Let's face it, going to work is a drag. No matter where you live, the stress of the daily commute can quickly transform the calmest individual into a rolling angst factory. Sort of like Mother Teresa turning into Sam Kinison between off-ramps. Which is why it's becoming increasingly important to own a car with a sporting personality. Regardless of whether you only get to open 'er up once a day, tackling a curving on-ramp at over 0.90g can do wonders for your outlook on life.
But before you rush out and sign the loan papers for a Porsche Carrera 4, come back down to reality for a moment. You know good and well that a commuter vehicle must be economical not only in purchase price, but also in fuel usage, insurability, and maintenance. This rules out the Carrera for most of us, right off the bat. Before you get discouraged and turn to the "Used Police Car & Taxicab Buyer's Guide," however, take a look at what we have in mind.
Our approach is one of subtle modification. Even the most basic economy car can be given a dose of excitement by the addition of a balanced package of performance parts. And we're not referring to big-buck projects, either. Just simple bolt-on items such as low-restriction intake and exhaust systems, beefier suspension components and stickier tires. The automotive muscle-building equivalent of U.S. Marine Corps basic training (but without the creamed chipped beef on toast).
Our vehicle of choice with which to demonstrate this theory is the Suzuki Swift GT. Already a healthy mini-performer in its own right, the Swift boasts a 100-horsepower 1.3-liter DOHC four cylinder powerplant, competent chassis, sporty looks, and comfortable interior. Fuel economy is one of its strong suits, with an EPA rating of 28/35 mpg city/highway. Though the Swift has a lot to offer in stock form, we couldn't help but wonder just how much more fun it'd be if we tricked it up a bit. And that's how our "Rat Racer" came to be. With the help of the small-car performance specialists at Jackson Racing, we set about modifying the willing Suzuki. Our goal: vastly improve acceleration, handling, and braking, while staying as close as possible to factory levels of comfort, reliability, and economy.
Although "more horsepower" is the phrase Motor Trend staffers regularly scream first when bellowing out our list of wants for most any new car, we all agreed that the front-drive Swift's chassis was the area most in need of refinement. In stock form, the car's a capable handler and made it through out 600-foot slalom at a trap speed of 64.4 mph. Skidpad testing showed 0.80g of lateral acceleration. A good performance, especially considering its econocar sticker price, but just a mite too soft for serious corner-turning work. Jackson Racing traced much of the problem to the suspension mounts, where the soft rubber bushings allow too much deflection during hard cornering. This not only results in suspension toe changes, but also aggravates the torsional body flex and prohibits the basically well-designed chassis from doing its best job. If you're willing to sacrifice some road noise isolation, you can tighten up the handling considerably.
Starting with the front suspension, Jackson installed urethane bushings in all the pivot points. Next, a lower A-arm brace was made to augment the upper strut-tower bar also installed, creating a more rigid, boxed, suspension setup. The front MacPherson struts were replaced with Koni inserts, while the stock front anti-roll bar and coil springs remained untouched. This saved us some money, as well as retained the stock ride height and much of the highway comfort.
The rear suspension received a similar set of modifications, including urethane bushings and a larger 0.875-inch anti-roll bar. Inside the luggage compartment, Jackson tightened things even more by installing an upper strut brace that aids structural integrity by preventing strut tower deflection during cornering. The design of the brace also leaves luggage-carrying capacity relatively unaffected.
The rolling stock was next in line for upgrading, so we ordered a set of CSI 14x6.0-inch (1.0 inch wider than stock) one-piece aluminum wheels and ultra-gummy 185/60VR14 Yokohama A008R/TU radials. This change reduces unsprung weight by 2.5 pounds at each corner of the car, and contributes to the Swift's newfound corner-turning prowess.
Even before we trekked out to the test track, we knew the modified Swift GT was going to be a stormer. Steering response is lightning quick (although heavy on-center) and the grip is incredible. Gone is the body flex and tire-abusing understeer, replaced by think and go response that throw you about the cockpit if you're not belted down smugly. The handling can best be described as "near neutral" with power on understeer that can be offset by late braking a corner and rotating the car into the turn with the light trailing throttle over steer that results.
