Gareth Butterfield takes Suzuki’s latest Vitara for a spin
IF you’ve read enough of my reviews, you’ll know that I’ve got a bit of a gripe about small SUVs. I find them pointless.
The thing is, if you want a hatchback, buy a hatchback. If you need an off-roader, (and, let’s face it, you probably don’t) buy an off-roader. Blending the two is a bit like competing in the Tour-de-France on a BMX. Sure, it works in principle, but the end result is inefficient and boring.
Cars like the Nissan Qashqai, BMW X1, Renault Kadjar and… I could go on forever, as you know, turn a perfectly good family car into a heavy, thirsty and ugly “soft-roader” that will probably never encounter so much as a mown field in its life.
However, there is one small SUV I’ve always seen as acceptable because it’s never been trying to pretend to be anything but a small, capable off-roader with surprising levels of comfort and practicality In actual fact, it’s the car that started it all; the Suzuki Vitara. And now there’s a new version.
Suzuki is a clever, forward-thinking company which realises it can’t get away with riveting some velour seats into a utilitarian box any more so its new Vitara, on the face of it, is pretty much like every other small SUV on the market.
So, in theory, I should hate it. But I don’t. You see, the Vitara still has some integrity. I can remember when it was just about the only choice in this sector, in the days before this sector became fashionable, and I admired it for carving out a new niche.
I also don’t hate it because it’s actually a really good car in its own right. It’s made huge steps away from its function-over-form roots and it feels and looks very modern. It’d cut a dash in a car park filled with other small SUVs and it would also run rings around them off road – but more on that later.
What some small SUVs lack these days is a genuine sense of “usefulness”. It’s become buried under an acre of gadgets, LEDs and soft leather.
Don’t get me wrong, the Vitara isn’t short on any of the latest accoutrements, yet it still feels like it could scale a sand dune.
And that’s not something you’d expect when you see it from the outside. It’s a smart, handsome beast with a modern nose that reminds me a bit of the Range Rover Evoque and a neatly-proportioned rump which blends in well with its rugged rubber bumpers.
Inside, the news is less good. Some of the plastics feel a little too cheap, the central infotainment system is awful and looks after-market and the seats could be more comfortable.
That said, there’s loads of room, good visibility and I love the Maserati-esque central clock. It’s as if Suzuki has tried to bring the Vitara into the modern world with a few choice trinkets, but stopped short of making it into another clone. It’s an honest overall package, but for a few bits of “bling”. A bit like a tweed-clad farmer using gold cuff-links to fasten the sleeves on his check-shirt.
The thing is though, regardless of his shiny accessories, Mr Farmer could still haul a sheep out of a ditch and shear its fleece in one swift manoeuvre, and the Vitara’s capabilities tow a similar line.
Sure, there’s a two-wheel-drive version if you really must buy one just for show, but the proper, AllGrip version, comes with four-wheel-drive and a host of off-roading gadgets. And, because it’s a Suzuki, you just know this thing would run rings around its competitors when the going gets tough.
The engine choices are good, too. There’s a 1.6-litre diesel but the petrols are cheaper to buy, quieter and surprisingly sporty. The 1.4-litre would be my pick, thanks to its turbocharger, which improves fuel economy and performance compared to the 1.6-litre.
Fuel economy on all engines is good, rather than excellent, and while the emissions fail to dip under the 100g/km barrier, the most efficient 1.6 DDiS diesel returns CO2 emissions of 106g/km – and that’s respectable for a car of this type.
The base SZ4 model comes in at a thoroughly reasonable £14,999 and that affords you a few decent luxuries, such as keyless entry, air-con and sat nav.
Hop up to the top-spec model and you’d get plenty of change for £20,000, even with goodies such as DAB radio, a panoramic roof and a collision warning system.
On the road, the Vitara feels more entertaining than you’d expect. There’s no un-nerving “bounce” we saw in its predecessors and, although it leans a little into the corners, there’s lots of grip and its light weight, sharp steering and keen throttle response makes for a fun drive.
Whether I like it or not, if you’re in the market for a small SUV, you’re spoilt for choice. But while most offer very little for quite a lot, here’s a car that actually offers quite a lot for very little.
Its cheap interior might put off Renault Kadjar buyers, but those who want an SUV for honest reasons will love the Vitara.
It’s the original and, in my book, it’s still the best.