With crossovers and SUVs now so dominant, the Vitara’s importance to Suzuki continues to grow.
For: Price, decent performance, low fuel economy, cabin dimension.
Against: Still some cheapness in the interior, feels incomplete without all-wheel-drive.
ONE advantage of living rurally is that we have access to the ‘burn pile’; a place our farmer neighbour allows us to leave hedge trimmings and tree prunings to create a bonfire that’s torched when the weather is right.
At this time of the year the access track to this place stands as a brilliant measuring stick to define the differences between full-blown off-road vehicles, crossovers and downright faux-by-fours – those purely that look as if they could.
During winter months the track is tough: You’d probably get through in the pukka mud-pluggers, could well strike trouble in the soft-roaders and be doomed to disaster in the pretenders.
Unless … well, unless it rains. A lot. Then it’s simply a coin toss in anything less than a tank. Rex’s van is elevated and all-wheel-drive. Sorted? Nah. The turnaround became a HiAce hellhole. Help!
I wasn’t home when the SOS went out but, then again, the Vitara on test really wouldn’t have been useful. Surprised? Well, you might well be, given the history of this nameplate. It’s a dirty work diamond.
But times are changing … nowadays, the only Vitara to compete at the more serious end of the four-wheel-drive market is the Grand – the big wagon that has been in production for years and is now the family grand-dad. The main thrust, now, is with the Vitara tested here, that’s a wholly new car.
Actually, the one I drove is wholly a car. All new-gen Vitaras have car-like frames, steering and brakes, but this $33,990 example, as the cheapest version with the new 1.4-litre turbopetrol, also abdicates Vitara 101 by being front-wheel drive. Pulling from the front without push from the rear doesn’t bode well for mud work, obviously, yet though something so soft breaks with tradition and will seem a shock to some, this particular model also stands to appeal to a whole new market.
What does it say about the styling when the only thing your café mate want to discuss is the two-tone paintjob, one of the Turbo signature treatments for which you pay an additional $880?
Well, yes, agreed, it did look snazzy – bright solid red body, black top and black wheels, too. It’s probably the best contrasting scheme for the car; far bolder and more assertive than the alternate white top which, when mixed with a light body colour, is pretty awful.
Until this car came along, the only truly contemporary Suzuki has been the Swift. Yet though Vitara is modern-looking – moreso than the equally fresh Baleno – it’s not quite as eye-catching as some rivals. Suzuki is a small company and maybe it feels it can only afford to take so much risk.
There is cohesion to this look; enough angularity to create a SUV-effect, but not so much that it ties directly to the old school Grand. You’d need to squint to see even vague association. On the positive side, though it potentially doesn’t rise about the herd, it’s at least less kooky than the SX4 S-Cross with which it shares an underlying architecture. And that over-sized brand logo on the grille.
Does it look like an off-roader? Not on the inside, that’s for sure. Maybe the four circular air vents across the dashtop look a bit truck-like and, of course it has the mandatory high hip point seating position, but otherwise there’s a ton of passenger car in this interior. A shame that Suzuki’s aversion to soft-touch plastics is maintained here - what would look really good, given its role, would be a neoprene wetsuit-feel mesh fabric - but there’s a lot of good design here and some daring, too. Suzuki has seen red with scarlet stitching on the seats and chunky sports steering wheel, plus more red around the vents and instruments.
The main focus point is that 7.0-inch touchscreen colour monitor screen, divided into four functions – telephone, radio, connectivity for Apple CarPlay and satellite navigation. Finding some functions can be a bit tricky due to the way the menus are presented and arranged, but it’s not the worst I’ve seen by any stretch. The monitor also becomes the reverse camera.
Seat comfort is good in the front, less than outstanding in the rear. There’s enough head- and legroom for four adults, but the narrowness of the middle seat might well dissuade a fifth.
Boot space, on the other hand, is pretty good for the category. The square cut of the lift-up tailgate’s opening helps here; also the floor is actually on two levels. The boot holds 375 litres, rising to 1120 litres when the split-fold seats are dropped. Unfortunately, these do not fold perfectly flat.
Suzuki doesn’t set any new standards with its safety gear but it has all the basics, plus a strong ANCAP safety score, and likewise ticks all the usual convenience boxes with hill-descent control, keyless entry and start, 17-inch alloy wheels, front and rear parking sensors, LED headlights, auto-levelling automatic headlights, automatic wipers, electric folding mirrors, leather seats with suede inserts, and a sunglasses holder.
The concept of a front-wheel-drive Vitara might take some getting used to, but much less so the idea of this model downsizing under the bonnet. While the 1.4-litre is, in capacity terms, the smallest engine ever to run in this model, it is – thanks to its turbocharging – one of the biggest-hearted. In fact, it’s this engine that does most to lift this model away from the masses and makes it feel worth searching out; such is its verve and vitality. Efficiency is pretty good, too.
