking.

Dynamically, the steering is much meatier and the damping far superior to the bouncy Up, but the VW counteracts that by having a much more entertaining powertrain, both in sound and power delivery. Mine might be the shape of a tumble dryer, but it’s the Sport that drones like one.

By Jake Groves

Images by Tom Chapman

Swift Sport Up GTI twin rear

VW Up GTI vs Suzuki Swift Sport: specs

Volkswagen Up GTI
Engine
999cc turbocharged 3cyl, 113bhp @ 5000-5500rpm, 148lb ft @ 2000-3150rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Stats 8.8sec 0-62mph, 122mph, 129g/km CO2
Price £14,055
As tested £15,230

Suzuki Swift Sport
Engine 1373cc 16v turbo 4-cyl, 138bhp @ 5500rpm, 170lb ft @ 2500rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance 8.1sec 0-62mph, 130mph 125g/km CO2
Price £17,999
As tested £17,999

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