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Vitara shreds its old-school roots to return as a lighter, lower SUV at the modest end of the class, but with driving ability beyond its price

This fascinating, ever changing, new car market of ours loves to confound and surprise. Its sands shift and class boundaries expand and contract all the time, somehow rarely leaving the car makers you expect to reap the benefit.

Suzuki is a case in point: The new Suzuki Vitara is from a maker with almost half a century of experience in making small 4x4, but Suzuki is only now getting around to taking a proper swing at the Skoda Yetis, Dacia Dusters and Vauxhall Mokkas of this world. Go figure. Suzuki’s entrant looks and sounds familiar but is different from any car wearing its nameplate before. Welcome, then, to the new Vitara.

This Vitara is lower, lighter and less powerful than its Grand Vitara sibling

This new-groove compact SUV is related by platform to the Suzuki SX4 S-Cross crossover launched in 2013. The sister cars are quite cleverly differentiated, though. Whereas the SX4’s ruggedness is like that of a pair of Gore-Tex running shoes, the Vitara’s is more of a hiking boot.

Upright, square-cornered and with plenty of air inside its wheelarches, the Vitara goes after the more high-rised, genuinely dual-purpose offerings among the new breed of supermini-based SUVs.

That said, anyone trading into this car from its nearest recent antecedent in Suzuki’s range – the three-door, sub-4.0-metre Suzuki Grand Vitara sold between 2005-2014 – may be in for something of a shock.

That predecessor was 1.7m tall and, with what Suzuki called a built-in ladder-frame chassis, approaching 1.5 tonnes in weight. It was an old-school 4x4 with a low-range transfer ’box and a 2.4-litre engine.

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This Vitara is lower, lighter and less powerful, the result of a modern, rebalanced approach to the kind of added-capability design currently surging up the European sales charts.

Suzuki’s specific expertise in making small cars on the one hand and SUVs on the other stands to give it a decisive advantage with this car. Let’s find out if it actually has.

Suzuki Vitara design & styling

Contrary to what its more assertive SUV styling may suggest, the Vitara slots into Suzuki’s showroom range below the S-Cross – on price and on overall length.

It’s reasonable to assume that a larger ‘Grand’ version will bookend that position at some point soon, taking the fight to the likes of the Mazda CX-5 and Ford Kuga. But even without back-up from a bigger brother, the normal Vitara could certainly hold its own among its burgeoning competitor set, being longer and taller than both a Renault Captur and the popular Nissan Juke.

The Vitara’s stylistic references to the 1988 original come thick and fast when you run your eye from nose to tail. The obvious ones are the shape of the headlights and the rising feature lines on its flanks.

Look harder and you’ll clock the clamshell bonnet and front wing vents as visual homage, too. What matters most is that Suzuki has penned a distinctive, sturdy, modern-looking design here – one with a more amiable and straightforward visual identity than plenty of its rivals.

The Vitara model range is slightly truncated by Suzuki’s normal standards, featuring only SZ4, SZ-T, SZ5 and sporty S trim levels, our test car being an SZ5 model. But options to customise the car’s look are greater than Suzuki owners are used to.

Several two-tone colour schemes are offered, with body and roof in contrasting paint, and you can also dress up your Vitara with special grille treatments and wheel arch garnishes, or with an Urban or Rugged accessory pack. The Urban pack gets you chrome foglight bezels and a roof spoiler, and the Rugged pack buys front and rear skidplates and extended bodyside mouldings.

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The body-in-white and suspension come adapted from service in the S-Cross. Ultra-high-strength steel in the body structure adds rigidity without extra weight. Revised lower arms, subframes and struts shore up the front axle and a U-shaped torsion beam suspension features at the rear.

Engines, meanwhile, are limited to a 1.6-litre normally aspirated petrol or a DDiS turbodiesel, both peaking at 118bhp, and a turbocharged 1.4-litre Boosterjet engine producing 138bhp but is only available with the Vitara S. 

The petrol is the cheaper of the two when fitted with a five-speed manual gearbox and front-wheel drive as standard – and as tested – but it is also available with four-wheel drive and with a six-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox, either separately or together. The diesel is limited to a manual transmission, albeit with six speeds, but it comes in front-drive and all-paw formats. The Vitara S is the only petrol model to offer six-speed versions of the manual or automatic gearbox and only four-wheel drive form.

Few rivals offer as much flexibility on engine, gearbox and drivetrain permutation. And even fewer do it while imposing such a negligible weight penalty as the Vitara. On our scales, the car weighed just 1124kg, against a claim of 1075kg and a class average that’s more like 1250kg. Impressive stuff.

