IAIN ROBERTSON

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Apart from eco-cars, the other sector of the motor industry capable of demonstrating that it has a finger on the pulse of personal mobility, suggests Iain Robertson, is that of the Sport Utility Vehicle.

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Social mobility is one of the most significant developments of the past 115 years. While the Good Queen Victoria might not have understood completely the implications of a class structure, even she ventured into the realms of ‘a little bit of rough’, in her reported dalliance with the horse and booze-bothering Mr Brown.

 

The days of smog-engorged cities that epitomised the Industrial Revolution, with their tall brick chimneys spouting life-limiting fumes and casting particulates into the lungs of countless occupants of tenements and back-to-back dwellings are long over. Heavy industry, in our country, at least, was replaced gradually by technology and commerce. While we can no longer lay claims to an empire, a Commonwealth does exist and Victoria’s great great grand-daughter still rules over it in her charming and both revenue and status-raising ways.

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In personal transport terms, we have witnessed many changes since those embryonic Victorian times, when a chap bearing a red flag was required to stride judiciously ahead of the motorised cart, driven by only the most privileged (and wealthy) in society. The advent of the company car, one funded by a commercial organisation to ensure that its products and, latterly, its services were promoted to all and sundry, took a firmer market hold in the early-1960s, epitomised by the inimitable Ford Cortina, a landmark car in its own right.

 

Away from the cities and the smoke and the noise was the glory of our green and pleasant. Largely agricultural, although the breeding and development of livestocks were hand-in-hand activities, the working tractor was morphing into the go-anywhere mode of rudimentary family transport. The Austin Gypsy and the post-war Jeep were proving a need for transport of substance and capability, something welcomed by hill and moor members of the farming communities across the countryside. Land Rover grew and developed on the back of such a growing demand.

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In post-WW2 Japan, a nation cowed by the victorious Americans but unable to feed its own people, as a result of its foul repute and misdeeds during the conflict, a peaceful desire to catch up with the developing world was prescient. Its only viable solution lay in training previously unskilled workers and new students in the art of manufacturing. It was permitted by a watchful West and exports would soon provide valuable income, aided by low wages and outstandingly strong family values.

 

It took the end of UK import restrictions in 1966 before Japanese cars could be sold here in any numbers and, while Daihatsu was the first to make the trip with its conveniently Italianesque Campagnolo compact 4-door, the brand was also the progenitor of a 4×4 market sector that would grow like Topsy and provide a useful sales ground for newer brands like Suzuki, which responded with its 1.0-litre SJ410. The impact that Suzuki enjoyed was immense. Drilling into the agricultural mindset was far easier than with the urban and suburban alternatives.

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It was Land Rover that truly broke the mould for a population that found itself with extra time on its hands. The weekend was no longer part of the employment expectation and time-and-a-half and double-time earnings would soon fund not only a property hungry populus but also ensure that a trip to the countryside might relieve the pressures of city life. Ironically, as subsequent owners of city-based Range Rovers would attest to, the perception of being as flexible and mobile as possible was being made available to all and sundry. Donning the Barbours, both jackets and boots, for the weekend country blast was also making a fashion statement that underscored increased prosperity and enhanced mobility, of which the 4×4, no longer an agriculturally-biased machine, in various guises, was an important accoutrement, helped in no small way by the thoroughly civilised Suzuki SJs and Vitaras.

 

However, another aspect added to the value and desirability of the typical 4×4. The ‘hot hatchback’ scene of the mid-1980s was shooting its bolt. Increasing numbers of them were being used by the lightweight criminal fraternity as getaway machines; those that were not, were crashed by misguided enthusiasts. The result, recognised by Lloyds, was fast escalating insurance premiums that would soon obviate the lower costs involved in hot-hatchery investment, even over the more traditional and costlier sports car. The 4×4 arena, known as SUV in North America, or as ‘Sport-Ute’ in the Antipodes, welcomed a maturing class of consumer with open arms. The subsequent growth in the sector was astronomical.

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SUVs were already exceedingly popular in the leisure sectors of both Australia and North America. While the pursuit of the ‘Great Outdoors’ in the UK is perhaps not as readily available, or accessible, even suburbia has its off-road sites and quarries. Yet, the greatest uptake rate came from the ‘wannabes’ and the ‘perceived-to-wannabes’, all of whom would swear to liking the concept, being prepared to accept the higher service bills and to proving the principles of better sightlines and ride height safety (even if they truly did not believe them).

 

Along with the more road-biased tyres and increasingly luxurious cabins came a host of performance options and upgrades. The 4×4/SUV had fast become a rival to the sports hatch and larger variants also incorporated extra seating, to rival the MPV sector offerings. The SUV had become all things to most men and judging by the leery angles on fast bends, the adoption of the motorway fast lane and some scary posted top speeds, they were capable of tackling the sports car scene head-on too.

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All the while, Suzuki was improving its models to ensure that they slotted into the affordable end of a growing market. Just whittling through the extensive equipment list of the latest Vitara model, it is abundantly clear that its customers would not be left out of the reckoning, with selectable 4WD (although 2WD is a baseline offering), antilock brakes, brake assist, hill-hold/descent control, a full complement of airbags (including knee-bag protection for the driver), tyre pressure monitoring, radar brake support (it works, where the driver might not), ‘stop:start’ technology, rear parking camera, adaptive cruise control, sat-nav and, on the test car, a 6-speed fully-automatic (with manual over-ride) transmission, all for the princely sum of around £22,679, half the price of an equivalent Evoque.

 

Where Suzuki scores is in its insouciant classlessness. It achieves everything that it promises, along with much more besides, without levying too hefty a surcharge on living with an example. It serves as the gad-about, go-virtually anywhere machine that is as contented pottering about town, as it is tackling a testing green lane (not that there are many of them left accessible these days). Its relatively small capacity (1.4-litre turbo-petrol) engine develops enough punch to leave most lukewarm hatches standing at the traffic-lights, while, not venturing into the realms of petro-holism, returning up to 40mpg in regular daily use. Cheap to insure and requiring only £110 annual VED, it does live up to the idyll.

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Finally, it is a landmark machine due to its status in the SUV sector. It presents the affordable face of a fully-equipped, 4×4 SUV. It performs charmingly and leaves plenty in reserve for added security and safety. Yet, most importantly, it will not rob you blind on the running costs front and it retains a decent second-hand value, unlike 99% of its high-end rivals, with their suicide-inducing residuals.

 

Conclusion:   Suzuki is the effervescent game-changer. It is as honest as the day is long. It promises a lot and delivers to immensely satisfying levels. The Vitara is as uncompromised as any SUV could ever hope to be. Dependable and durable, it will serve faithfully, when no end of Landies and Bimmers are sitting immobilised forlornly at the roadside. It is a landmark machine in a fast-moving sector of the UK car business and it has an exciting future.

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About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).