A car that offers straightforward and lightweight fun is an increasingly rare occurrence these days. Ever-increasing performance targets, tougher safety requirements and shifts in customer preferences – among other things – have all played their part in causing cars to both become heavier and more complicated.
Just pursuing power alone, which seems needless in many a case, often results in surges in kerb weight. Power goes up, torque rises, acceleration times fall and top speeds climb; powertrain, chassis, braking and steering components have to be tougher and often heavier, while additional cooling requirements result in further problems; these factors and countless more all result in spiralling weight figures.
Even hot hatches, which should be light and serve up easily enjoyed performance, haven’t been exempt from such shifts. Take Citroen’s oft-overlooked AX GT, for example; when it arrived, in 1987, it exemplified hot hatch design of the era. The company took an already featherweight and compact hatch, tweaked the suspension and made superb use of a simple, eager engine.
The naturally aspirated 1.4-litre, four-cylinder engine in the Citroen may have only produced 83bhp and 85lb ft, but the AX weighed just 712kg according to contemporary reports. Consequently, it was capable of sprinting from 0-60mph in a suitably quick 9.0sec – while its low weight, pliant suspension, good grip levels and unassisted steering served up compelling and engaging handling. It was also affordable, clocking in at around £6,900 in the UK market at launch.
The fabled Peugeot 205 GTi of the same era, on the other hand, was heavier and costlier; even if you went for a lesser 1.6-litre version, you’d pay £9,835 and also have to endure the burden of an extra 176kg. Even the 205 XS, the diminutive Citroen’s direct rival, weighed in at a higher 814kg and cost almost £300 more. All in, the AX was accessible and an outright hoot to drive on public roads – just as any good hot hatch should be.
A RARITY AMONG MODERN HOT HATCHES
Spool forward to today and the majority of modern compact hot hatches are far bulkier beasts. Even the highly regarded Ford Fiesta ST, which is by no means a big or heavy car, tips the scales at a substantial 1,262kg.
There is, however, one notable exception to the rule of ever-increasing kerb weights – the Suzuki Swift Sport. The latest generation, unveiled in 2018, weighs just 975kg; remarkably, that represents a 70kg reduction in kerb weight compared with its predecessor. That also means it weighs a significant 287kg less than a three-door Fiesta ST.
It’s not like the Suzuki is a tiny, ill-equipped car, either. There’s room for four adults inside and it’s also packed to the gills with creature comforts – including climate control, adaptive cruise control, sat-nav and myriad safety features – which proves that you can still build light, fun cars in this day and age without massive compromises.
Modern equipment aside, the Swift Sport does deviate from the AX GT’s classic sporting hatch set-up in one key way: its 138bhp 1.4-litre engine is turbocharged. This concession to modern economy demands and emissions regulations does blunt its appeal to enthusiasts a little, but its more flexible nature does make the car more relaxed in day-to-day use.
GREAT FUN, SENSIBLE MONEY
Adjusted for inflation, the AX GT would cost around £18,500 today – while the modern Swift Sport, coincidentally, has a list price of £18,499. Buy a used example of the Suzuki with a few thousand miles on the clock, though, and you’ll only have to fork out a more tolerable £13,000.
If modern cars just don’t float your boat, and you fancy a slice of unfiltered 1980s hatchback fun, finding an original AX GT may test your mettle. Only around 250 are left on the DVLA’s books, many of which are off the road, but they do occasionally pop up for sale. They certainly won’t dent your bank balance as much, given that serviceable GTs can be had for around £5,000, and low-mileage examples do pop up for sale every now and then as well.
That said, there is a sensible middle ground between the two extremes: the second generation of Swift Sport, which arrived in 2012 (and is pictured above). Its high-revving 1.6-litre engine is naturally aspirated, delivering that purity of response that some may be seeking, and the 1,045kg hatch is capable of 0-62mph in 8.7sec. Besides being easier to maintain and live with than the Citroen, it’ll also not tax your budget – as early examples of Suzuki’s frugal and fun hatch command upwards of £4,000.
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