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The 2016 Suzuki Vitara has been a bit of a hit for the Japanese brand – it seemingly has the right blend of pricing, styling and robustness that buyers are warming to.
The range of Suzuki Vitara models is expansive, with three engine options, front- and all-wheel-drive derivatives, and a price range from just over twenty grand all the way up to the mid-thirties, so your budget may dictate which Vitara you buy.
But which is the pick of the pack? We decided to assemble a few variants of the Suzuki small SUV range to try and figure it out.
Suzuki Vitara RT-S
Pricing before on-road costs: $21,990 manual FWD, $23,990 automatic FWD
Three key features
- 17-inch alloy wheels
- Touchscreen media with satellite navigation and Apple CarPlay
- Rear-view camera
At the entry point to the range is the Vitara RT-S, which kicks off at just $21,990 for the five-speed manual. But we’ve got the six-speed auto, which is $23,990 plus on-road costs, because it makes up a much larger percentage of sales.
It is front-wheel-drive only, unlike the other models in the range, but it is a fair chunk more affordable than them, too.
Even in the base model Vitara you get a 7.0-inch touchscreen media system with satellite navigation and Apple CarPlay, which is better than plenty of competitor SUVs in this price bracket.
It’s not the greatest screen in terms of the display, and it can be a bit dull in its response times, but it doubles as a display for the standard rear-view camera – another plus!
The cabin is a pretty bland environment – function definitely wins over form here. But it is one of the best in the class for cabin space – considerably better than a Mazda CX-3 in the second row, with adequate space for a six-foot-tall adult behind a fellow six-footer's driving position. And it has a boot that’s bigger than some hatchbacks in the next size bracket up (375 litres).
Perhaps the biggest annoyance with the Vitara range is that the doors are so light that they are hard to close. You will lose count of the times you have to re-shut the doors: you might even find yourself constantly slamming them to ensure they stay shut.
Under the bonnet is a naturally-aspirated 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that may not be huge in terms of power and torque – 86kW and 156Nm – but it is pretty peppy considering the Vitara doesn’t weigh much at all: just 1120 kilos.
That weight figure is pretty astounding given the size of the car – it measures 4175 millimetres long, 1775mm wide and 1610mm tall.
The engine doesn’t feel like it’s struggling for grunt around town, although it is pretty noisy and likes to rev. It’s better suited to city duties than the highway: at higher speeds it can be a bit breathless when you’re pushing up hills. In town, though, the six-speed auto does a good job.
It steers fine, tackling roundabouts without any hassle, but the steering can be a little bit twitchy on centre at higher speeds. And the ride isn’t bad, either, dealing with speedhumps and rough surfaces pretty well.
The Vitara RT-S is a pretty convincing little SUV for the price – if all-wheel-drive isn’t important to you, you could do a lot worse.
Suzuki Vitara S Turbo
Pricing before on-road costs: $28,990 automatic FWD, $32,990 automatic AWD
Three key features
- Unique exterior styling
- Leather/suede interior trim
- Push-button start and keyless entry
The mid-range Vitara S Turbo looks a fair bit sportier than the base model, with a different grille, blacked out headlights and a more sculpted bumper. It also has silver mirror caps with indicators, and it gets black wheels. The car we have here looks the part with its two-tone paint, too.
The engine may be a little bit smaller in terms of capacity – a 1.4-litre compared to the 1.6 in the base version – but the turbocharger adds plenty: there is 103kW of power and 220Nm of torque, and it still only weighs 1160kg. That’s almost a hot-hatch-like power to weight ratio!
And as with plenty of hot hatches these days, the S Turbo models are solely available with six-speed automatic transmissions. But as you can tell by its pricing, the S Turbo versions can be had with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the latter at a $4000 premium.
It’s fair to say that among those competitors, the Suzuki’s little turbo engine is a standout: in fact, there probably isn’t a better drivetrain in the small SUV class, partly because of the level of effortlessness and refinement on offer.
There’s plenty of torque, and while this version is front-wheel drive, the all-wheel drive model would surely pull pretty hard out of corners. You’d have to want it pretty bad to be able to justify the $4000 expense, because the front-drive model is definitely decent enough in terms of handling and performance. There is a little bit of torque steer under hard acceleration, but as is the case in the entry-level model, the steering is relatively accurate, and the suspension does a good job.
It’s quick, too – put your foot down and there’s considerably more urge in the turbo model than in the base version.