INTERIOR
The view from the driver's seat in the Suzuki Vitara
Visibility is pretty standard for a small crossover, but higher and better than in a normal supermini

The pictures suggest that Suzuki has got the Vitara’s cabin about right: legible and sturdily fetching, with a big, glossy infotainment screen and even that automotive rarity – a reasonably likeable clock.

But, like David Gandy in Tesco’s jeans, bone structure carries you only so far. With its eye clearly clamped on the bottom line, Suzuki has deemed it necessary to clad the Vitara in less than brilliant trim materials. If the reasoning is iron clad, so are the repercussions. The dashboard, in particular, positively glows with the unwanted lustre of cheap plastic.

My first prod of the multimedia system resulted in a mixed impression as the screen yielded and deformed slightly

Granted, few prospective owners will march into a Suzuki dealership with a premium finish in mind but, equally, even the laziest of window shoppers will know that many, if not most, rivals offer a more sophisticated fingertip experience than this.

It doesn’t get any better acoustically, either. Although a degree of hollowness is par for the course, the huge, van-like impact felt in the front seats when the rear doors are closed will only add to the stress levels of those condemned to the school run every day.

For buyers with adult-sized children, the compromises of the range-topper may already be too much to bear. Although our 5ft 8in tester fitted into the back quite contentedly, those approaching 6ft found themselves folding to fit under the roof lining. It may very well be, as we’ve seen in several competitors, that this is a symptom of the panoramic roof, which is a standard item in the range-topping SZ5 trim on test.

Be that as it may, not everyone felt content at the space afforded by the Vitara and that’s an issue when you consider the car’s otherwise generous proportions.

Nevertheless, young families won’t notice the difference and, at 375 litres, the boot – presumably with its false floor taken into account – falls neatly between that of a Nissan Juke and a Skoda Yeti on capacity.

The Vitara is certainly well-equipped however, with the entry-level SZ4 models coming with cruise control, electric windows all round, air conditioning, DAB radio, and Bluetooth and USB connectivity. Upgrade to SZ-T trim and you'll find more luxuries including a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system with sat nav and a rear-view camera, while the SZ-5 models come with radar brake support, suede seats and keyless entry and start.

The range topping Vitara S comes with numerous sporty details, including black alloys, satin silver wing mirrors, a rear diffuser and spoiler all as standard, while there is also the inclusion of LED headlights, front and rear parking sensors, and automatic lights and wipers.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE
The low kerb weight of the Suzuki Vitara enables bris progress and competent dynamics
The 1.6-litre petrol variant is quicker than Suzuki's performance figures suggest

Buyers get a choice of three engines to propel the Vitara. Two are 1.6-litre units, with one burning diesel and the other petrol. No matter which motor you opt for, both develop 118bhp, while the diesel benefits from a hefty torque advantage of 236lb ft at 1750rpm to the petrol's 115lb ft at 4400rpm. While the 1.4-litre Boosterjet engine produces a princely 138bhp and 162lb ft, but Suzuki has also increased the pressure of the fuel injection system and tweaked the turbocharger to keep the wastegate closed to reduce the amount of lag when jumping back on the throttle.

Petrol power probably isn’t most people’s idea of a natural fit for a compact crossover – even more so when you consider that the Vitara’s 1.6-litre M16A motor comes without the functional benefits of a turbocharger – but the usual advantages still apply: if your average mileage requirements are modest, then a diesel unit isn’t necessarily mandatory.

The four-cylinder petrol unit delivers its power in much the same way as its Swift baby brother - remaining earnest beyond 6000rpm at which its 118bhp peak is produced

It helps in the Vitara’s case that the engine isn’t required to haul around a particularly onerous amount of weight. The car doesn’t feel nearly as flat-footed as it might were it carrying an industry-standard mass. By keeping a goodly amount from the scales, Suzuki has ensured that there’s sufficient tractability for the new model to feel amenable in the real world.

It also, when full of fuel and half-filled with road testers, did considerably better at getting to the national limit than Suzuki claimed it would, knocking a full 2.0sec from the 11.5sec quote. At 9.5sec, that makes the Vitara if not exactly quick then at the very least enthusiastic in a way that we – and surely very few of its prospective buyers – expected.

That said, with a different variant of this engine being previously shared with the Suzuki Swift Sport, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. Certainly, the four-cylinder unit delivers its power in much the same way, remaining earnest even beyond the 6000rpm at which its 118bhp peak is produced.

On the road, the 1.6-litre D16AA diesel motor impresses with strong torque off the mark and pleasing mid-range acceleration. It's quite a vocal unit, even at idle, but settles down when working and supports high overall gearing, so its note disappears at a motorway cruise.

