MEET THE NEWEST MEMBER OF THE SUZUKI SUV FAMILY, THE 2016 VITARA - A HIGH RIDING FIVE-DOOR WAGON, MUCH LIKE THE VITARA WE KNOW.
And Suzuki’s experience with small SUVs goes way back - after all, the Japanese company has been building them for longer than most.
The new Vitara overlaps in price with the Suzuki S-Cross but sports a stronger off-roader aesthetic, taller seating position and slightly lower entry-price.
However there’s a trade-off in cabin quality, and our week-long stint at the wheel of the base model Vitara RT-S showed that its performance is, well, "relaxed", compared to its key rivals.
That said, it does have more than a few endearing qualities.
Vehicle Style: Small SUV
Price: $21,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 86kW/156Nm 1.6 petrol 4cyl | 5sp manual
Fuel Economy claimed: 5.8 l/100km | tested: 7.2 l/100km
What does the Vitara offer that the S-Cross doesn’t? Well, let’s talk about the similarities first: both are sourced from Hungary, both use the same 86kW/156Nm 1.6 litre engine and both are available in front- or all-wheel-drive configuration.
The difference? The Vitara looks like something you could take into the bush - even the FWD-only base model.
And that counts for a lot these days. Last year, sales of small SUVs skyrocketed by a whopping 27.4 percent, making it the fastest-growing segment in Australia.
So, while the S-Cross is officially categorised as an SUV, its crossover styling gives it more the appearance of a hatchback.
The more rugged high-riding wagon design of the Vitara is its most obvious key point of difference, and the one that will appeal most to buyers.
Quality: This is probably my least favourite aspect of the Vitara. There are swathes of shiny plastics, most noticeably on the dashtop where they reflect great quantities of light on sunny days.
The door trims are also largely shiny black, with just small fabric pads on the elbow rest. Suzuki has tried to break up the blackness with liberal use of silver-painted trim and leather-wrapped steering wheel, but the S-Cross has a nicer-looking cabin on the whole.
Comfort: The Vitara’s cloth-upholstered seats give a good view of the outside world thanks to their height, and provide plenty of support under the thigh and in the small of the back (despite a lack of lumbar adjustment).
The back seats are mounted slightly above the fronts to give rear passengers a better view ahead, and the Vitara’s relatively low beltline means kids (and other short folk) get a good view through the side glass - something not true of rivals like the Mazda CX-3 or Hyundai HR-V.
Back seat legroom isn’t bad, and even the centre seat-position gets a height-adjustable headrest. ISOFIX child seat anchorages are fitted to the outboard rear seats, while top-tether points are available on all three seating positions on the rear bench.
It’s roomy in here, with a greater sense of space than a CX-3 or Ford EcoSport and more supportive rear seats than a HR-V.
Equipment: For an entry-level model that retails for less than $22k, the Vitara RT-S is quite well-equipped.
Besides the now-expected features of power windows, mirrors, cruise control and trip computer, the Vitara RT-S comes standard with a seven-inch colour touchscreen infotainment display that features an AM/FM/CD audio system, Bluetooth connectivity, sat-nav and smartphone mirroring.
A reversing camera also pops up on the display when reverse is engaged, but you’ll need to spend more on the top-grade RT-X if you want parking sensors.
Storage: There’s no covered storage in the centre console and no cupholders for backseat passengers (just a bottle holder in each rear door), but the boot measures a handy 375 litres with the rear seats up and false floor in its lowest position.
Drop the rear seats down and you have 710 litres of cargo room, putting the Vitara about par with the average small hatch for luggage carrying capacity.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: With just 86kW of power and 156Nm of torque from a 1.6 litre naturally-aspirated petrol four, the Vitara could certainly benefit from a bigger, more potent, engine.
Its main rivals, the Honda HR-V , Mitsbuishi ASX and Mazda CX-3 each make in excess of 100kW and 170Nm (110kW/197Nm in the case of the 2.0 litre petrol ASX), and the difference in how those cars drive compared to the Vitara is stark.