And there’s barely anything in it in terms of fuel use between this one and the non-turbo version: we saw 6.4 litres per 100km in the turbo model and 7.0L/100km in the non-turbo.
The six-speed automatic gearbox offers decisive shifts, and like the base model there are paddleshifters, too – if you think you should pretend you’re driving a hot hatch.
That impressive drivetrain tech comes at a cost, though – five grand is plenty in this part of the market. But you do get a few other extras like auto lights and wipers, LED headlights, leather trim with suede inserts and keyless entry with push-button start.
All of those bits definitely add to the appeal, and this one makes a strong case.
Suzuki Vitara RT-X
Pricing before on-road costs: $35,990 automatic AWD
Three key features
- Polished alloy wheels
- Dual-pane panoramic sunroof
- Multi-mode AWD system
The turbo diesel RT-X model is only available in all-wheel drive, so we figured why not test it on the dirt to see what it can do?
You could be led to believe that the turbo petrol has plenty of torque, but the 1.6-litre turbo diesel model has has an extra 100Nm on it – its outputs are 88kW and 320Nm.
That’s a pretty huge amount of pulling power for a car of this size and weight. It is a bit heavier than the petrol versions, but at 1325kg it’s not chubby.
You can tell this has a different type of gearbox to the other models in the range when you’re pottering around town: it has a dual-clutch automatic, and the shifts can be a little bit hesitant, particularly from a standstill, but once you’re on the move they’re smooth and rapid.
Adding to the low-speed limitations is low-rev lag as the turbo spools up – when you hit about 2000rpm the engine is strong to respond, but below that it’s a bit sluggish. And while the engine offers decent response at speed it is pretty noisy at idle.
As for fuel use, we saw about 5.3L/100km, though that figure rose the more off-road driving we did.
Now, that all-wheel-drive system – let me just say this: if you really want a small SUV with proper off-road cred, you should buy the Suzuki Jimny, which has high and low range and can shuffle itself up craggy hillsides better than most humans.
But the AllGrip system in this car has a few different settings for different situations. Auto mode chooses whether you need 4WD or not; Snow mode – well, there’s not much need for that unless you’ve got the skis on board; Sport mode is designed to make it feel better in corners and makes the transmission hold on to gears longer; and Lock mode modulates the torque to ensure good progress on mud or loose surfaces.
We’d have to say we wouldn’t be too keen to venture on too hard a terrain. Although those AWD settings are handy and undoubtedly have an effect on the behaviour of the car in different situations, it is let down by a few key things: its ground clearance, at 185mm, isn’t great; and all three have the same Continental tyres, which are road-focused.
The suspension doesn’t allow the vehicle a lot of lateral travel through deep ruts or washouts, and the approach angle isn’t terrific (18 degrees), but the stumpy rear end allows it a fine departure angle (28 degrees).
Still, this model is pretty expensive, and how often are you actually going to want to get your car off the beaten track to exploit the AWD system? We drove it around town and found it to be equally inoffensive to drive despite the extra weight, but our biggest gripe with the diesel was that noise. It rattles like an old tractor.
In terms of equipment, it has the panoramic glass roof, and the interior looks a bit more upmarket with its grey stitching and that plush suede/leather combination trim. The fact it doesn’t have a silly big badge on the dash (it has a small AllGrip badge), means it could appeal to more mature buyers.
But while the range is impressive, it does – in its entirety – fall a little short on safety features. The rear-view camera is great, and the mid- and high-spec models have front and rear parking sensors, too.
Each Vitara has seven airbags (dual front, front side, full-length curtain and driver’s knee protection), but it doesn’t have any of the latest high-tech equipment like autonomous emergency braking or blind-spot monitoring.
And even at $35,990 plus on-roads – or what could be close to $40,000 driveaway – the RT-X doesn’t get seat heaters.
Our pick of the range:Suzuki Vitara S Turbo
Part of the reason the Suzuki Vitara range has been a success in Australia is because it seemingly has something in the range for many different types of small SUV buyers.
The diesel is impressive and grunty, but it is pretty darn pricey.
The base model is very good value, and it drives decently, too. It’s just a shame it doesn’t have as much oomph as we’d like.
As a result, our pick of the pack when it comes to the Suzuki Vitara line-up is the Turbo S.
When you take into consideration its pricing, its equipment and its excellent drivetrain, it really stands out as a top-notch small SUV, not just in the context of its own range, but across the entire segment.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Sam Venn.