Since joining the ranks of the ‘unidexter’, Iain Robertson has been polishing up his skills as a new car reviewer, full in the knowledge that his days of manual gearboxes are over, although with a future packed with BEVs and Hybrids, finding a manual will be impossible anyway.
Over the past few years I have written about various Suzuki models and even owned several of them. As an engineering company, Suzuki verges on being unparalleled. Its designs are often less than obvious but no less attractive for all that. However, it is by seeking constantly the ideal engineering means to an end that this relatively small player (by comparison with its notional partner, Toyota), continues to innovate and intrigue.
Having highlighted the issues that confront the personal loss of my left leg (through diabetes) and thus an inability to operate a manual clutch pedal, the latest version of the Suzuki Vitara SUV is not just of selfish interest but also serves to present an excellent solution to the weight penalties and complexity of both twin-clutch automated and fully-automatic transmissions. All carmakers were heading down a weight slashing and, thus, greater frugality route until forced to contemplate their enforced future electric options. While weight issues remain extant and ALL EVs and BEVs suffer from levels of formerly untold bulkiness, Suzuki’s approach is refreshingly different and keeps the kerbweight of the 4×4 (optional; front-wheel-drive is standard) Vitara hybrid at around 1.3 tonnes, which is only fractionally greater than its non-hybrid alternatives.
Such attention to superficial detail pays off with less frequent visits to the petrol pumps, which will come as a significant relief to those drivers facing £100+ fill-ups these days. Its clever transmission is a single clutch device managed electronically for smoother up and down shifts in ‘auto’ mode, although operating the manual paddles located on the cross-spokes of the steering wheel enables equally smooth driver controlled gearshifts. In fact, it is only the lack of a clutch pedal that makes any discernible difference to the aware driver, as the car’s responses feel as direct and immediate as those of any manual gearbox car. Of course, there is a knack to driving the system more intuitively, one that I have long employed regardless of automatic class of transmission, and it is to ‘imagine’ the gearbox making each appropriate gearchange, as though I were dipping an imaginary foot pedal. I know that it works, because even VW’s sometimes notorious DSG gearbox (a twin-clutch device) was totally reliable during my ownership periods.
While I shall miss the punchy and characterful 1.0-litre turbo-petrol ‘triple’ that powered my last Vitara, the replacement unit is bang up to date, gains 400cc, one piston and 5bhp (to 115bhp), but loses the turbocharger. It is a very smooth 16v operator but still manages the 0-60mph sprint in a modest 12.4s, running out of puff at around 111mph…believe me, you do not need much more. However, it is hooked up to a 140v lithium-ion main battery pack, a 12v lithium-ion battery and a matching 12v lead acid battery to keep lower voltage items (lights, instruments and heating/ventilation) operating during engine ‘stall’ situations. The larger pack obviates the loss of turbocharger by providing noticeable bottom-end urge, when applying full throttle in standard mode. Yet, dialling-in ECO mode reduces reliance on the petrol engine, thereby increasing fuel economy, which can be as significant as 60mpg. Intelligent electronics ensure that the self-charging hybrid technology works at its most efficient level all of the time. However, it is a Suzuki development, not a technology share with Toyota.
Of course, in these days of runaway vehicle overheads, keeping an eye on costs is vital and a 10g fuel tank offering a range of up to 600mls, with electric support, is a good start. However, once the first year’s road tax is paid (£210), the annual fee subsequently is a more acceptable £145. It helps that Suzuki provides an indefatigable reliability record and that most servicing costs will amount to little more than fluid level and tread depth checks, at only the scheduled 12,500ml, or annual maintenance periods. The insurance is rated at a lowly Group 16E for even the most expensive Vitara AllGrip model (£29,299) but you can save a few quid by opting for the SZ5 (£27,499) in two-wheel drive mode, or in SZ-T trim (£25,499).
Right-sizing is an aspect of psychology that fascinates me and the Suzuki Vitara is perfect for somebody of my 6ft 6in height. As an amputee, the height of its driver’s seat and the main point of entry to the car is ideal and once ensconced in the very supportive, fabric-clad chair, all controls and the vital view outwards are at optimised levels. The Vitara owner benefits from superb seat adjustment, good head, shoulder, hip and leg space and non-obstructive head restraints. There is space behind the driver’s seat for a wheelchair, or a pair of crutches, while the split-floor boot is more than roomy enough for a folded wheelchair, or even a powered alternative, should passenger space be needed. The conventional rear hatchback opens to reveal a practical load area that can be extended in the usual seat-folding ways.
Finally, in terms of chassis dynamics, once again, Suzuki has it sussed. Based on largely the same platform as the Swift hatchback, only minor enhancements have been made to damper and spring settings and associated hardware, all with the sole aim of improving stability, responses at the helm for the engaged driver and ensuring that the ride quality is uncompromisingly excellent. The resultant sporting balance is impeccable. The dashboard is laid out in familiar Suzuki style, with a new mobile-friendly touch and sweep screen for sat-nav and apps.
Conclusion: Suzuki’s typical round of upgrades introduces LED headlamps and mild styling revisions to front and rear bumpers on a model that retains its popularity among the cognoscenti, because they already know and understand the broader product benefits.