Officially the fifth-generation Suzuki Swift, the current model was introduced in 2010 in the footsteps of the 2005 version that was the Japanese manufacturer’s first truly global car.

It’s Suzuki’s best-seller, finding 10,000 UK buyers in 2012, accounting for 40 per cent of the marque’s sales here. This figure includes around 1000 units of the talented 1.6-litre Swift Sport warm hatch, considered as a separate model on this site.

Special correspondent
The new Suzuki Swift is a worthy rival to the likes of the Kia Rio and Honda Jazz

Though externally similar, the current model uses a longer platform than the 2005 car to boost passenger space to respectable levels, although the high-lipped boot is off the class pace at just 211 litres (most competitors swallow nearer 300 litres, and the deficit worsens with the standard-fit splitting seats folded down).

The Swift still looks relatively fresh, though, hence the mid-2013 facelift brought little more than a mildly reshaped front bumper and new wheel designs. The cabin is sturdy and has plenty of cubbies but is dull in both design and colour – most surfaces are black, and most plastics hard to the touch.

The facelift did little to lift this pall, simply adding new seat fabric that remains both dark and scratchy. Five-door versions cost an extra £500 and come with a third rear seat, but while other occupants enjoy decent space, the central rear passenger is very tight for lateral room and legroom.

Entry-level SZ2 trim includes seven airbags (the Swift is rated as one of the safest cars in its class), ESP, electric front windows, remote locking, heated and electric door mirrors and USB-in port for the stereo.

Mid-range SZ3 spec (the most popular choice when combined with the five-door body) offers best value, adding air-con, Bluetooth, 16in alloys and front fog lights, while top-dog SZ4 additionally includes tinted electric rear windows (five-door only), keyless start, reach-adjustable steering, auto headlamps, daytime running lights and cruise control.

Most Swifts employ a sweet-spinning 1.2-litre four-pot petrol engine with VVT on both intake and exhaust in combination with a tidily shifting five-speed manual gearbox. Output is just 93bhp and 87lb ft, but at barely over a tonne, the Swift can be harried along if revs are confined to the 4500-6000rpm range; below that, the engine pulls smoothly but weakly.

Engine refinement is a strength, though, with a pleasant mid-range beat turning to a silky whirr at the top end of the tacho, and very little powertrain noise when cruising at 70mph despite the lack of a sixth gear. Economy also impresses with claimed combined returns of 56.5mpg and emissions of 116g/km of CO2, worsening slightly with the niche-choice four-speed auto variant – SZ4 five-door only, £1010 extra – to 50.4mpg and 128g/km.

Also strictly available in SZ4 five-door spec is the 1248cc direct-injection diesel engine (sold as ‘1.3’ by Suzuki) that produces 74bhp and a decent 140lb ft of torque at just 1750rpm. At 12.7sec, it’s 0.4sec slower to 62mph than the manual petrol, but is the cleanest Swift, with facelifted cars employing revised gearing and internal engine efficiency gains to return 72.4mpg (combined) and emit just 101g/km of CO2.

The bigger news at facelift time was the introduction of five-door 4x4 1.2-litre petrol variants boasting an extra 25mm of ride height and using a viscous coupling to provide full-time four-wheel drive that sends additional torque rearwards when the front wheels start to struggle.

The 4x4’s 0-62mph time swells to 13.4sec and economy drops 5.2mpg, while emissions of 126g/km of CO2 push it up by one VED bracket. The SZ3 version costs £1200 more than the equivalent front-driver and copies the spec thereof.

It’s also close in price, performance, economy and equipment to the more rugged-looking Fiat Panda 4x4 TwinAir – its only direct rival. The SZ4 brings a £1800 premium over the front-drive version including front and rear skid plates and black side skirts and wheel-arch edges that gently hint at rough-road potential.

Dynamically, the basic Swift exhibits some of the Swift Sport’s talents, with a game chassis that grips well, offers impressive body control and limits roll and dive nicely. Push on and safe understeer is the predictable default behaviour, although the 4x4’s viscous coupling smoothly goes about its business to trim the line up to much higher speeds – a boon both for safety and enjoyment.

The jacked-up car also handles rough tracks well, with only the low-set rear differential a possible snag, although its forte is definitely still on the blacktop. The all-round disc brakes on the SZ3 4x4 and all SZ4 models do an impressive job of stopping the lightweight Swift in a quick and stable fashion.

The ride impresses, too, deftly parrying away most intrusions both in town and on A-roads, with only some motorway fidgeting a minor bugbear. The steering is responsive, but while its lightness aids urban manoeuvrability, it can become disconcerting when you’re really craving feedback on a twisty road.

Suzuki's competent, entertaining and cost-effective Swift is a compelling choice in a crowded segment. Others have more space, more interior flair and better finishes, but the Suzuki’s pricing is temptingly aggressive.