From £25,4497
The Suzuki Vitara 1.4 S uses a new turbocharged petrol engine that gives it punchy performance, but it has a pretty punchy price, too

What is it?

If you want a small SUV - and judging by the sales of Nissan Qashqais and Skoda Yetis, many of you do - there’s a cornucopia of models to choose from, but it was the Suzuki Vitara that was at the vanguard of this movement.

Indeed, you need to head back to 1988, the year that Edwina Curry scrambled the UK’s poultry industry with her salmonella scare, to discover the genesis of this cheeky little off-roader.

Read our full review on the Suzuki Vitara

It was good value then, and unlike other examples of the breed that have since gone upmarket, the Vitara has always remained true to its budget roots; this current generation starts from just £13,999. However, what we have here is the new ‘sporty’ S version, with an equally new 1.4-litre Boosterjet engine, which does look a little pricey at £20,899.

That said, you get four-wheel drive with diff-locks and a bundle of kit for your money, including seven airbags, climate control, privacy glass, adaptive cruise and LED headlights. The S also gets a set of fancy black alloys, satin door mirrors and a rear spoiler on the outside; inside it comes with sat-nav, Bluetooth, suede seats, red accents on the air vents and aluminium pedals.

The new engine is a nice bit of kit. Compact and lightweight, it integrates the turbo and exhaust manifold into the cylinder head to optimise gas flow. To reduce lag it uses a bypass valve designed to stop the turbo stalling if you momentarily back off the throttle, and in light driving the wastegate is opened to help engine breathing and boost efficiency.

What's it like?

Sometimes, reading about a new engine design creates huge expectations, only for them to be dashed after just a few meters of driving. Not so with the Boosterjet: it’s a really sweet little thing.

There’s still a momentary hesitation while the small turbo whizzes into action, but when it does, cramming the combustion chambers with fuel and air at 1.1bar, it feels jolly perky, revving keenly from 1500rpm and never letting up until it trips the limiter. It’s refined as well, so you feel obliged to chase the red line and enjoy yourself.

When it’s time to change gear the feelsome clutch action helps you to be smooth and the gear change is surprisingly positive, albeit with some notchiness, particularly from second to third gear. 

Sadly, the steering isn’t quite so appealing. It’s quick enough to make the Vitara feel pointy and alive, but the weighting is decidedly contrived. With just a couple of degrees of lock on, there’s no self-centring at all, so you find yourself carving a radius you didn’t actually want; add on more turns and it tries to make up for its initial tardiness by adding too much counter-torque.

In line with its sportier bent, the S version gets stiffer springs and dampers, so it's noticeably jigglier over patchy surfaces than other versions we've tried. However, it calms down at speed and it’s pretty good at dealing with major intrusions without rattling your teeth.

It certainly feels firmer than some of its rivals, such as the Citroën C4 Cactus, which works well for the handling. Where the Cactus will wallow about in corners, the Vitara stays pretty impervious to the effects of lateral g. Along with decent damping that gives good control over undulating roads, you feel inspired to push on with some degree of enthusiasm, and the Suzuki responds by holding itself together admirably.

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Being four-wheel drive, it grips well, too. Immediately after gunning the throttle, there’s some corruption to the steering as the front tyres scrabble for purchase, but in a moment the rears are allowed to take some of the strain and it hooks up and goes.

When you hit the motorways, there’s some road roar if the surface is particularly coarse, but wind noise is pretty well suppressed, making the Vitara a relatively good little cruiser when it needs to be.

At first glance the cabin looks a bit cheap – and with hard plastics everywhere, that's a reasonable conclusion to draw – but in reality everything seems well screwed together, while the switches and stalks feel robust.

Ergonomically everything important is in the right place, and even the infotainment system works fairly well. The 7.0in touchscreen operates snappily, and while some of the menus take a bit of fathoming, you soon learn its quirks.

