The Suzuki Vitara returns to the fold, with a whole lot more competition. It’s cheap, well-specced and looks the part, though its engine is adequate at best.
The original Suzuki Vitara is one of the progenitors of today’s small SUV craze, and despite having been off the market since 1998, the nameplate maintains a certain kind of cache. This is one company that knows a thing or two about small, cheap off-roaders.
That’s why it makes perfect sense for Suzuki to dust off this iconic badge and return it to the fold, affixed to the boxy and uncharacteristically characterful small crossover you see here.
Suzuki Australia has high hopes indeed for the reborn Vitara — replete with familiar clamshell bonnet and fender flares — with the expectation being that this Hungarian-made SUV will become its second top-selling model after the Swift.
But it’s not just brand equity that’ll get it there. The Vitara also breaks the mould for Suzuki in terms of design. Not only does it have a real edge not found on its S-Cross twin-under-the-skin, it also comes with some fun customisation options.
Of course, those S-Cross origins also means the Vitara rocks a monocoque construction, no low-range, good but hardly epic levels of ground clearance, and the availability of four-wheel drive (on demand, not full-time) only on the top-spec version. Is it still a terrier off the beaten path?
It pays to remember that the Vitara of today also competes in a very different landscape to its predecessor (hence the loss of the old three-door and soft-top, while we’re at it). In fact, within a few years, Suzuki thinks small SUVs will outsell small passenger hatchbacks overall.
Rivals such as the Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V (another recently reborn nameplate) are selling up a storm — alongside the Holden Trax and countless others — while sales of Corolla and Mazda 3s, while strong, are going backwards.
And why not, asks Suzuki? With an opening price of $21,990 plus on-roads (or $23,990 with a six-speed auto), and standard equipment such as a touchscreen with sat-nav and reverse-view camera, 17-inch alloy wheels and daytime running lights, the Vitara actually out-values many conventional small hatchbacks.
Consider also that Suzuki Australia is subsidising the lion’s share of on-road charges for the RT-S, with drive-away pricing of $22,990 or $24,990 depending on transmission. That’s Corolla money, and undercuts (and out-specs) almost all rivals.
It’s this base front-drive Vitara RT-S variant that appears the sharpest member of the range, given the 4WD RT-X auto costs a less-impressive $31,990. It’s therefore unsurprising that Suzuki expects about 80 per cent of sales to go here.
The cabin of the Vitara immediately stands out from other Suzukis by way of its configurable plastic inserts and a more modern touchscreen than we’ve seen from the brand previously. The fact the RT-S gets the same seven-inch unit with camera and sat-nav as the RT-X , and the fact it also sports stylish 17-inch wheels and DRLs, is commendable on the part of Suzuki Australia.
The $31,990 RT-X gets a range of extras for its $8000 cost premium over the RT-S auto’s list price, such as an on-demand four-wheel drive system, a panoramic sunroof, leather/suede seats, front/rear parking sensors, and auto wipers and headlights.
Unless you really need 4WD — and statistics on small SUV sales suggest you don’t — the RT-S is clearly the sharper buy. It’s actually a minor shame that Suzuki isn’t offering a base, 4WD version given its iconic off-road heritage.
A key USP inside the cabin are the funky colourful plastic inserts. For about $300, your dealer can fit new plastic bits across the dash, and on the console and vent surrounds when the mood takes you. You can have bright blue, orange, silver or glossy black.
The other selling point over a small hatchback is the elevated driving position — you get a typically more commanding view of the road given the ride height. Ergonomics are good, with a chunky little steering wheel offering proper reach/rake adjustment.
The sat-nav graphics are excellent, the reverse-view camera with guidelines is crisp, the voice control allows for conversational inputs and the Bluetooth phone and audio systems re-paired swiftly every time.
Only the cheap-feeling plastic surrounding the screen lets the team down. In fact, while general build quality is typically good, the cabin’s contact points (dash and doors) are covered in cheap-felling and hard plastics all round, reminiscent of the Holden Trax, come to think of it.
Cabin storage up front comprises good door pockets, big cupholders, a two-tiered phone/wallet cubby, a decent glovebox and a sunglasses-holder. There’s no closing centre console, however.
In the rear, the RT-X’s sunroof eats drastically into headroom. Otherwise space is good for the class, in terms of legroom and footroom. The middle seat is next to useless, though, and there are no rear cupholders, no ski port and no air vents. There are, at least, two ISOFIX anchors for child seats and three adjustable headrests.
