While many manufacturers have jumped on the baby SUV bandwagon in recent years, two cars that can’t be accused of following the crowd are the Honda HR-V and the Suzuki Vitara.
The original slab-sided, two-door, four-wheel-drive HR-V was a very different beast to today’s high-riding, hatchback-based crossover. Some may say the quirky first-gen car was ahead of its time in 1999, though sales of the new version – which has exceeded the entire volume of its predecessor in just the past six months – suggest Honda is onto a much better thing this time around.
The Vitara dates back 11 years further to 1988, and could be argued to be the godfather of the modern-day compact SUV. As with the HR-V though, the 2015 edition is a long way removed from Suzuki's manual-only, two-door hard- and soft-topped original.
Despite their varying histories, the HR-V and the Vitara are now direct rivals, competing for the same mainstream customers in the fastest-growing segment in the Australian market.
PRICE AND FEATURES
We’re well acquainted with the Honda HR-V VTi-L, as it’s been a member of the Sydney office’s long-term fleet since July. The $32,990-plus-on-road-costs VTi-L sits at the top of the three-limbed HR-V tree, $8K above the entry-grade VTi.
Less familiar is the Suzuki Vitara RT-X, which only arrived in Australia in September. The RT-X is likewise the flagship of a three-variant range and, at $31,990, is priced $10K above the base model.
Both cars are very well equipped and share plenty of standard equipment, headlined by auto LED headlights and rain-sensing wipers, 17-inch alloy wheels, front and rear parking sensors, a reverse-view camera (the Honda gets a three-view system), keyless entry with push-button start, climate control, cruise control, leather upholstery and a panoramic sunroof.
Their differences are big differences, however. The Vitara gets Suzuki’s ‘All Grip’ four-wheel-drive system, while the HR-V is front-drive only.
The Suzuki also gets integrated satellite navigation, while the Honda can only display mapping information by using mirroring technology to stream sat nav from your phone, which uses your mobile data and requires messy cables. In the HR-V this is only available with iPhones, while the Vitara offers a similar mirroring system but only for Android smartphones (though both brands are working to make both phone styles compatible).
The HR-V counters with extra comfort and style features and additional safety systems. Heated front seats, an electric park brake and alloy pedals lift the cabin ambience, while City Brake Active, which can avoid a crash or limit its impact between 5-32km/h, and Lane Watch blind-spot monitor, which displays a view of the left lane of traffic in the centre screen when the driver indicates left, give the Honda a big safety advantage. For just $1000, HR-V VTi-L customers can add forward collision warning, lane departure warning and a high-beam support system, all of which are unavailable in the Suzuki.
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION
The differences between the two powertrains extend beyond whether they drive or drag the rear wheels. The Honda pairs its Civic-sourced 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), and though the Suzuki inherits its smaller 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol unit from the S-Cross, it trades that car’s CVT for a conventional (and superior) six-speed automatic.
Unfortunately, there’s no change in the engine’s peak outputs, which remain pinned at a modest 86kW of power at 6000rpm and 156Nm of torque at 4400rpm. The HR-V generates 22 per cent more power and 10 per cent more torque (105kW at 6500rpm and 172Nm at 4300rpm) – outputs that motivate this size of vehicle much more effectively.
The Vitara’s transmission does its best to keep the underpowered engine on the boil, though this means it’s regularly forced to grab or hang on to low gears for sustained periods. Even at quarter throttle the engine will rev beyond 4000rpm climbing urban hills, and consequently sounds noisy and strained. Fortunately, it’s next to silent at idle and relaxed at highway speeds.
The HR-V’s powertrain is more capable and refined. The engine’s extra power makes it feel more effortless than the Vitara, and like any good Honda motor it’s smooth right up to its redline. It forms a decent partnership with the CVT, which doesn’t flare or drone like some others of its breed, though it also doesn’t quite deliver the perky performance of some others in the class (Mazda CX-3 and Skoda Yeti, for example).
STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING
The differences between the Honda HR-V and Suzuki Vitara continue when assessing their dynamic performance. The HR-V feels more substantial and planted due partially to its greater mass but also its greater inherent refinement – it simply feels like it’s screwed together more tightly. The Vitara, by contrast, can feel brittle and plasticky over poor roads.
The Honda’s extra sophistication manifests itself in other ways. The suspension is better at soaking up smaller ruts, and the cabin offers far more insulation from tyre, suspension and engine noise.
But the Vitara boasts qualities of its own that outshine the HR-V. Being lighter, it feels more agile, and its steering is far nicer. While the Honda’s steering is heavy (a nuisance around town) and baulks at bumps, the Suzuki’s is light, natural, keen and progressive – all excellent things. The Vitara also grips the road better thanks to its all-wheel-drive underpinnings and its Continental ContiEcoContact tyres that are superior to the HR-V’s Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber.
The HR-V’s softer suspension may provide more cushioning from small bumps, but over speed humps and higher-speed undulations its reactions are far more pronounced than in the Vitara, which settles quicker and remains more composed. The softer Honda rolls and bounces more at higher speeds where the Suzuki sits flatter. Still, the Vitara tends to shimmy over road joins and concrete surfaces, and can feel a little pitchy over patchy surfaces.
The Suzuki has another dimension, however. The All Grip system makes the Vitara capable of light-duty off-road driving. Auto, Sport and Snow settings selected via a dial on the centre tunnel vary the car’s front-biased setup and ESC responses, while an additional Lock mode is designed for sticky situations, limiting wheel slipping by focusing torque on the gripping wheels. Hill descent control and 185mm of ground clearance (15mm more than the HR-V) add extra substance to its adventurous ambitions.
