Car reviews - Suzuki - Vitara - range
Value-for-money on base variant, dynamic ability, super quiet cabin, infotainment system, fuel efficiency
Room for improvement
Could do with a more powerful engine, big jump in price to 4x4 version, six-speed auto holds gears, five-speed manual needs another gear
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11 Sep 2015
THERE are a lot of car-makers that make a lot of claims about creating a segment, or inventing a body style, but Suzuki can actually say, without question, that it invented the compact SUV.
The first Vitara arrived in 1988 and now, 27 years later, there is an all-new version, sharing its underpinnings with the S-Cross hatch/crossover and charged with increasing Suzuki’s market share globally.
Suzuki reckons that a convincing value equation, smart design, quirky customisation options and solid dynamics will be enough to lure buyers back to the brand, and while the Vitara offers all of this and then some, there is that small matter of its competition.
Mitsubishi’s ASX is still selling like Nutella-infused hot cakes even near the end of its life-cycle, Nissan’s Dualis/Qashqai has been a runaway success, Subaru’s XV just won’t quit and the two newbies – the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3 – are absolutely killing it.
It is going to be tough convincing consumers to add yet another compact SUV option to their already lengthy shopping list, but Suzuki is confident it can do it.
And so it should be.
In the metal, the Vitara is more visually appealing than in press images. Its compact dimensions combined with the sharper angles and slabby look make for a bold, butch design. Matched with some of the more out-there colours – we love the turquoise – it comes together nicely.
The cabin is plain and won’t win any design awards, but it is functional, has high-quality fit and finish and features some cool touches.
Circular airvents and an analogue clock sit atop the centre stack for an old-school look, and there is enough brushed aluminium-look trim and gloss black flourishes to break up the hard dark plastic on the dash.
The Vitara has a simple dash layout with very few buttons, as a lot of the car’s function controls are now housed in the nifty 7.0-inch display audio system.
It is very similar to Ford’s Sync infotainment unit, even breaking the screen up into four quarters with (standard) sat-nav, phone, audio and Bluetooth sections. It’s also super easy to use. Our phone connected in seconds, the nav was spot on and you can switch between sections quickly.
In base RT-S guise – $21,990 for the manual and $23,990 for the auto – the Vitara runs an appealing cloth trim on the seats and door inserts, but upgrade to the RT-X ($31,990 and auto only) and you get leather seats with suede inserts and suede door inserts.
You also get a huge panoramic sunroof and a sunglasses holder, but they are the only noticeable differences between grades in the cabin.
The $8000 premium for the RT-X over the auto RT-S seems a little steep to us.
Suzuki says it is good value, given the all-wheel drive system and extra kit, but we think it should have offered 4x4 on the RT-S as an option, say about $3000.
The second row has generous legroom for a car of its size, and while headroom would be fine for most people, its starts to impede with the panoramic sunroof fitted, but not to the point of being uncomfortable. The cargo area is sizeable and has a neat under-floor storage section.
First up on the drive route was the flagship RT-X, which comes standard with AllGrip four-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic transmission.
Finding a comfortable driving position was easy. The steering wheel adjusts for height and reach and the comfortable seats offer adequate support. The Vitara also has a lovely little leather-covered three-spoke steering wheel.
The 86kW/156Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol engine powers both variants and is sprightly enough for the 1075-1185kg Vitara, but it struggles when pulling up anything resembling a hill.
It’s not as punchy as the 109kW/192Nm 2.0-litre unit under the bonnet of the Mazda CX-3, but in a straight line on a flat road it is adequate, and will probably satisfy most punters looking in this space.
Flicking across to Sport mode – it also has Snow and Lock mode – tweaks the accelerator and torque characteristics to boost engine response and cornering, and it seems to have an impact on straight-line performance, but it also held gears in the auto for quite a while, particularly in third.
We can only wonder what the Vitara would be like with a sweet little turbo-petrol unit, perhaps the one Suzuki is developing for service in the upcoming Baleno small car.
The little SUV pitches well into corners, offering surprising levels of grip, road-holding ability and a flat, balanced ride. Suzuki claims that the Vitara handles like a small hatch, and they weren’t wrong.
The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension set–up has been tuned to match well with the chassis, but the Vitara had a harsh ride at times, crashing over some larger pot holes.
Steering is relatively sharp but is artificially weighted to feel unnaturally heavy. It doesn’t take long to get used to, however.
While we did not get a chance to drive the base 2WD RT-S with a six-speed auto that is expected to make up the bulk of sales, we sampled the RT-S in five-speed manual guise, and it is a real winner.
The gearbox is silky smooth and it is a joy to shift through the gears. It is matched particularly well with this engine and made for a much more engaging and fun driving experience compared with the still impressive auto 4x4.
Our only complaint with the gearbox is that it could seriously do with another gear ratio. Five-speeders are so 10 years ago, Suzuki.
Another impressive discovery was how incredibly quiet the Vitara is. Even on coarse, unsealed and gravelly surfaces, the Suzuki is whisper quiet.
The company has done significant work to ensure noise, vibration and harshness levels are up to scratch, and it should be congratulated. We encountered some wind noise, but it was a particularly blowy day and that would be difficult to avoid.
Suzuki says the manual sips just 5.8 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres, while the 4x4 auto drinks 6.3L/100km. Our RT-X 4x4 auto figure of 7.1L/100km is impressive given how hard the European-built SUV was pushed.
The Vitara is going to be a tough sell in an already crowded market, but Suzuki is bullish about its prospects, and we can see why.
It might not be as sleek as the Mazda CX-3, and perhaps it’s not as practical as the Honda HR-V, but the Vitara is different from the herd, and it could even be called a little bit quirky.
It also has Suzuki’s renowned reliability on its side, a generous standard features list from the base version up, and impressive dynamic ability.
For our money, we would go the base RT-S in manual guise, as the $31,990 asking price for the top-spec model is a big leap, but either way buyers are likely to be pretty happy.
If you are looking for a compact SUV, or even a normal small hatch, and you don’t want to run with the crowd, the Vitara is another name to add to your long shopping list. Sorry about that!
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