The front seats are extremely comfortable, despite lacking adjustable lumbar support, and there’s plenty of space up front, even for someone as lanky as me. In the rear, it’s also roomy enough for a couple of beefy lads, although stick a third in the middle seat and things get a bit cramped.

And contrary to the schoolboy me, who, according to numerous teachers, was neither big nor clever, the Vitara’s boot is. A wide opening with no load lip, a useful false floor and a wonderfully angular shape that’ll cope with a Christmas food shop for you and your extended clan are just some its highlights.

Should I buy one?

I’d buy a Suzuki Vitara, and I’d like one with this 1.4 Boosterjet engine as well. The problem is that Suzuki will only sell it in this S trim, and I'm not convinced about paying over £20k for it, despite the lavish equipment levels.

Hopefully, a little way down the line Suzuki will introduce it to the rest of the line-up. That way you’ll get the best engine in the range combined with the value discussed earlier that makes the Vitara so appealing.

However, if you are searching for a fully loaded small SUV, and one that’ll actually make it off road, you could do worse than grab yourself a 1980s icon that feels bang up to date in 2015.

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Suzuki Vitara 1.4 S

Location London; Price £ 20,899; Engine 4 cyls, 1373cc, turbo, petrol; Power 138bhp at 5500rpm; Torque 162lb ft at 1500-4000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1210kg; Top speed 124mph; 0-62mph 10.2sec; Economy 52.3mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 127g/km, 20%

John Howell

John Howell
Title: Senior reviewer

John is a freelance automotive journalist with more than a decade of experience in the game. He’s written for most of the big car mags, not least as a road tester for Autocar and as deputy reviews editor for our sister brand, What Car?. He was also the features editor at PistonHeads and headed its YouTube channel.

Cars, driving and machines are in his blood. When he was barely a teenager he was creating race-bale racetracks on his family’s farm – to thrash an old Humber Sceptre around. It broke regularly, of course, which meant he got a taste (and love) for repairing cars. That’s why he eschewed university, choosing instead to do an apprenticeship with a Jaguar dealer. That’s where he built up his technical understanding.  

After that he moved into high-end car sales, selling Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris and Maseratis through the franchised network. But it was a love of writing and appraising cars that, eventually, led him to use his industry experience to prise open the door of motoring journalism. He loves cars that exceed their brief in some way. So he finds as much pleasure in testing a great, but humble, hatchback as he does sampling the latest Ferrari on track. Honest.

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Add a comment…
scottishrichard 6 March 2016

Market share?

But do they sell enough? We need Autocar to give us the sales well below the top ten..Here in the US, Suzuki had to quit the market last year- simply not different enough to make enough sales. Toyota has had to do the same with Scion this year.Fench car makers have given up trying long ago and FIAT/Chrysler is finding it very difficult to shift the 500 range.

You could stick the Jeep name on a fridge and it would sell by the shed load. And they do.

Cavalier 11 December 2015

I bought one

Well actually my wife did, a couple of months ago - a white 1.6 petrol in SZ-T trim - and we're really pleased with it. She had a BMW 5-series Touring before, so whilst the Vitara is in many ways a different proposition I have to say it's really good to drive, the ride height's nice, it's well equipped and overall just very likeable. It's true there's a lot of hard plastic going on inside compared with the stitched leather etc previously, but it's durable and all the key controls are well crafted and designed. The infotainment eclipses the 5-series, honestly, and the way it reads out text messages and so on is useful. The boot's a good shape too, as the review points out, although this is a pretty compact car. It will start to feel more spacious as the children get a bit older and car seats get smaller accordingly, but they love the view out. I've a larger family car on the way anyway so in a sense the Vitara was not much of a gamble in this respect, but in most ways it would be / will be pretty adequate for most family purposes and we're very pleased we took the plunge.
Will86 11 December 2015

Wonder how much it would cost

Wonder how much it would cost without 4WD and with a few less toys? Given the current base model starts at £14k, if it was £15k with this engine, Suzuki could be onto a real winner here.