Suzuki Vitara 2015: Cleaner future for muck master?

The 2015 Vitara has been totally redesigned to be more competitive on the market as well as more appealing to the customers. But does it divest too many old skills?


EVERYTHING from river valley farmland within cooee of its home base in Whanganui to the Australian Outback – the one constant of every past Vitara launch programme run by Suzuki New Zealand it that there has ALWAYS been an off-roading inclusion.

It seemed fantastic, then, that the launch drive for the 2015 model line was trekking to an especially promising location.

Makoura Lodge at the top end of Manawatu’s Pohangina Valley offers a four-wheel-driving area that’s not for softies. Toyota set it up for pre-release testing of HiLux and Land Land Cruiser.

It’d be a great place to test previous evolutions of the Vitara; how would this one go? It’s a question that remains unanswered. Our route stopped at the Lodge, overlooking the valley that offers mud-plugging paradise, where it was made clear there’s just one activity here today: Lunch.

Why no feasting on the slushy ruts below? Not because the weather is pretty messy – constant rain all day – but because Suzuki just doesn’t want us to muck in. In fact, the sole ‘off-seal’ activity on this day limits to a run down a gravel road.

There’s more to make this remarkable. The route planner, well-known motoring journalist turned brand advisor Donn Anderson, admits later that even the dirt road was happenstance. When plotting the drive on Google maps from his home in Auckland he imagined he’d chosen a wholly sealed route. A few days later, a senior Suzuki NZ man also relates that, until I’d told him so, he’d been unaware of Makoura was an off-roading venue. He’d just thought it was a good spot for lunch.

So what’s going on? One word: Reality. As the Grand Vitara and teensy Jimny continue to show, a brand whose 4x4 brand history spans 55 years still hasn’t lost its knack for creating small, cheap, useful, nimble and incredibly hardy vehicles properly designed for the hard stuff.

However, fact is that most makers don’t make ‘em like that any more because most buyers have moved on. Therefore, so has the Vitara.

Representing in seven formats in JLX and Limited trim levels, five-speed manual and six-speed automatic, priced from $27,990 to $36,790, all with a 1586cc fuel injected four-cylinder petrol making 86kW/156Nm, it’s not gone soft, but certainly has become more of a soft-roader. While an 18-degree approach angle, 28 degree departure angle and 185mm of ground clearance are obviously useful for off-seal fun, it also divests stuff that previously kept this 27-year-old nameplate ‘real’ with old-school fans. The signs are hardly hidden.

In deriving from the crossover S-Cross, so much so that both come from a common factory in Hungary, it’s the second Suzuki, after the Fiat-assisted SX4 of 2006, to offer four-wheel-drive without low range. Also divested is dual range four-wheel-drive. This time, an unprecedented four versions are front-drive.

Some might ask if this makes it more a car than a SUV, but that’s hardly an issue Suzuki faces in isolation. Fact it’s just following a migration path that most other modern rock-hoppers have already taken.

Also, brand thought that up to 70 percent of new Vitaras sold will be front-drive isn’t as much a sacrilege as it might sound. It pays to remember that this stat also reflects that the preceding, now decade-old Grand, whose square-edged profile and rear door-slung spare wheel easily date to an earlier time, is being kept on sale.

Suzuki NZ is vague about how long the old car will hang about but suggest simply that, so long as production keeps on trucking they’ll keep it in stock, in anticipation of selling 200 units per year.

Meantime, a whole lot more new-gen Vitaras, 100 to 125 per month, will be expected to find homes, potentially a greater count of them in suburbia than the country, with its biggest daily adventure being a workplace commute or the school run. As for forays off-road? They’d be very occasional, according to Suzuki. There’s suggestion most Vitara owners will never venture further than an unsealed road.

The suggestion of sharper road manners was confirmed by the launch run; the dynamics are tidier, the steering more immediately reactive and the chassis balance improved.

An engine also shared with the Swift hatch is rather fizzy, though. Peak power arrives 6000rpm and top torque at 4400rpm, and there’s not much low-down torque, so it demands a hard revving.