You might well wonder why it’s taken so long for Suzuki to produce this engine. In fact, they’ve been knocking it out for years. It’s the same basic unit that has been powering the Swift, only without the turbo.
To create what is now tagged the ‘Boosterjet’ (yes, definitely a twee tag, that one) Suzuki did more than simply bung on a blower, yet clearly this is a key ingredient that lifts power and torque from 70kW and 130Nm in the well hatch to 103kW and 220Nm in the Vitara. That’s 20 percent more power and 41 percent more torque than the 1.6-litre the Vitara started out with. You’re not paying any cost in fuel consumption, either. The factory-cited optimum economy of 6.2 litres per 100km actually improves by 0.1 litres per 100km over that for the 1.6, though it demands 95 octane petrol.
This is an engine that makes a good car better. It is patently too good to restrict to Vitara. It’s a real pity that it doesn’t also slot in the local market Baleno – as it could have, but in the apparent interest of keeping cost down the distributor has gone for a proven, old-gen powerplant instead – and it would be even more brilliant in a future Swift.
The Boosterjet reminds that perception that turbos are foremost about enhancing power is quite wrong; it’s true that it feels far peppier than the non-assisted engine, but peak power comes up at 5500rpm, so you need to work for that. On the other hand, the optimal torque – the engine’s muscle – comes on at a flat 1500rpm and maintains this solidly through to 4000rpm.
That broad output is as effective on the road as it looks on paper: There’s a comparatively effortless delivery; there’s fat, linear and smooth response everywhere you need it. This means it matches well with the six-speed dual-clutch box, so well that the manual mode is not needed to keep it on the boil.
That’s just as well, because this is a slightly awkward affair. Activation comes from shifting the stick one notch lower than Drive; do this without realizing and you’ll wonder what’s going on. The idea, of course, is that once in ‘M’ you use the paddle shifters to change between cogs, but it’s a confusion that could be done without. As it can be because the box when left to itself is pretty good. You can understand why Suzuki hasn’t even bothered with a trad manual for this model. This box is fine to live with around town and certainly also more pleasurable that the other alternate, a CVT.
However it is used, this engine is easy to enjoy. There is virtually no lag and no breathlessness at the top end. All that sparkle also associates with something you don’t often get with a small capacity engine; very good refinement.
Obviously a four-wheel-drive Vitara is going to be the preferred option for off-seal excursions, but on the road you might not notice all that much difference as this model has the Allgrip system that also operates with the SX4. Being an on-demand operation is basically runs as a front-drive layout with rear drive only selecting when a loss of traction is sensed.
Of course, when that situation crops up in the entry model here you’re simply relying on the traction aides and your wits to keep things on the straight and narrow. It drives well enough on gravel to lend confidence but really it’s not much different to Suzuki’s road cars, safe for being taller.
Understeer comes on quite quickly when it is pushed and there will be wheelspin if you crank the steering wheel and throttle simultaneously in tight corners.
Given it has the same 185mm ride height as the all-wheel-drive model, the onset of body roll when play becomes serious is also understandable. The chassis has good balance – yet if you expect to drive to type, then spend the extra for the system that brings all four wheels into action. This version’s inability it just can’t dig in and fight the surface conditions will be obvious, though it still makes for a decent drive on surfaces where grip isn’t an issue.
All the same, the major plus point here is more in respect to the ride. It has a nicely supple demeanour, ironically from retaining the same heavy-duty tune for the MacPherson strut front and torsion bar rear suspension as is meted the all-wheel-drive edition. That bodes well for when it is taken beyond smooth surfaces. You can tell it’s a light car – barely heavier than the Swift – when you hit the bumps, yet it’s not as bewildered by ruts and impefections as some rivals.
The steering is direct but light, and you do become aware of how much road roar those relatively low-profile 17-inch tyres generate on coarse chip, but generally speaking it’s much like a road car than a small truck.
The best adventures that this derivative delivers will be when it is used as a slightly larger kind of hatchback. It isn’t as nimble around town as the Swift, because it is so much larger it feels more relaxed and confident at open road speeds.
Even though it shows dashes of flair, the interior could do with a bit more of an upgrade, but if you can put up with that hard surfacing then the decent level of equipment and impressive space are adequate compensation. Personally, I’d still go AWD over front-drive – it’s not a matter of having to have it so much as knowing it’s there as a good backup and, anyway, the premium is also relatively modest.
Looking at the bigger picture, the Vitara is no longer the car it used to be but, in most respects, that’s a good thing. It’s flavour now is simply much more in tune with consumer expectation. A fully nuggety small off-roader is all very well, but who truly needs one? And, anyway, if a Suzuki fan wants to remain old-school, there’s still the Grand and, of course, the Jimny.
If you’re looking for a single ace card, then it has to be the drivetrain. This engine and transmission is the single best thing Suzuki has going for it. The more model lines it goes into, the better.