Suzuki is no stranger to the world of off-roading, having the utilitarian Jimny, their first 4WD model as the bona fide option for trail-hungry enthusiasts from as early as 1970. Towards the end of the millennium however, scores of consumers were beginning to show interest in more usable utility vehicles but without the bare-bones build quality of the traditional off-roaders at the time. Enter the docile first generation Vitara shape in 1988, which was poised to bridge that gap. It offered an elevated seating position, improved creature comforts, all wheel-drive and off road capability all packaged into compact and configurable dimensions. Most importantly, the Vitara was affordable and accessible to the masses. This makes it arguably one of the first SUV forerunners, embodying the definition of the segment before it ever existed. So, what has changed in over 30 years then?
The car we had on test – a facelifted fourth generation 1.4 Turbo GLX AT is not a brand new release. Its underpinnings date back to 2015 but the mid cycle refresh, which debuted in 2019 has updated the iconic nameplate with updated technology and features.
First thing is first, the Vitara has gravitated away from its roots (somewhat) and ditched the lone 4WD layout that made this model a success story in the late 1980’s. Its capabilities have now been more aligned with the typical city orientated SUV with the transversally laid out motor powering the front wheels while offering an accessible 185mm of ground clearance. Out of the seven derivatives offered, the only model with Allgrip (4WD) is the naturally aspirated 1.6 GLX mated to a 5 speed manual transmission.
The K14C Boosterjet in-line 4 turbocharged motor found in our test car is the one to have though, 103kW and 220Nm is plenty to haul the 1160kg body around. It is even enough to self induce a dash of torque steer and enable the assistance of traction control during acceleration in certain scenarios. It is the same plucky motor that makes the Swift Sport so nimble, in case you didn’t know. Such spirited performance from the modest looking model is unexpected. So you can imagine the surprising grin of continuously putting the SUV through its paces and the drivers display yielding a handsome reward of 13.2 km/l (which equates to 7.4l/100km in normal units of measurement). Sedate driving could achieve as low as the claimed 5.8l/100km but the fun factor seems to inhibit getting anywhere near this number!
This motor can be coupled to either a 6 speed manual transmission or the new automatic with the same number of cogs. Despite the solitary driving mode, the shifting seemed light and comfortable while more vivacious use of the throttle in overtaking situations warranted responsive and intuitive up and down shifts. The tactile paddles behind the steering wheel were suitably sized and the gearbox responded timeously to manual interaction too. Where the experience fell short was an apparent engine shudder when coming to a stop, alike to that of stalling. Overall though, the Turbo GLX in automatic guise provided a very comfortable driving experience which could also instill some hooliganism with the surprising torque delivery – reaffirming its purpose as a Sport Utility Vehicle. The Vitara is also well equipped when it comes to the safety department, with active and passive features like ABS, EBD, BAS, ESP and 7 airbags.
The interior, while aesthetically outdated and basically arranged, is well put together and is constructed with high build quality – surpassing that of certain European rivals. The vehicle on test had almost 16 000km on the clock and there were little to no rattles in the cabin on smooth urban roads. Although an abundance of plastic textures dominated the front fascia, there were equally as many pleasant soft touch points too, boding well for mild comforts. Where I found vexation was the driver’s seating position. Designed with the Japanese domestic market in mind, the narrow bolsters on the base of the seat found my slender behind constantly wriggling to try and get comfortable – to limited avail.
Keeping true to its precursor’s legacy, the Vitara retains an elevated, upright seating position which enables abundant visibility in all directions, albeit with a diminutive rear view mirror. The rest of the interior is otherwise filled with some cool and useful tech, chief being the 7” touch display which has USB, SD card and Bluetooth functionality, standard smartphone integration also applies. An analog rev counter and speedometer dominate the dials behind the steering wheel while the driver display includes a G-Force meter and power distribution graphs – Sport Utility Vehicle remember?
Although equipped with a small screen, the clarity on the reverse camera made visibility when backing into parking bays much easier – especially in low light environments – impressive. Our vehicle on test was also equipped with a panoramic sunroof, which made for a warm sunny welcome on cooler autumn days but limited rear headroom for adults. The configurable boot can hold up to 375l too, which is just above average in comparison to its competitors in the subcompact crossover segment.
The range includes several derivatives including our Turbo GLX 6AT, which is pricey at the top of the spectrum coming in at R426 900. There is some good news though, the naturally aspirated 1.6 GL 5MT 2WD can be had for as little as R310 900 – but don’t expect as many amenities or as much driving fun as the Turbo GLX can offer. While evolution over a 30 year period can create a product completely indistinguishable from its precursor, there are aspects of this subcompact crossover SUV that still allude to its rich heritage. While the nameplate has adapted to keep up with the times, it retains some of its pedigree sporty, adventurous flavour to suit the new era of consumers.