Review: Suzuki Swift Sport v Honda Civic Type R Mugen v Renault Clio Cup

Review: Suzuki Swift Sport v Honda Civic Type R Mugen v Renault Clio Cup
Review: Suzuki Swift Sport v Honda Civic Type R Mugen v Renault Clio Cup

As the sun sets on the last hot hatch from the turbo-free era, let’s see if it defines its kind as well as two full-on performance legends

What do the Renault Clio Cup, Honda Civic Type R Mugen and Suzuki Swift Sport have in common?

Actually what makes them so special is what they don’t have. Not a turbocharger between them.

These versions of the Civic and Clio are from a few years ago. Both were and still are wonderful examples of the hot hatch at its most beguiling.

End of an era

The Swift, meanwhile, is the last of a breed. The era of naturally aspirated hot hatches has been a wonderful one, but it’s coming to an end. And how appropriate that the Swift, which typifies all that is wonderful in cars like this, is the last man standing.

It’s is as fast and fun as you can get at the price, thanks to a very simple combination of low weight and keen, revvy engine. No doubt its turbocharged replacement, which is due next year, will be faster, but will it have the same character?

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Just to remind ourselves of how tall an order it’s going to be to replace this Swift, we got one together with examples of the Clio Cup and Mugen Civic from back in the day. Time to assess, perhaps, whether rose-tinted glasses have played a part in our perception of Suzuki’s little star; it’s the last, and for that we love it, but does that mean it’s also one of the best?

Power games

It’s up against the Renault Sport Clio Cup, fitted with the most powerful version of a 2.0-litre engine which traces its bloodline back to the legendary Clio Williams, and the Civic Type R Mugen, using Honda’s VTEC timing technology – itself a way of holding off the inevitable march of the turbocharger. In terms of crude power output, Suzuki’s 135bhp plays 197bhp in the Renault and 237bhp in the Honda.

Best not get hung up on speed, then. Clearly, the Swift will have less. Equally, it might not come as any great surprise that if you’ve got a long journey ahead of you and you want to arrive calm, you’ll be asking for the keys of the Suzuki.

But that doesn’t mean it’s an also-ran. It feels nimble, agile and light on its feet in a way the others can’t match. Its steering is one-finger easy yet doesn’t lack feel, and it revs away with a frothy, happy ease that makes it a joy to simply zip about it. No small matter, too, you can push it as hard as you want on a B-road and unless than means keeping it flat on the long straight bits, you don’t need to be distracted by watching out for the law.

Trouble makers

The Clio and Civic are patently capable of getting you into trouble if you don’t behave. The Civic, in particular, is all about fire, brimstone and drama, especially with the Type R’s already potent mix spiced up by Mugen. Typically of engines with variable cam profiles, it feels restricted at low speeds, as if it’s champing at the bit – but then the revs hit their threshold and boom, on go the afterburners. It really does feel that mad – especially with a sudden eruption of power all going to the front wheels.

And of course, to keep it from going all coy on you again, you need to keep it in the zone. There’s an analogy here that we really must not use, but you can doubtless make it yourself. And that’s how the Civic feels – edgy, unreal, drunk on power, all your senses pulsing with an adrenaline-soaked cocktail of excitement and fear.

The Clio does it very differently. In particular, its torque figure of 159lb ft seems absurdly low these days, and sure enough it takes revs to get it moving. By revs we mean the throttle pedal buried in the floor. Fail to absolutely thrash it, and you’ll fail to go fast.

When you do thrash it, though, you discover what a masterpiece this car is. Its chassis is sublime, balanced to perfection and biddable without end, whether you’re working the perfect steering or adjusting its line in corners. In this latter quality, the number of front-drivers better than it can be counted on the fingers of one finger.

The perfect match

So the Civic was all about a monster of an engine, and the Clio was all about a monster of a chassis. What made the latter so special was the way its own engine worked with that chassis to create a car that was almost perfectly together.

The Swift is almost perfectly together, too. The good thing is that all it ever says it’s going to be is a fun little motor that doesn’t cost much – but then you climb aboard and find that while that is indeed what it is, the entertainment you get from it is quite simply off the scale.

So that’s a pretty good way to sign off on an era which has yielded some true motoring marvels. The Civic Type R Mugen and Clio Cup are among them, for sure – but while it’s unlikely that in 2025, anyone looking back on the turbo-free hatches of yore will instantly name the Suzuki Swift as one of the greatest, nothing else has ever defined its era with such honest ease.

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