The petrol variant only comes paired with a five-speed manual gearbox, while the diesel gets a six-speeder; which has a light, short throw. However, the five-speed manual doesn’t possess quite the positive shift action that we’d like or the refinement that would prevent you from hearing every element of the process. 

Road and wind noise are not that well contained, but the Vitara is no worse in this respect than anything else in this class.

RIDE & HANDLING
The Suzuki Vitara judges the compromise between handling and comfort well
Vitara's low kerb weight enables brisk progress and competent dynamics

We’ve often found cause to praise the standard of Suzuki’s chassis tuning and, happily, the Vitara offers us another chance to do so.

Much like the Suzuki SX4 S-Cross, mostly everything the car does exudes a basic level of mechanical competence that puts many of its heavier, more ‘sophisticated’ rivals to shame. Certainly, owners of anything previously badged ‘Vitara’ are in for a pleasant surprise. The dynamic sloppiness of a ladder-frame chassis is a world away from this latest model’s eagerness to please.

The Vitara's resistance to understeer is admirable, certainly for a crossover, and although the stability control isn't entirely switchable, its interference is not of the nannying sort

Predominantly, this is about usability. In a comparatively short amount of time, people have come to expect their crossover to behave with the same easy-going civility as a hatchback and, for the most part, that’s what the Vitara gets on with doing.

The compromise between handling and comfort in particular is well judged. Body roll is nicely regulated. What high-sided sway there is feels appropriate to whatever speed you’re doing, and you can expect whatever bumps you meet along the way to be dealt with competently.

Aiming the Vitara is not difficult either, although the steering is a minor shortcoming in terms of its assistance. Suzuki’s attempt at providing the driver with a bit of initial bite on an otherwise light rack comes across as weird, wrist-bothering stiction at low speeds. It’s a fractional annoyance but noticeable given the model’s otherwise admirable enthusiasm for turning in.

At a swift cruise, threading corners together is conspicuously easy – a proficiency afforded by the discernibly low kerb weight and surprising surfeit of grip – and certainly not disagreeable, either.

We probably did more laps of Millbrook proving ground’s hill route than were strictly necessary, which is unusual for us with a cheap small crossover and a commendation that, in our book, places the Vitara immediately among the better prospects in its segment.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS
The Suzuki Vitara 1.6 SZ5

Suzuki’s philosophy here speaks of the measure and experience of an increasingly successful, maturing market power.

Rather than piling ’em high and selling ’em cheap, the firm has priced the Vitara at a broadly comparable but competitive mark next to the biggest-selling cars in the class. Where it beats those rivals is on metal for the money – the car is slightly larger and more capable than the accepted norm – and on equipment.

Where the Vitara beats its rivals is on metal for the money - the car is slightly larger and more capable than the accepted norm - and on equipment

The plain, hard and shiny standard of finish of much of the cabin may disappoint, but some will overlook that on a car as well equipped as this.

Our sources have yet to pronounce on the car’s residual values. They’re unlikely to be great, but with Suzuki’s own personal finance deals on the Vitara starting from £175 a month (again, comparable with its rivals) they can hardly be particularly poor.

On real-world economy, our True MPG economy testers recorded an average 49.4mpg for the car, compared with a claimed combined performance of 53.3mpg. Here, just as elsewhere, the Vitara’s modest kerb weight plays a part in this creditable result.

 

VERDICT
The 3.5 star Suzuki Vitara
The Vitara is solidly built in Suzuki's image - and that's fine with us

We called the Vitara ‘a decent bet’ when we drove it in prototype form last year and, at the far side of the full road test treatment, our endorsement of the production version is basically unchanged.

Essentially, that’s because what you see tends to be what you get with Suzuki. That’s the way its customers probably like it, and the way we do, too.

For a robust crossover, the Vitara drives well. With that safely in the bank, we're inclined to look on its shortcomings kindly

Thus, the things we enjoy are the elements the engineers have taken time to get right. For a robust crossover, the Vitara drives well. With that safely in the bank, we’re inclined to look on its shortcomings kindly. Others, with their own clear idea of what a soft-roader should be, will not. That’s fine. 

How would we like to see the Vitara improved? Firstly, find the budget for a few carefully chosen soft-touch cabin plastics. Also, if the panoramic roof can't be made to leave sufficient head room for taller people, lose it. Finally, tweak the steering - there's a half star in it.

Suzuki will have modest targets for the UK and we expect them to be met – and for those customers to be as contented as we were welcoming a seasoned nameplate back to the fold.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Suzuki Vitara First drives