The first attempt at out 600-foot slalom course almost made our early morning test crew drop their Styrofoam coffee cups: After a brief warmup run, the little economy car zipped back and forth between the cones to record a trap speed of 73.1 mph - nearly 5 mph faster than the last L98 Corvette we tested and the best slalom number we've ever seen. "No way, gotta be a timing error," we reasoned. Back through the course once more, and the same number appeared on the clocks. We then ran another car though the course; a much lower number appeared. Then, back again with the Suzuki, and again a 73-mph printout. Jaws dropped. We stared at each other and then at the car. Several runs around the skidpad proved the Swift's performance wasn't a timing fluke, as we recorded an impressive 0.94g rating - that bests our most recent Corvette by 0.02g.
Next up was the braking test, which would check the effectiveness of not only better tires, but also the cross drilled four wheel disc brake rotors, stainless steel flex brake lines, and Motul 300C high temperature brake fluid that Jackson Racing added. The stock brake pads (semi-metallic) weren't replaced. A succession of 60-0-mph stops showed no fade and distances of 116 feet. In stock form, the Swift GT performed the same task in a lengthy 152 feet.
To keep the driver and front passenger firmly in place during such high g-loading, a set of Schroth-Asm Rallye-3 four-point harnesses was installed. These belts are DOT approved (which means the stock seat belts may be removed) and feature quick-release shoulder straps for easy entry into the rear seat. Other interior modifications include a Momo 320-millimeter steering wheel and the installation of oil temperature and oil pressure gauges we ordered from the Suzuki dealer accessory catalog. The gauges fit into the center console's storage binnacle and were rotated so that straight-up needle readings equal the optimum operating ranges.
In stock form, the 1870-pound Swift is capable of 0-60-mph times of 9.8 seconds and covers the quarter mile in 17.2 seconds at 81.1 mph. In its dyno tests, Jackson Racing found easy methods of improving of improving power by eliminating some of the restrictions in the intake and exhaust systems. But care was given taken to assure that all the emissions controls were left in place and functional. First, the factory airbox and filter were replaced with an open-element Uni-Filter. On the exhaust side, the stock head pipe and catalytic converter were undisturbed, but everything from that point on back was replaced. A Jackson Racing 1.875 mandrel-bent tube with low-restriction resonator was bolted up and connected to a Flow Master muffler at the rear of the car. The result is much more lively high-rpm performance and a snappier exhaust note that hints at what's underhood. Other engine upgrade goodies include Split-Fire spark plugs and an alternator cutout at wide-open throttle.
Power is improved by approximately 15 percent with these simple add-ons, which drop 0-60-mph times by over a second to 8.7 ticks of the stopwatch. The quarter mile likewise improves to 16.9 seconds/82.6 mph. For added fun at the stoplight or for use on the autocross course, Jackson installed a nitrous-oxide setup from NOS, which provides and additional 35 horsepower on demand. To prevent engine damage that can result from over-exuberant use of nitrous oxide, however, Jackson's technicians have developed a brain box that only allows the nitrous to flow after the engine is above 4500 rpm. Massive wheelspin prevents using the special go-juice until second gear, but after that point, it's a hang-on-and-scream ride that results in a 0-60-mph time of 6.7 seconds and a quarter mile of 15.4 seconds/87.0 mph. To put it into perspective, that makes this non-turbocharged 1.3-liter four-cylinder nearly as quick as a 5-liter Camaro Z28.
With V-8 level acceleration and Corvette-like handling, you won't likely find many commuter cars that can keep up with the "Rat Racer." Total price for the modifications is a bit under $4000, plus installation charges, which still keeps the bottom line in the respectable range. For those of you contemplating such a transformation to a Suzuki Swift GT "Rat Racer" of your own, we'll be seeing you on our favorite freeway onramp.