Extra-verve Vitara here

The Vitara was already a good thing. Addition of a turbo engine makes it better.


ONE funny thing occurred when Suzuki released the latest Vitara nine months back – their launch didn’t include any dirt work more arduous than a few kilometres of gravel road driving.

Not being allowed opportunity to undertake a proper off-road expedition - even though our host chose an off-roading park for its lunch stop - seemed an ominous sign. Small Suzuki SUVs have historically been good off-road, though in the modern market, most buyers never leave the asphalt and it’s immediately obvious, even to the untrained eye, that the latest Vitara is more car-like in its construction and character than any of its predecessors.

Was this, then, a signal that a vehicle previously well-regarded as a particularly tough nugget for beyond-seal adventures had taken a new turn?

I’m pleased to say that’s not the case. While the ladder-framed Grand Vitara and Jimney will always be the true all-terrain terrors, the Vitara itself is clearly not about to abdicate that role.

Any concern I and others might have held about this latest model having gone a bit too soft on the SUV side of things was entirely alleviated at the launch of the latest variant, which has something new for the range: A turbocharged engine.

The very first exercise the distributor asked us to undertake was a good old-fashioned bog bash; one through a particularly mucky course at the Kauri Bay Boomrock facility, on the Clevedon-Kawakawa Rd.

The facility owner carved his test route out with a Land Rover Discovery and since then it’s been used by serious gear. Rain on our day meant it was in especially sludgy state for the Suzuki. Yet despite sometimes skating and often bottoming out, the Vitara I drove clawed through without issue.

So, respect is restored. No more performance anxiety exists on that side of things.

What about the engine? When it launched in September, the Vitara kitted purely with a 1.6-litre petrol from the Swift Sport, though we knew a more modern mill was going to eventually arrive as an option.

That’s the transition that has now occurred. The Vitara is the first Suzuki to take us into the age of the BoosterJet, the name given a range of small capacity turbocharged units that promise far more power yet pretty much equal parsimony as the brand’s incumbent non-boosted engines.

The 103kW/220Nm 1.4-litre in the Vitara is the biggest capacity engine planned and, from first taste, it is going to be very well received.

It arrives as an alternate to the 1.6, which continues in service but will shortly restrict to the entry JLX, the distributor having determined that the new Turbo should effectively replace the previous 1.6 GLX that has until now headed the Vitara family.

It’ a shame to see the GLX go; sales in the short period it was here suggest it was a well-received option.

However, at the same token, the Turbo will likely as not do even better. You can’t argue with the performance advantage or the specification, which is superior to the outgoing car’s even though the changeover means a sunroof is no longer available to high-end buyers.

The 1.4 makes 17kW/64Nm more than the non-turbo 1.6 – respective gains of 20 and 41 percent – and optimum fuel economy is virtually identical, with the new engine claimed to produce optimal overall economy of 5.9 litres per 100km, or just 0.1L/100km thirstier than the 1.6 on the combined cycle.

The turbo engine does, however, require a higher octane petrol with Suzuki mandating 95 octane or greater, so running costs might rise slightly, though probably not enough to cause concern.

The powertrain is matched as standard with a six-speed automatic transmission, and either front-wheel drive or on-demand four-wheel-drive with Suzuki’s AllGrip off-road modes.

The kapow for cash cachet also looks good. At $33,990, the front-drive model costs $1000 more than the 1.6-litre edition it replaces whereas, at $37,990, the four-wheel-drive effects no price change over its predecessor.

Owners who chose a two-tone paintjob that is one of the signature treatments for a Turbo pay an additional $880.

The pricing still leaves the Suzuki at handy advantage over the Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V and Mitsubishi ASX that are considered primary rivals.

All presently outsell the Vitara yet though Suzuki New Zealand says it has suffered from stock restrictions that are unfortunately unlikely to alleviate too much for the foresesable future, the plant in Hungary that builds Vitara for our part of the world still managed to deliver enough examples here for it to become the best-selling sub $40,000 small SUV.

Gary Collins, the brand’s general manager of automobile marketing, says there’s plenty more potential.

“The growth in demand for SUVs was a key driver for the increase in new motor vehicle sales last year. The small SUV segment showed a 28 percent growth in 2015 and shows no signs of letting up.”

Suzuki’s faith in BoosterJet will also increase. It’s a pity that pricing and customer taste considerations have keep the technology from going into its next new car, the Baleno, but assuredly we can expect to see it reaching the next generation of the Swift, as well as other products yet to be disclosed.

Suzuki says the big plus of the new forced-induction powerplant it that it has minimal turbo lag, thanks to the use of a compact turbocharger attached directly to the cylinder head, which also has the exhaust manifold incorporated into the cylinder head casting for weight savings and shorter distances between components.

Brand talk of the engine being especially eager in the low to mid rev range was confirmed on the drive; in addition to being more immediately reactive, it also had more mid-range torque. The combined effect was the opportunity to enjoy better zest for overtaking, though there’s also benefit from greater refinement, on account of the engine’s comparatively effortless delivery.

To maximise enjoyment, Suzuki equips this Vitara with a manual mode. It’s a slightly awkward affair because activation is simply a matter of shifting the stick one notch lower than Drive – we can imagine some owners doing this by mistake then wondering why the engine is suddenly sounding so busy. The idea, of course, is that once in ‘M’ you use the paddle shifters to change between cogs.

Vitara is a relatively light car, little heavier than a Swift in fact, so it feels nimble and deft, with eager turn-in. The steering is direct but light, which takes some getting used to, and though the ride quality is generally fine, there is enough firmness to the settings to allow some road imperfections to intrude into the cabin. You’re also aware of how much road roar those relatively low-profile 17-inch tyres generate on coarse chip at highway speed.

The plus side of its low kilo count and compact dimensions will doubtless emerge in urban use. It does seem to be an especially city-minded car, so should be a cinch to park and nip about in town. But, as our experience suggests, the four-wheel-drive edition is not adverse to getting dirty outside of city limits, either, where ground clearance of 185mm, an 18.2-degree approach and 28.2-degree departure angles are going to be appreciated. The four-wheel-drive system has a four-mode Allgrip system, with driver-selectable settings for various scenarios comprising Sport, Snow, the tough-terrain Lock and the default economy-focused Auto. Suzuki advocated using Snow setting for the slushy mud, which sounds strange but worked effectively.

The Turbo’s equipment level is quite strong. In takes Apple CarPlay which allows for phone-bound sat nav and infotainment functionality, leather seats with suede inserts and red stitching, cruise control with speed limiter, keyless entry and ignition, climate control, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, steering wheel sound system controls, power windows and mirrors, alloy wheels, power-folding door mirrors and the option of the two-tone exterior paint schemes including a bright red body with black roof that is specific to the Turbo.

Safety features includes seven airbags, stability control, antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution and emergency brake assist, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, auto-levelling and dusk-sensing LED headlights, LED daytime running lights and automatic wipers.