Suzuki Vitara

From 1980s tragic to new-millennial fun machine

BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE

ANY WHICH WAY you look at it, Vitara is an ’80s icon right up there with Roger Rabbit, Reebok, and Roxette. The modishly chunky original sure had the look, inspiring the first Toyota RAV4 that kicked off the whole car-based compact SUV craze.

Which is kind of ironic because Suzuki has refused to evolve its darling 4x4 since, sticking with the tough ladder-frame chassis for the subsequent (and not so) Grand Vitaras of 1997 and 2005.

What must’ve been love 25 years ago was over now, as SUV buyers abandoned the out-dated Japanese original in droves.

Enter the Vitara IV, based on the nearly invisible S-Cross’s still box-fresh platform, scaling back hundreds of kilos and thousands of dollars in the process. It starts at $22,990 driveaway for the 1075kg front-drive manual RT-S (yes, yes, GM-H lawyers!), while the mud/snow-traversing AWD RT-X at $31,990 (before on-roads) is also pretty lithe.

But what compact SUV seekers may swoon at is the standard satnav, reversing camera, touchscreen multimedia, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, cruise control, speed limiter, 17-inch alloys, privacy glass, and LED running lights, along with seven airbags for a five-star ANCAP rating. The new Vitara screams value.

Its 86kW/156Nm 1.6-litre atmo petrol four might seem wildly optimistic against the Honda HR-V’s 105kW/172Nm 1.8, let alone the CX-3’s 109kW/192Nm 2.0-litre.

But remember two things: Vitara boasts a substantial 110kg-plus weight advantage, and Suzuki is known for sweet, revvy engines.

Lightly laden, even the slick (Aisin) six-speed auto doesn’t feel undernourished, stepping away keenly thanks to a sensibly spaced set of ratios. On RT-X AWD, a ‘Sport’ mode effectively keeps the engine revs within the power band, so it can actually feel punchy on the move, not to mention smooth.

But while the Sport-less auto front-driver is also fairly spirited, heavy loads and hills can impede progress. You need to bury that right foot to keep the 1.6 singing in its sweet spot while, in the manual, stirring its slightly notchy shift. At least promising economy – between 5.8 and 6.3L/100km – is the pay-off.

Still, the chassis deserves more. Vitara’s dramatic diet has resulted in steering that’s pleasingly Swift-like, meaning sharp off-centre responses for enthusiastic yet controlled turn-in. Add taut handling and plenty of grip from 215/55R17 Continentals and Suzuki has clearly tuned this SUV for fun.

Ride comfort is yet another bonus, leaving occasional roadnoise intrusion out on the open road as the only thing to whinge about dynamically.

Suzuki has thought about the roomy and airy interior too, with large door apertures, visionenhancing deep side glazing, clear dials (but frustratingly, no digital speedo), an intuitive touchscreen interface, ample storage, and a generous 375-litre boot. And while the driver’s seat initially appears flat, it retains adequate support even after a few hours behind the (leather-clad) wheel.

However, no driver-assist tech like autonomous emergency braking is vexing; the rear bench – which sits okay – lacks any recline and/or slide functionality; and there are no rear air vents.

Nevertheless, Suzuki has nailed the basics with Vitara IV. It blends dynamic smarts, commendable packaging and multi-configurable style with traditional brand virtues like some off-road ability in the RT-X AWD. It seems the ’80s compact SUV pioneer has finally come of (this) age.

Model Engine Max power Max torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/Economy Price On sale el e ren t h yee Suzuki Vitara RT-S 1586cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v 86kW @ 6000rpm 156Nm @ 4400rpm 5-speed manual 1075kg 11.5sec (claimed) 5.8L/100km $22,990 driveaway Now

PLUS & MINUS

Torque shortfall; no driver-assist technology; some road noise Space; comfort; handling; ride; value; economy; some off-road ability

GRIPPING YARN 01

‘Allgrip’ AWD features four modes – Auto (front-drive until wheelspin is detected), Sport (shuffles drive between front and rear axles continuously), Snow (default AWD on slippery surfaces), and Lock (channels torque to wheels with most grip).

Aiding this is Hill Descent Control and 185mm ground clearance.

SIDEKICK GLANCE 02

Chief designer Takehito Arai says Vitara’s clamshell bonnet, squared off flanks, kicked-up side ‘character lines’, and front guard vents are meant to recall the 1988 Vitara/Sidekick/Escudo original, while the five-bar ‘toothy’ grille pays lip service to the venerable Jimny/Sierra.

HARD MARKER 03

As the analogue clock flanked by central circular air vents, and various colour personalisation options attest, the latest Vitara is trying hard to fit in with 21st Century fads. But its bomb-proof plastics need to try a bit harder.

Love on the rocks

THE FOURTH-generation Vitara is at least two years late because it was originally meant to use Volkswagen’s MQB (Golf VII) architecture, before relations soured.

Sharing its monocoque, transverse-engined layout with the S-Cross – which Suzuki Oz is about to repositioned as a pure Corolla competitor, sans any SUV aspirations – the new Vitara is mooted to be getting an in-house 1.4-litre turbo-petrol four to join the Fiat-derived 1.6-litre turbo-diesel that is “under serious consideration” for Oz.

OR TRY THESE...

Mazda CX-3 Maxx $22,390

GREAT styling, a stirring chassis, inviting cabin, excellent seating, and strong performance from gutsy, yet frugal 2.0-litre are real strengths. Beware the restrictive side vision and some NVH issues.

Honda HR-V VTi $24,990

EMPLOYING the Jazz’s super-low rear-seat folding system adds to the HR-V’s spacious, innovative, and well-stocked interior, backed up by smooth driveability. But flat front seats and no manual option irritate.