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Lupini's Swift Sport rival tested

2011-02-18 08:35

SWIFTER SPORT?: Lupini made its name with modified road-car performance conversions of the big-name Group N racers of the late 1980s. Now it is back with hot hatch ambitions – again.

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Lupini
Model Swift
Engine 1.5l four-cylinder
Power 100kW @ 6200rpm
Torque 155Nm @ 4000rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual
Zero To Hundred 8.7 sec (coast)
Fuel Consumption 7.8l/100km
Tyres 205/40/17 Hankook v12 Evo
Front Suspension MacPherson strut & progressive-rate coil springs
Rear Suspension Torsion beam & progressive-rate coil springs
Warranty 3-year Unlimited LupiniPlan
Price R199 750 (R6 000 for the 17-inch wheels)
Rivals Suzuki Swift Sport, Renault Twingo RS

Lance Branquinho

If the late Oscar Wilde had been a petrolhead instead of a camp wordsmith his legendary quote of "youth being wasted on the young" would probably have altered into "the young waste their youth modifying hot hatches".

This has always been very much the case if your peer review group was filled with revheads. At least it was so when I was young, in the late 1990's.


Today teenagers and twentysomethings have all manner of digital entertainment and smart-phone applications on which to waste their money and keep them busy during those idle hours of pre-marital (and offspring burdened) weekends.

Before I was old enough to sign-up for my own cheque account all my friends and I wanted to do was inherit mom’s entry-level Japanese (or German) hatchback and make it go faster and run louder.

Converting mom’s reliable single-camshaft, humble carburettor-fed one-point-something litre four-cylinder hatchback into a veritable street racer was easy fare to our minds; achievable by applying a host of rather unscientific, yet undeniably effective (in our imaginations, at least), engineering upgrades.

We knew that improving the car’s induction and gas-exchange/extraction efficiency were key. To this end a really colourfull air-filter, ‘machined’ cylinder head and ‘large’ diameter free-flow exhaust were added, allegedly making the world of difference.

Although the before and after power graph ‘worms’ on a dynamometer traced practically the same route, a negligible one (or three) kilowatt increase in power was seen as well worth the effort. We were young. We were stupid.

In reality all one managed to do was starve the engine of low-crankspeed smoothness (cue the modified exhaust), add a migraine inducing cruise acoustic (cue air-filter and modified exhaust) and rampantly increase fuel consumption thanks to the altered cylinder head and fuelling regime.

These memories all came flooding back to me recently as I spent a week driving the Lupini Swift. Ostensibly a locally modified alternative to Suzuki’s Swift Sport, the Lupini car extracts impressive claimed levels of power from the standard 1.5 GLS engine courtesy of a series of old-school modifications with whch I was familiar, harmonised (and made easier) by the presence of electronic fuel injection.

Contemporary aftermarket output-swelling modifications are easy; you just download the latest upgrade (much like the latest torrent version of Top Gear), flash your car’s digital control module and like magic the factory specification safety fuelling and heat tolerance parameters are undone, releasing latent power residing in the engine’s inherent design.

That's the theory, at least...


Marketed as a performance-to-price compromise between the stock Swift 1.5 GL (R163 900) and Sport (R199 600), the Lupini-fettled Suzuki hatchback actually retails for R199 750, which makes it more expensive than the rather accomplished factory-spec performance derivative. So, is that R250 premium justified? Well…

For your R199 750 you gain gas-exchange replumbing courtesy of a Wildcat performance exhaust and branch set-up, flow-port polished cylinder heads and an appropriately reprogrammed engine control unit harmonising all the newfangled hardware. Lupini claims the mechanical changes are worth 26kW, which means the modified Lupini Swift makes 100kW; eight more than Suzuki’s Swift Sport.

I've always been hugely sceptical of any claimed power figures not deduced from a proper engine dynamometer (instead of a rolling dyno) after the engine has been run through its correct step-up increments, allowed to temperature settle and then had correction factors applied to the output statistics.

Suffice to say that, with an eight kW advantage over the stock Swift Sport, you would expect the Lupini car to be a cracking hot hatch experience; especially considering how impressive the Swift Sport is.

FIVE-DOOR FUN?: Indeed, if you would like pseudo Swift Sport performance with five-door practicality, then the Lupini conversion has (some) merit to it. Perhaps…

My first impressions were good. Our test car was finished in black and had matching black 17" alloys shod with 205/40 Hankook low-profile tyres.

