Suzuki is not a company usually associated with real driver's cars. Some of its bikes are stupendously good, but most of the cars we get in the UK from the Japanese manufacturer are biased towards the budget end of the market. The Suzuki Ignis should be no different. Or should it?
Suzuki looks set to dominate the 2004 Junior World Rally Championship (JWRC) with the Ignis. A three-car team has already notched up an impressive 1-2-3 finish in the Rally of Turkey, as well as a win in Acropolis and second place in Monte Carlo. Off the back of this success, Suzuki is pushing the Ignis Sport road version of the JWRC car hard, with £1,000 lopped off the list price (only until September this year) and free insurance for a year thrown in. Even at its normal price of £9,999 on-the-road in the UK, it looks like being a bit of a performance bargain, though competition is tough.
This is where I own up to expecting the Ignis Sport to be no more than a regular three door Ignis with a few cosmetic tweaks, milking the image of the rally car. Within a mile I knew I was very wrong. The Ignis Sport deserves its name. The transformation begins with the exterior and continues inside, but the most impressive changes are to the oily bits. Fitted under the cheery-faced nose is a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing. It pushes out a respectable 107bhp at a lofty 6400rpm, and 103lb.ft of torque at 4100rpm. The high engine speeds indicate the nature of the unit: you will want to rev it for all it's worth. Thankfully it is more than up to the task, emitting an eager growl. The only downside is a constant thrum on the motorway, and an audible buzz on tick over at traffic lights.
Put your foot down and you will soon forgive its lack of refinement. The Ignis Sport weighs less than a metric tonne and therefore it doesn't take the engine long to get the little car up to speed. Indeed, the claimed 0-62mph time of 8.9 seconds beats its rivals, which include such cars as the Mini Cooper and Ford SportKa. Speed alone is no use unless you are being entertained, and the Ignis is more fun than a naked game of Twister.
Show the Ignis Sport a sequence of corners and you'll come out the other side in disbelief, swing it around and do it again, but 20mph faster. The nose takes an instant to turn in, but then dives for the apex willingly, with the rear end offering a neutral slide in extreme, even under power - very much in the vein of the Honda Civic Type-R
. You soon learn to trust the car enough to chuck it into the tightest of corners, knowing that it can be adjusted on and over the limit of grip safely. Much of this is due to the narrow, but sticky Yokohamas fitted. It is also worth noting that the chassis is stiffer than a pervert in a branch of Ann Summers. Suzuki says that it is a full two inches lower than the standard car, so despite the high-sided body the Ignis Sport has a low centre of gravity. The downside of the hard springs is some crashing over potholes and ruts, but it is no worse than in the MG ZR
. If your favourite twisty road has mid-corner bumps you may well find the rear end of the Ignis lifting its rear wheels, but generally you can keep your right foot planted and it sorts itself out.
A serious driver will tell you that a car's brakes are as important as its engine or chassis. Amazingly, Suzuki has not cut any corners on this front. The Ignis Sport is fitted with ventilated disc brakes front and rear. No doubt aided by the low kerb weight, we found them to be excellent; there was no fade apparent despite a lot of left-foot braking (you can achieve some pretty hilarious cornering angles using this technique). Peering through the eye-catching white alloys revealed blue-coloured pads, which we assume are more than just for looks.
The style of the Ignis Sport grows on you. The regular Ignis three door is quite a gawky looking car, half way between a super-mini and a mini-MPV. The Sport manages to eschew this by the addition of a none-too-subtle painted body kit. The tailgate gets a pointy spoiler and the lower half of the car is covered with protruding wheelarches and new bumpers front and rear. If you like the JWRC-look then you will love the Ignis Sport, especially with its larger-than-life driving lights fitted in the new front bumper. The wheels don't quite fill the arches, but we suspect that some of the chassis' wonderful adjustability would be lost if larger tyres were fitted.
Inside, Suzuki has made it clear that the driver is the focus of attention. Bespoke Recaro seats are fitted (though the yellow netting in the headrests was not to our liking), and there is a nice three-spoke leather-bound steering wheel. The only other clues to the car's intentions are white instruments and a carbon fibre effect centre console. Space for front occupants is ample, and there are some clever design touches such as the cupholder alcoves in the dashboard. Rear passengers will be a little cramped, but no more so than in a Mini
. Everything feels well put together, with materials used up to Mitsubishi standards, if not quite to Honda levels of tactility.
A week with the Ignis Sport was enough to convince us that hidden under that value-for-money Japanese exterior, Suzuki may well have what it takes to produce a mass-market car for people who love to drive. It has been the surprise test drive of the year for us.