All this is despite the Vitara’s diminutive dimensions, which its boxy and rather sharp styling helps hide. At 4175mm long, it’s 100mm shorter than the already tiny CX-3 and almost a foot shorter than a Mazda 3. It’s the elevated 1610mm height that sets it apart from a regular hatch.
With the 60:40 rear seats in use, you have a decent 375 litres of cargo space — less than the S-Cross but more than a CX-3 or Mazda 3. There’s a two-layered loading floor and a space-saver spare beneath. Still, the Honda HR-V’s flat-folding ‘Magic Seats’ kill all rivals in terms of practicality.
Powering both versions is a 1.6-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine with a rather low 86kW at 6000rpm and 156Nm of torque available at 4400rpm. Working in the Vitara’s favour is its feather-ish kerb weight of just 1075kg in entry front-wheel drive form (feel those ultra-light doors…)
Our first test car was the RT-S, available in FWD guise only, in this case with the base five-speed manual gearbox. As well as lacking a ratio, the self-shifter has a slightly rubbery and vague action, though the light clutch with a predictable take-up point makes it simple enough to doddle about in.
The engine makes the best of things despite its diminutive size, and with such a meagre kerb weight to lug about, it’s perfectly adequate, even sprightly off the mark in urban confines. Loaded up near its 1730kg GVM, it might be a different tale.
The variant we spent the overwhelming amount of time in was the 4WD RT-X. Like the RT-S, it sits on 17-inch wheels and sports the same 1.6 engine, but in our tester this was paired to the six-speed automatic gearbox with paddleshifters that’s a $2000 option on the base car.
Suzuki fans have doubtless spotted that the S-Cross’ CVT has been axed for the Vitara, and that’s a good thing. The torque-converter-sporting auto is preferable in terms of engagement, though it can get busy when climbing hills and holds lower gears longer than you might expect to get the engine into the sweet spot even in urban duties.
The little Suzuki is also deceptively nimble, with darty (though feel-free) electric steering that’s good on-centre, and a body/chassis that exhibits a real willingness to turn-in with sharpness not expected from a crossover. The Continental tyres offer plentiful mid-corner traction, though that torsion-beam rear gets undisciplined at nine-tenths. Not a big deal.
Rapid directional changes are handled with little fuss. Furthermore, handling is well-sorted, with not much in the way of bodyroll. Interestingly, the RT-X has a Sport mode (part of its AWD system which we detail a few paragraphs further down) that sharpens up the throttle and gearbox characteristics, and relaxes the ESC parameters for aggressive driving.
You’ll also have the confidence to chuck the Vitara around given the excellent outward visibility. The A-pillars are trim, and the side windows are square and deep. Indeed, it’s a shame the Suzuki doesn’t have a peppier engine, because the chassis could easily handle the extra oomph (cough, Suzuki’s torque-rich European-market diesel engine, cough).
One benefit of having a small engine is fuel use. Almost silent at idle (though it lacks start stop). Suzuki claims you’ll use between 5.8 litres and 6.3 litres per 100km. We averaged 7.3L/100km in our AWD tester, which is more than acceptable, though the harder you work it, the thirstier it gets.
Both variants sit on 17-inch rims on low-ish profile rubber, meaning each feels a little brittle over sharp bumps, though more generally ride compliance is adequate. Still, the locally-tuned Tuned Trax does a better job.
At higher speeds, and despite that weight, the Vitara remains composed and stable, but there was a lot of tyre noise emanating into the cabin, increasing NVH levels.
Suzuki’s ALLGRIP 4WD system is operated via a rotary dial. Auto mode operates the car in front-drive mode until slip is detected, at which time it sends torque to the rear axle. Snow mode vectors torque more aggressively and applies extra ESC for slippery surfaces.
This system, plus the 185mm of ground clearance (more than the CX-3 and front-drive-only HR-V) and features such as Hill Descent Control, help boost its soft-roading credentials. We got our tester muddy and found the Vitara perfectly capable of lighter-duty work. Add some more off-road-oriented tyres and you might surprise yourself.
Overall, the new Suzuki Vitara is a rather likeable little crossover SUV, albeit one beset with stiff competition. It isn’t the same type of little SUV its predecessor was, but it’ll steal some sales from prosaic small hatchbacks without a shadow of a doubt, and lure some current Swift owners keen on trading into something bigger.
On first impressions could use a few more kW under the bonnet, and the cabin plastics feel cheap. But then again, the Vitara is cheap in feature-packed RT-S guise, and it has the right kind of pseudo-tough styling and standard features to make an impact. A good start.