Driven: Suzuki Vitara

First, a disclaimer: I think that Suzuki is the most under-rated car brand in the UK. Whether you’re looking at something in the same class as the Jimny, Swift Sport, or even the tiny Ignis, a test-drive of the Japanese firm’s category representative should be on your short-list. Suzuki’s cars are almost invariably fine-handling, ultra-reliable, and in possession of a joie de vivre that makes them, to me at least, utterly irresistible.

But first you have to get past the interiors, which almost universally cheap-looking even if they are ergonomically flawless. And therein lies Suzuki’s biggest problem: Its cars lack showroom appeal; no-one has ever got into a Suzuki, run their hand across the dashboard and sighed approvingly.

Suzuki understands this, and the new Swift and Vitara both feature interiors that are far better than those worn by the cars they replace. Neither will yet give Audi sleepless nights, but then they don’t sport Audi price tags, either. Prices start at £16,999 for an entry level SZ4 and rise to £22,499 for the top-of-the-range SZ5 with four-wheel-drive and the biggest engine.

The Suzuki Vitara is offered with a choice of two petrol engines. The first is a turbocharged 1.0-litre, Boosterjet engine. This three-cylinder engine develops 111PS and 170Nm of torque, enough for a 0-62mph time of 11.5 seconds and a top speed of 111mph.

The second is a turbocharged 1.4-litre, Boosterjet engine, this time sporting four cylinders. This churns out 140PS and 220Nm, which slices two seconds off the 0-62mph time and adds 13mph to the top speed. More importantly, it adds a muscularity to the Vitara that the chassis is easily capable of handling.

Because the key to the Vitara’s appeal is that it lies at the sportier end of the SUV spectrum. While it’s true that no SUV or crossover is ever going to handle as well as a decent hatchback, the Vitara does a pretty good impression. The gearchange, for example, is snappy and positive and there is ample mid-range thrust, which enables you to adjust your cornering attitude on the throttle.

Speaking of which, the Suzuki turns into corners with more alacrity than is usual in this class, and the suspension keeps the body under close control while still providing better-than-average ride comfort. It’s quiet, too and the loudest noise on a cross-country run is the exhaust, which has an attractive rasp to it. The chassis has a number of settings, and while most people will leave it in Automatic and let the car sort itself out (something it does very well), you and I will almost certainly turn it to Sport and reap the benefits of a sharper throttle response and altered power chassis distribution if you’re driving the ALLGRIP four-wheel-drive version.

Four-wheel-drive? Yes, Suzuki is a past master at off-road fun, so the Vitara is offered in both two- and four-wheel-drive versions, as well as a manual (five speed for the smaller engine and six-speed for the larger) and a six-speed automatic gearbox. The Vitara is normally a front-wheel-drive vehicle; power is only sent rearwards if the car detects slippage. In Sport-mode, this is optimised to minimise wheelspin and cull torque steer during heavy acceleration. The biggest compliment I can pay it is that it is almost undetectable in use.

The centre console-mounted rotary controller can also be switched from Sport through Automatic all the way to Snow or Lock. The former optimises the vehicle for snowy conditions, while the latter is used in very slippery conditions or when the Vitara is stuck; the vehicle has a limited slip rear differential, which enables the tyres to eke out every last scrap of available grip across the axle instead of leaving one wheel spinning uselessly and so depriving the other of any power.

So, was the Vitara an unqualified success? Yes, almost. Cheap interior aside, I found the driver’s seat a bit uncomfortable but that could be a function of my ungainly build and aging back because it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. And it’s not the best-looking thing out there either, is it?

But, aesthetics aside, the Vitara is one of the very few family SUVs that’s good fun to drive – so much fun that even I, a staunch advocate of the automatic gearbox, would buy one with a manual shift, simply to enjoy that gorgeous exhaust note as I snick up and down the gears. That I took the long way home – and took it to the infamous Evo Triangle for a morning – speaks volumes as to how much fun can be had with this outwardly staid SUV.

 

Carlton Boyce@motoringjourno