You’d think that trait will hardly help with economy, and potentially the maker’s claimed 5.8 litres (2wd manual) and 6.3 (4wd auto) per 100km will not be easily matched, regardless that Anderson managed to comfortably better the optimum thrift during an economy drive. But, then, he’s an accomplished economy driver who, as is typical of that peculiar breed, is not adverse to driving so laboriously slowly as to stretch the credibility of these kinds of exercises to an extreme. If not beyond.

Two further points of interest. First, the increasingly-common stop/start technology doesn’t show here (the brand apparently believes it’s so disliked many buyers simply switch it off and leave it off. Also, at 47 litres, the fuel tank seems quite small for this kind of vehicle.

In respect to ride quality, Vitara is hatch firm. This keeps it from wallowing around in corners, but there’s a noticeable lack of compliance over imperfect surfaces. Even coarse chip can give it a touch of the jitters. Also noticeable then is how the 215/55 R17 rubber creates road noise intrusion, but nothing new there.

The smart transmission “learns” your driving style in as little as 30km and adapts to suit. Or so goes the press bumpf. I’m not sure it’s smart enough to be truly intuitive. The steering is light and sensitive, perhaps too much so.

In everyday driving, most of drive is sent to the front wheels, torque only redistributing if they begin to slip.

Nonetheless the electronic Allgrip system looks handy, even if just one of the four modes, Snow (recommended for ‘low-friction surfaces’) seems obviously tailored for ploughing through sludge. Auto is for daily use, Sport for ‘maximum traction’ on-road (and yet the car was enjoyably tail-happy in this setting on gravel) and Lock for recovery from sticky situations. There’s also hill descent control and hill hold control but it’s potentially no longer the rig you’d through with a high degree of confidence into parts of the map that don’t show roads.

It still looks a bit like a full-scale Tonka toy, designer Takehito Arai having incorporated many traditional Vitara design elements such as the clamshell bonnet, side vents and tall stance. Bold colours and loads of individualisation opportunities – starting with black wheels - will appeal to a younger demographic, but it seems Suzuki wants to put a dollar each way, so has also re-introduced the two-tone body colour option that availed with the generation before last.

In switching its fight to the urban jungle, there’s potential for Vitara to enjoy rich pickings: We’re in the midst of an SUV sales boom, with year-to-date volume up 13 percent on 214, and small high-riders are doing especially well.

Yet there’s so much quality opposition and Suzuki also admits ambition to elevate Vitara to No.2 behind the Swift – a position it’s expected to keep when the larger Baleno hatch comes next year - could well be affected by potential production constraints caused by the car’s popularity in Europe (which is why the diesel isn’t here). It’s a hassle they have to live with.

Suzuki’s determination to pick Mazda’s CX-3 as a particular target is an intriguing strategy, probably driven by the Hiroshima foe being even more constrained on rear passenger room and almost 100 litres’ less boot size than the Vitara’s 375 to 710 (seats down) litres’ capacity. Yet the Suzuki isn’t THAT much bigger and, after a first taste, I’d suggest the CX-3 gives good account for styling, driveability and drivetrain technology.

Can consumers ignore that Vitara in this class has the smallest engine, the lowest braked towing capacity, potentially the smallest fuel tank and the lightest, more compact body? Suzuki counters by arguing it also has the best thrift – the 85kg-lighter front-drive obviously offering advantage over the four-wheel-drive - and best power-to-weight, the sharpest prices and a better specification.

They’re right about the latter. Vitara provisions seven airbags, a variety of safety and driver support equipment and structural toughness for a five-star Euro NCAP score. Standard kit includes alloy wheels, adaptive cruise control, a seven-inch touchscreen information and entertainment system with smartphone connectivity and sat nav, plus a reversing camera. Limited replaces cloth trim with suede-leather and adds a parking radar, keyless entry, auto lights and wipers and a double sliding-pane panoramic sunroof among extras.

Meantime, having now completed its divorce from Volkswagen, Suzuki is vowing to step up its car-making, with a promise to launch 20 new models over the next five years. That’s a big step forward, but still small stuff as it’ll keep concentrating on SUVs and passenger vehicles in the micro and C segments.