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The new Suzuki Vitara marks a strong return for a widely recognised badge, absent from Australia for a number of years.
Its predecessors? They were forerunners of the small SUV craze that has since swept the nation, with vehicles such as the Mitsubishi ASX, Mazda CX-3, (reborn) Honda HR-V, Holden Trax and Nissan Qashqai eating into the sales of traditional little hatchbacks en masse.
In just a few months on sale, the new Suzuki Vitara hasn't quite leapt to the top of the charts, but it has tracked better than its stablemates, the much more rugged but smaller Suzuki Jimmy and the more conservative, but twin-under-the-skin, Suzuki S-Cross.
This new iteration of the Vitara doesn't offer the variety of that famous '90s staple, given there's no three-door or soft-top. Nor are there necessarily the raw ingredients for off-road heroics, at least on the base front-drive model.
Instead, the 2015 Vitara is more urban-focussed than it used to be. Stylistically, you might even go so far as to say it has more than a dash of Range Rover Evoque about it. Particularly with the different colours available with contrasting black roof. Even the nose and grille are Rangie reminiscent.
What remains a major drawcard for the Vitara is its price point. Our test car was the RT-S 2WD and it starts from $21,990 before on-road costs. The only other variant is the RT-X 4WD and it's $10,000 more. The RT-S is available with a six-speed automatic transmission ($23,990), or a five-speed manual. The RT-X is only available as an automatic, and 4WD is not available in the RT-S.
There are a lot of similarities between these two cars when it comes to kit. For that reason, the RT-S is incredibly well-equipped for the price.
Both have 17-inch alloy wheels, though they are polished on the RT-X. The RT-S misses out on keyless entry and start, both have four-speakers and the top-spec adds two tweeters.
There are halogen headlights in the base, LEDs in the top. Both get a reversing camera as standard but the RT-S misses out on parking sensors as well as rain-sensing wipers and a dual panoramic sunroof.
Inside it's quite elementary but still a comfortable place to be. Fabric seats that are basic but firm and supportive with contrast stitching and an eye-catching polka-dot pattern.
The steering wheel is leather-wrapped with controls for audio, cruise control and phone. It's tilt and telescopically adjustable and when you combine that with the manual seat adjustment, it's a pretty painless process to find a suitable driving position that offers both comfort, visibility and the ability to reach what you need to.
The seven-inch touchscreen is basic but straightforward. As well as the reversing camera, satellite-navigation is also standard in the RT-S. In early 2016, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will be added. The screen has pinch-to-zoom functionality which is handy when you're using the nav. Underneath that is a digital air-conditioning display with the dials on either side, and both USB and 12V ports.
As a slightly awkward nod to more luxurious makes and models, there's an analogue clock positioned between the air-con vents on the top of the centre-stack. Overall it's clean and simple, easy to understand, though there are a lot of hard plastics around. On the plus side, that makes the interior easy to wipe down.
The back seat is easily accessible, which is one of the factors that makes SUVs so attractive to those who may be getting on a bit in age, have mobility issues or small children to load in and out. The outboard seats both have Isofix points, and there are three tether points, which makes this a cheap and feature-packed option for small families on a budget.
The bench seat may be very flat and firm, but if you're shopping for clothes at K-Mart you don't expect to find Collette Dinnigan. There are no rear air-vents either, and no map pocket behind the driver seat. However it is spacious for its class, particularly when it comes to headroom.
Boot space is an impressive 375 litres, compared to the popular Mazda CX-3 with just 264L, though the Mitsubishi ASX offers a little more than the Suzuki at 393L. The floor is flat with not much of a drop down from the loading lip, which is positioned at good height to aid in sliding luggage, prams, shopping or sporting gear in and out.
One of the biggest frustrations was the lack of weight or swing-back in the doors. A gentle push is not enough for the doors or the boot to firmly close. If you want to make sure they're securely closed and not just resting on the frame, a good slam is needed.
Under the bonnet is a 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, and though it shares the same platform as the S-Cross, the Vitara's six-speed automatic transmission, compared to its sibling's CVT, completely transforms the driving experience. Having recently spent some time in the S-Cross, the engine lacked enthusiasm and the CVT just didn't cut it around town.
When battling typical urban traffic it tends to hold lower gears longer than you'd expect and though it's not an outright struggle to tackle hills, it's not effortless and is obviously working harder. It's worth mentioning a new turbo engine will join the range, in the top-spec variant, in April next year.
Hitting highway speeds, engine noise remains quiet, but road noise is evident over coarse chip and road joins. The steering becomes a little twitchy with constant corrections needed, and it doesn't help that the Vitara is quite light so it also gets blown around in the wind a bit too. Around corners there's a bit of lean, but the grip is decent and it handles them well even around bends out on the open road with more pace than around town.
We also had the five-speed manual RT-S through the garage at the same time as the automatic. Though the clutch is a little hard to modulate from a stand still, the 'box has a very light shift and handles itself well around town.
Though the auto was a fine little car, the manual was that little bit more entertaining. It seemed to embody more of the Suzuki off-road heritage, bringing a sense of engagement and nostalgia that the automatic misses.
The Suzuki Vitara is an enjoyable city car, and the manual may very well be the pick of the two RT-S specification options. The most enticing aspect is bang-for-buck, given the manual is $21,990, and has a great list of standard inclusions.
The Vitara is nimble on the road, visibility is really good, it's easy to park and get around in the city in, its comfortable and well suited to a small family for the price. The funky design helps too. Seriously worth a look.