To avoid SUV weariness, Suzuki produces the most user-friendly, stylistically different but recognisable rival to the current crop of compact activity vehicles, writes Iain Robertson, while retaining affordability, quality and on-road competence.

Much rationalised and improved dynamically, the latest version of Suzuki’s UK best-selling Vitara model supplements its ‘must-have’ competence with a fresh engine line-up and vastly improved comfort levels. Yet, it is a car that seems to defy its intended market purpose, as an ‘SUV’, or even a ‘crossover’ vehicle. The time has come to cease referring to cars by their intended market definitions. In my book, certainly one refined by Suzuki, for all the right reasons, the latest Vitara model is the perfect family car. It accommodates the nuclear family (two adults plus 2.3 children) in spacious, easy-access comfort, with levels of driveability and dependability that are all but unparalleled at the price (more on which momentarily).

The adulation I level at Vitara arises from a series of fairly recent test exercises, during which I have punted to and from Europe, tackled rally stages and driven several thousand miles in various examples, none of which has delivered less than impeccable performance across a panoply of road surfaces and classifications. The Vitara is one of the most engagingly driveable family cars presently on sale.

However, the outgoing versions could have benefitted from a number of minor improvements, which the latest versions of Vitara deliver to perfection. It is said that we (motoring journalists) possess an ‘unhealthy’ predilection for ‘soft-touch’ surfaces within motorcars. While that might be the view of some carmakers, the additional frisson of sound-deadened higher quality, greater tactility and a more pleasant finish cannot be overstated adequately. Suzuki has gone to the extra expense (admittedly, in extended production terms, factoring in a likely extra cost of around £5 per unit) of equipping its latest Vitara with a compliant new dashboard moulding.

The former, lethargic 1.6-litre petrol engine has gone the way of the previous turbo-diesel unit, to be replaced in Vitara by the 1.0-litre turbo-triple, while the 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine is standardised across the line-up. Both award-winning petrol engines feature BoosterJet turbocharged technology and, as two of the finest power units presently fitted to any car, they also herald a new dawn for Vitara. Personally, I rate both engines very highly and the figures bear out my faith in them.

With the tried and trusted four-pot numbers in brackets, the manual transmission models (5-speed for 1.0; 6-speed for 1.4-litre) present strongly: 0-60mph in 11.2s (9.5s), maximum speed of 111mph (124mph), maximum power of 109bhp (138bhp), torque at 125lbs ft (162lbs ft), CO2 rating of 121g/km (131g/km), Official Combined fuel return of 53.2mpg (48.7mpg). The optional 6-speed automatic transmissions and AllGrip (4WD) drivetrains introduce minor variations to either engine. However, in both cases, whether accompanied by the muted off-beat rumble of the three-cylinder unit, or the turbine-smooth four-cylinder, refinement levels are outstanding.

If anything, the biggest surprise to me is the remarkable urge provided by the diminutive 1.0-litre engine. While the kerbweight of the Vitara is just over 1.16-tonnes, there is no noticeable lack of vitality shown by the smaller engine and, while I adore the wide spread of grunt provided by the 1.4-litre unit, the lower price alternative is not disadvantaged in any way and even former diesel fans will be delighted with its lower operational costs. In both cases, the Vitara can tow a 1.2-tonne caravan/trailer with consummate ease.

Of course, as a family car, the Vitara has always benefitted from excellent space utilisation within the cabin. The boot, accessed via a strut-assisted hatchback, can carry a beneficial 379-litres of contents; fold forwards the 60:40 split-folding rear seats and a decent 710-litres of space is created. Suzuki has finally deigned to provide a much-desired central armrest between the front seats, which also supplements the well-shaped and accommodating door pockets. Boasting an extensive range of adjustment, the driver’s seat and the telescoping and tilting steering column create a comfortable, commanding and safe driving position.

Fronted by lightly altered but still legible instrument faces, the main binnacle also features a full-colour information screen that can be tailored to most driver requirements by a button on its lower right-hand edge. In the dashboard’s upper structure is a pair of circular air-vents and an analogue clock, below which sits the touch-screen (in either SZ-T, or SZ5 guises; the entry-level SZ4 obtains a CD-tuner system), which provides readily connectable access to mobilephones and iPods, as well as in-built sat-nav and digital radio stations. Yet, it is amazing how all versions boast an exceptional amount of standard equipment.

Unsurprisingly, with the added benefit of Blind-Spot monitoring (fresh to Suzuki), which provides a door mirror signal and subsequent audible warning, the now customary plethora of driver safety and semi-autonomous aids is available across the range, with the AllGrip and SZ5 versions benefiting from rear cross-traffic alerts, vehicle sway warnings, dual-sensor brake support, lane departure warning and prevention and hill descent control. This makes Vitara the most technologically advanced Suzuki yet produced.

The styling changes are all minor but centre on revised LED lamp signatures both up front and at the rear of the car. The revised front grille now features chrome-finished bars, while the slightly different front bumper treatment also includes extra chrome-finished trim.

In dynamic terms, the Vitara is all that 99.9% of drivers would ever need. Yes, it can tackle an off-road ground with great ease but it scores majorly on-road, with stunning accuracy, aided by well-weighted power steering, progressive all-around disc brakes and a ride quality that is sublime. The handling balance is virtually roll and dive-free, the car’s competent chassis being capable of absorbing the worst of road surface imperfections and not transferring their effects to the cabin. Vitara’s cross-country capabilities make it as rapid as a Mazda MX5 from point-to-point.

Finally, in terms of build quality, this is the finest Suzuki ever. There are neither creaks, nor groans emanating from any area, comfort levels fore and aft are at a high standard, while all doors close with a reassuring thunk and, despite Vitara’s relatively low weight, it feels as sturdy as the Forth Bridge. Supported by unerring reliability, Suzuki’s buying proposition is first-class. With prices starting from a lowly £16,999 (2WD 1.0-litre), Suzuki has great value on its side. Few cars can provide its driver-centred, multi-surface excellence with equal aplomb.

Conclusion:    Keen pricing and fine engineering are core tenets for making Suzuki a reasoned choice of motor vehicle. Factor in a raft of technology to the Vitara’s all-round competence and it presents inescapable and irrefutable value for money that cannot be ignored.