Driving both cars back to back over many kilometres on a range of surfaces at various speeds, it’s clear that neither is completely resolved dynamically. The Honda is sophisticated and solid but dull, the Suzuki more flimsy but better to steer and better over most bumps.
INTERIOR, INSTRUMENTS AND INFOTAINMENT
That sophistication gulf extends to the cabins. The Vitara flunks the age-old door thunk test, with its doors flopping into the half-closed position if you don’t give them a good tug or shove. During a wet week in Sydney, we also experienced water from the roof and door frames dribbling onto the front seats after opening the doors – another factor detracting from its perception of quality.
Its cabin materials don’t have the same quality feel to them, either. Cheap-feeling, hard plastics line the door panels and much of the dash, where the HR-V gets some nicer, soft-touch panels. There are some rough edges in the Vitara too, including where the roof liner meets the sunroof, and some wrinkly stitching on the leather seats.
But there’s plenty that makes the Vitara’s cabin a nice place to be, too. Colleague Matt and myself found its seats – both front and rear – more comfortable, while its suede seat base patches hold you better than the HR-V’s slippery leather.
There’s more headroom in the second row of the Vitara, though both suffer a bit due to the fitment of their sunroofs (six-foot-plus Matt even hit his head on the HR-V’s intrusive grab handles when riding in the back). The Honda has more rear legroom, though the raised floor beneath the front passenger seat can be uncomfortable for longer-legged occupants.
The Suzuki boasts better visibility, particularly over the driver’s shoulder thanks to its tall, square side windows and its extra window behind the C-pillar. The Honda has thick rear pillars that make seeing out the back more difficult, and while its Lane Watch system helps, there’s no substitute for a clear view with your own eyes.
The Vitara’s infotainment screen looks far crisper and more colourful than the HR-V’s dowdy, navy display. It’s not quite as intuitive to use, however, requiring more practice and even then more button/screen pressing. It also had a glitchy moment with us where it crashed and needed to be restarted.
The buttons and dials of its climate control system are simpler to use than the Honda’s touch-sensitive controls though, particularly when you’re travelling at higher speeds.
The Vitara also gives you the option of brightening its interior with teal, bronze, white or black dash panels and air vent surrounds for about $300. Even without ticking this box, the Suzuki’s cabin still feels livelier than the more serious, black and grey Honda.
Honda’s famous storage capacity shines brightly in the HR-V. Compared with the Vitara, it boasts bigger door bins, a larger glovebox, a handy stash spot behind the lower dash for phones and wallets, and a deep centre box with an armrest.
Then there are those Magic Seats that offer excellent flexibility if you’re carting around especially large items. The seatbacks can fold completely flat with the boot floor, while the bases can be raised to create a tall load space inside the cabin for items like shelves and pot plants. The Vitara is more limited in its flexibility. As with the HR-V, its rear seats fold 60:40, but when pushed forward rest at an angle rather than flat.
The Vitara’s 370-litre boot is impressive for a car of its size, but like all others in small SUV segment (and some mid-sizers), it’s humbled by the HR-V’s massive 437L load space. With the rear seats down, its capacity expands to a van-like 1032L, versus 710L in the Suzuki.
The Honda also has a lower load lip, making it easier to lift heavy and awkward items into its boot. The Vitara counters with a proper parcel shelf and a false floor with extra storage space underneath, compared with the Honda’s flimsy mesh cover and smaller underfloor arrangement, though if cargo carrying is a priority, there should only be one compact crossover on your shopping list.
WARRANTY, SERVICING AND RUNNING COSTS
Neither model shines from an aftersales perspective. Both come with the minimum three-year/100,000km warranty, where many rivals offer unlimited-kilometre coverage and some have protection for up to five years. Neither includes free roadside assistance either.
Low-mileage owners will appreciate the HR-V’s 12-month/10,000km service intervals compared with the Vitara’s shorter six-month/10,000km intervals. The average price of Suzuki’s first six services is roughly $40 cheaper than Honda’s ($257 versus $296), though due to the short intervals, the Vitara will only work out cheaper overall if you drive more than 24,000km per year (the average Australian covers around 15,000km per year).
Vitara buyers should recover some of those costs at the bowser, however. According to the vehicles’ official combined cycle fuel consumption ratings (Vitara 6.3L/100km, HR-V 6.9L/100km) and our real-world testing data (Vitara 7.8L/100km, HR-V 8.6L/100km), the Suzuki is roughly 9 per cent more fuel efficient. Assuming an unleaded fuel price of 114.9 cents per litre (price in Sydney at time of writing), 15,000km annual mileage, and our recorded consumption, the Vitara will set you back approximately $1344 per year versus $1482 for the HR-V.
The Honda HR-V and Suzuki Vitara may be far removed from the cars that debuted their badges last millennium, but with more conventional styling and packaging and loads more equipment, the new models are on the radars of far more shoppers than their predecessors could ever have dreamed.
Though they compete in the same segment, the HR-V and Vitara will appeal to vastly different buyers. Those prioritising advanced safety technology, powertrain performance, cabin quality and interior capaciousness will pick the Honda every time. Similarly, those after more engaging driving dynamics, the added ability of all-wheel-drive, greater visibility and comfort, and fresher styling inside and out will be best served by the Suzuki.
We believe both are better value in the cheaper trim levels rather than these high-end variants, and if you’re considering either, we’d recommend also looking at the Mazda CX-3 and Skoda Yeti, which are the best all rounders in the segment.
In this small SUV skirmish, however, it’s the Honda’s greater sophistication, substance and spaciousness that give it the edge over the Suzuki.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos