A change of tone
A pioneering compact SUV retains off-road cred but takes a budget tack, too
SUZUKI says the new Vitara “reinvents the compact SUV segment”. It doesn’t but it should shake it up at the lower end, given the introductory deal of $22,990 drive-away for the five-speed manual.
That’s cheaper than the big three in the segment — the Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V and Mitsubishi ASX — and the Suzuki is better equipped, with standard satnav, reversing camera, 17-inch alloys and daytime running lights.
Two-tone is back, apparently. The Vitara is one of many new SUVs to enable buyers to stand out from the crowd.
Our test car, the all-wheeldrive flagship RT-X, arrived in “Ivory metallic” paint with a black roof, a colour scheme available as a $995 option. For those who like to accessorise, another $220 adds coloured plastic highlights on the dash and around the aircon vents, shift lever and instrument panel.
The funky, modern theme extends to the seven-inch touchscreen, which has a smartphone feel to its displays, menus and navigation. There’s voice recognition for those who don’t fancy navigating the screen on the move.
A generous equipment list includes a sunroof and leather seats with suede bolsters, as well as two 12V accessory sockets.
Headroom is good up front and adequate in the rear, as is legroom, although the rear seats would be tight for three grown-ups.
The only disappointment with the Suzuki’s cabin is the abundance of shiny hard plastic surfaces. On the entry level models you could just about put up with it but at the RT-X price of $31,990 you’ll see noticeably better quality materials on its rivals.
Despite its off-road pretensions, the Vitara is well stocked with goodies for navigating the urban crawl. The standard satnav is easy to use, with clear graphics, while the rear view camera also delivers a clear view of behind for parking manoeuvres. There are also front and rear parking sensors for the spatially challenged. Other nice touches include auto headlights and wipers and keyless entry and start.
But at this price, some rivals fit driver assistance technology the Vitara doesn’t have. The CX-3, for example, has a safety pack that includes blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and automated emergency braking.
The rear luggage area has a clever false floor for hiding valuables or separating sports gear from the rest of the load. Total luggage space is about average for the class at 375L — the CX-3 has less but the ASX and HR-V have more.
On pockmarked city streets, the Suzuki’s suspension also struggles, skipping about and translating a lot of bumps and crashes into the cabin.
ON THE ROAD
The Vitara feels more at home on the open road. Despite riding higher than many rivals, it feels sure-footed through corners, helped by the all-wheel drive grip.
The steering feels relatively sharp for an SUV and the suspension copes better with bumps at speed, although it still doesn’t deliver the comfort of the class leaders.
The Vitara’s advantage is in having some genuine off-road ability for dirt tracks and muddy paddocks.
The driver can choose between four settings for the AWD — auto for highway driving, sport for twisty roads, snow for slippery surfaces and lock for sand and mud — and there are hill descent control and hill hold.
Modestly powered, the Vitara has a conspicuous lack of urge when taking off from the traffic lights. The engine has to work hard to get things moving and needs plenty of revs on board at higher speeds on the freeway.
The official fuel rating of 6.3L/100km is impressive but we got significantly higher returns (about 11.0L/100km) in city driving. The engine may be undernourished but in the RT-X the six-speed auto shifts smoothly and swiftly, making the most of the available power and torque.
The RT-X will win friends in the showroom with its long equipment list and leather trim but scratch beneath the surface and cost-cutting shows in the quality of trim around the cabin.
Around town, the suspension feels rudimentary and the engine is underwhelming.
The cheaper front-drive versions of the Vitara will appeal to bargain hunters but the range-topper doesn’t quite stack up to similarly priced rivals from the segment benchmarks.