In top gear, it will begin to wash off speed quickly on even a moderate incline. The instant you start to lose momentum, it’s time to drop back one - or maybe two - gears.
Add passengers or heavy cargo, and the effect is magnified. It’s a good thing the standard six-speed manual is such a joy to use, because you’ll be busy rowing through those gears to keep the engine on the boil.
Fuel economy suffers as a consequence. If you live in an area that’s somewhat hilly, don’t expect to come close to the factory claim of 5.8 l/100km. Our average after seven days of mixed highway/urban driving was 7.2 l/100km.
Refinement: The doors occasionally close with a clang if you swing them too hard and there’s not a huge amount of sound deadening, but the cabin is fairly quiet when the engine isn’t being asked to work hard.
Even if you do lean on the accelerator pedal, the Vitara’s revvy 1.6 litre is quite well balanced, and vibration isolation is good.
Ride and Handling: We love driving Suzukis, even when wishing for a little more power. There’s obviously more than a few engineers at Suzuki HQ who know how to tune a chassis.
The Vitara is evidence of this. While some compact SUVs may be marshmallow-soft (HR-V) or a bit too sharp (CX-3), the Vitara is roughly midway between them.
Taut enough to keep unwanted body movement in check, but soft enough to be settled and comfortable.
Its electrically-assisted steering is also surprisingly sharp and direct, though it has trouble with self-centering when the wheel gets within a few degrees of dead centre.
Braking: Strong braking performance from an all-disc set-up (ventilated discs at the front, solid at the rear) and a progressive and easily modulated engagement when the pedal is pressed means the Vitara stops well.
ANCAP rating: The Suzuki Vitara has yet to be tested by ANCAP
Safety features: Seven airbags (dual front, dual side, full-length curtain, and driver’s knee) front height adjustable and pretensioning seatbelts, ABS, EBD, traction control, stability control, hill descent control, and a reversing camera are standard on the Vitara RT-S
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Service costs: Under Suzuki’s capped price servicing scheme, the first five years of servicing is capped at $249 per A service, with a $295 B service due every 24 months.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
Mitsubishi ASX LS 2WD ($24,990) - Mitsubishi’s ASX is the highest-selling small SUV on the market right now, which ain’t bad for an old girl.
At six years old the ASX should be entering retirement soon, but age has not really affected how car buyers see it. Even with a base price of just under $25k it continues to fly out of showrooms, which we think is down to its bluff SUV styling, roomy and upright cabin and powerful engine. (see ASX reviews)
Mazda CX-3 Neo ($19,990) - You get less equipment, less interior room, less cargo volume… but a heap more engine with the entry-level CX-3 Neo.
109kW and 192Nm are there for the taking, and with one of the sharpest chassis’ in the segment the CX-3 is a joy to drive hard. It’s a bit spartan inside, but build quality is good and the CX-3 exudes a great deal of style.
No surprise that it’s number two in its segment (see CX-3 reviews)
Honda HR-V VTi ($24,990) - The HR-V is another popular choice in the small SUV segment, and with a flexible cabin that can morph from five-seater into quasi-van it’s appeal is easily understood.
Like the Vitara it feels larger than a lot of its rivals, but its bigger engine and standard automatic make it easier to live with on the daily grind - which helps offset its higher asking price. (see HR-V reviews)
Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The Vitara’s pricetag and spacious cabin are its biggest virtues right now. While we’re not fans of its underdone powertrain, a much gruntier 1.2 litre turbo petrol is going to join the range within a matter of months, bringing some much needed torque to the party.
The cabin could use some sprucing up with higher quality plastics, but consider the level of space and equipment offered and that’s easily forgiven. When it comes to value for money, the Vitara offers plenty.
We think it rides well, handles well and carries four people and a good amount of cargo with ease.
However, unless you are not bothered by a more leisurely drive (or you simply don’t care about keeping up with the Joneses - literally), we’d perhaps recommend waiting for the more powerful turbo to arrive.