I've always liked the Swift (Wheels24 ran a long-term 1.5 GLS, which we loved) and the Lupini car looked the business, like something a young Anakin Skywalker (before his latter day identity crisis as Darth Vader) would drive.

Inside, the car remains stock, and it was a happy environment with which to re-familiarise myself. Start the Lupini Swift and you can only faintly discern its performance bias; whereas the modified cars of my youth idled with a wildly out of sync acoustic signature, the Wildcat exhaust is subdued at low speeds.


Setting off, everything felt normal, until I hit the first concrete seam of the Wheels24 rooftop parking’s floor surface. An audible thump was followed by a vertical crashing motion as the low-profile tyres stumbled over the undulation. At that moment the realisation that I was not 21 any more was brought home with crushing reality. Plainly, I am turning 30 this year and (some remnant) of ride quality had become a non-negotiable part of my motoring requirements. 

Lupini says it toyed with the suspension geometry and added new progressive-compression rate coil springs. In theory this should sharpen the car’s steering response, make it track truer at speed, and counter bodyroll – all admirable goals for a conversion attempting to deliver hot-hatch credentials. In practice, though, all the suspension modifications and 17" wheel/tyre combination managed to do was completely ruin the Swift’s ride quality and bedevil its steering.

Without recalibration of the Swift’s steering, much of the merit associated with fitting progressive dampers are nullified as the helm’s powered assistance is not always commensurate to the limited range of wheel oscillation available. Succinctly? The Lupini Swift’s steering always feels two-steps behind the car’s grip level and lack of suspension compliance.

Why does it ride so badly, though? Well, wheel diameter is not the issue here as the Swift Sport has 17" wheels too. The factory Swift hot hatch features revised sprint rates, recalibrated steering and Monroe dampers though, and the finessed engineering Suzuki’s engineers have visited upon the combination of these three elements is evident in the Swift Sport’s ability to ride over less than perfect roads without crashing alarmingly over surface imperfections.

HARD OPTION: The optional 17" wheels and Hankook v12 Evo tyres increase the Swift 1.5 GLS’s grip levels. Ride quality is brutal, though…

On a very smooth road the Lupini Swift does turn in with admirable poise but its steering feedback is muddled with the stock 1.5 GLS rack and electrically geared assistance trying in vain to balance the harshness of those progressive-rate springs.

If you encounter a surface irregularity mid-corner, you’ll be thankful the Swift is a light car riding on a short-wheelbase (making it easy to catch and correct) because it will bump and float over the road; that's hardly any fun at all. 


So, if the ride quality is non-existent and its additional grip can only be exploited on impeccable roads, does the Lupini Swift’s 100kW power claim at least compensate for its compromised ride, handling and steering dynamics?

Lupini says its car will run the benchmark 0-100km sprint in 10.6 seconds at Reef altitudes, making it 1.6 quicker than Suzuki’s standard 1.5 GLS and on par with Sport.

At the coast, I found it keen (and surprisingly smooth for a modified car, bar for a touch of hesitance when hovering around 3000rpm) but not 102kW per tonne quick. There is undeniably more shove than a stock 1.5 GLS and, with the characteristically positive short-throw five-speed Swift transmission at hand, the Lupini car feels agile, but then again – so does the Swift Sport. Perhaps even more so, thanks to more sophisticated variable valve timing.

Although I loved the styling treatment in pure black with those 17" wheels (which fill the stock Swift wheelarches nearly to the brim) the Lupini Swift’s atrocious ride quality and nearly imperceptible straight-line performance advantage make it an illogical purchasing decision when Suzuki’s factory-spec Sport does everything better, at a lesser price – and with a comprehensive, dealer-backed warranty.

Then again, if your father had a Lupini-tuned Opel Kadett 16v back in the early 1990's and you were 21 years old, well, you’re hardly going to listen me, now are you? You’ll pay the premium to have that newly scripted Lupini logo riding on the fifth-door of your Swift 1.5 GLS, insulated from the factual bankruptcy of your decision by the individualistic vanity of owning a ‘modified’ car.

Let’s face it, you know better than Suzuki’s fun-deficient engineers, now don’t you? Well, actually, you don’t, because you could have bought a Swift Sport instead.

Remember what Oscar Wilde said about youth being wasted on the young? Well, if having the Lupini meant I could be 21 again, I’ll rather deal with my budding big three-O crisis and spare myself the lower back trouble (and quizzical expense) of a Lupini Swift, truth be told.

Have I am become old? Yes. Wiser? Debatable.


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