Among the myriad of sports cars that are produced it is easy for some to be overlooked. Perhaps they are produced by a manufacturer with no history of building sports cars, or with no motorsport pedigree. Perhaps insufficient marketing means they never break into the public’s consciousness. Some cars do break through. Subaru transformed their image from makers of dull but worthy farmer’s pickups into a manufacturer of fearsome sport saloons thanks to the success of their World Rally championship programme and the talents of a certain Colin McRae.
Like Subaru, Suzuki cars lacked a sporting heritage (unlike its 2 wheeled products). They also hadn’t produced a car with any sporting heritage since the MK1 Suzuki Swift GTi back in the late 80’s. Suzuki must have looked on at Subaru’s transformation and thought they could earn the same halo effect for their own cars through a motorsport programme.
With this in mind, in 2002 Suzuki entered a works team in the junior world rally championship. A class for young drivers in 1600CC, 2WD cars. They were instantly competitive, and the bright yellow machines caught the imagination of the rally supporting public.
To celebrate their success, in 2003 they produced the Ignis sport. However the car bore little resemblance to that 250bhp+ Rally car, even if it was available in the same Suzuki yellow as its rally brother. The Ignis rally car was based on the 5 door version of the Ignis. A bodyshell only available to buy in the UK as a mini MPV complete with roof bars and tiny 1.3 litre engine. The sport kept the slightly oddball looks but had a shorter wheelbase, 3 door shell, lowered suspension and a wider track shrouded by wheel arch extensions to give a more muscular stance. The engine was a 1.5 VVT unit producing 109bhp. Its lack of power was offset by putting the car on a diet. The already light shell was reduced to its bare essentials with less sound insulation, Recaro seats and a set of lightweight enkei wheels, only available in white. Think of a lightweight 106 and 306 rallye and you get the idea.
The elephant in the room with the Ignis Sport is its looks. Even with a lower, wider stance its appearance divides opinion. It either love it for its life size tonka toy looks, or hate it as someone’s seemingly failed attempt to turn their mum’s MPV into a hot hatch.
Once past the looks however, you discover the true charm of the car. On the road it’s not quick by today’s hot hatch standards but what defines this car is the way it drives. The engine is free-revving and responsive, helped by a lightened flywheel. It’s almost too sensitive and can lead to a lively pull away at the most inappropriate times. When mated to a close ratio gearbox its acceleration is surprisingly lively, with 60mph being reached in 8.9 seconds. Similar to old XR2’s and nova GTE’s. When the engine revs rise above 3000rpm its quiet shopping car noise is replaced by a wonderfully raucous growl. You could almost be in a rally car. This lightness plus an efficient VVT engine means it can also reach 40mpg when driven sensibly.
On the road it feels lithe and responsive, just waiting to be pointed at a twisty B-road and let off the leash. It turns in sharply and holds its line through sweeping corners, staying surprisingly stable for such a tall, narrow car, although there is a fair amount of body roll. However, the short rear overhang and stiff springs means a sequence of bumps can unsettle the rear end at speed. Lift off oversteer is also easily induced, requiring a large helping of opposite lock to correct. Very 205 GTI esque. Thankfully the all-round disk brakes do an excellent job of scrubbing off speed if things get a little too interesting.
Its liveliness at speed does not detract from the driving experience but enhances it. Without any driver aids the car responds well to corrective inputs and makes the driver feel in control on the limit. A limit reached at far lower speeds than in more powerful cars. This allows the driver to feel that they are driving the car, not the other way round.
This simplicity does however come at a price. Ride quality is poor, and it can be a little ragged and unrefined with wheel spin easy to induce out of slow corners. Its lightweight chassis feels flimsy, with thin panels and not a great deal of safety protection. Electrically assisted steering is accurate but does lack feel. High gearing also means the engine runs at high revs when at cruising speed with the engine pulling 3500 rpm at 70mph in 5th gear.
The interior is a swathe of dull grey plastic and fake carbon only redeemed by the excellent Recaro seats, complete with yellow detailing. Interior space is good for a car of this size thanks to its foursquare shape, with acres of headroom, although legroom is a little tight for tall drivers.
Despite its many appealing attributes the Ignis sport was not a sales success and ended production in 2005 when it was replaced by the Swift Sport. It was the right car at the wrong time. Ten years earlier and it would have been hailed as a serious rival to Peugeot’s 106 Rallye but it was now in a market obsessed with big power figures and 4wd. It was destined to be appreciated by a select few who loved the rally inspired looks or who wished to be different from the herd.
Ten years after the Ignis Sport ceased production this lack of recognition does have its advantages. Despite its rarity (Only 400 were registered in the UK), a clean example can be bought for between £1000 and £2000 and average condition cars under £1000. With the cheapest Swift sport starting at around £2500, the Ignis Sport is a bargain. The Swift may have an extra 100cc but it’s also carrying an extra 100kg so 0-60 times are very similar.
The Ignis is unashamedly a nod to the hot hatches of yesteryear. Its old school character, driver involvement and cheap running costs are a combination that is hard to beat. And long after Suzuki’s motorsport programme ended its now cheaper than ever to drive this under-rated little hot hatch that thinks it’s a rally car.