The Vitara is the Suzuki we get, but not the one we deserve
The updated diesel-free Vitara is solid, competent, decent – but it’s not the Jimny
The Vitara gets the fundamentals right. It’s compact, but usefully practical. It’s designed to be light, nimble, and easy around town, but equally adept at dealing with demands of a more rural nature
Model: Grand Vitara
Date Reviewed: January 23, 2019
So, here we are. It’s a bright, cold, winter’s afternoon. The rain has cleared, and there is a set of keys to a shiny new Suzuki in my hands. It has the excellent 1.0-litre BoosterJet petrol turbo engine. It’s painted a fetching shade of denim blue. It’s a compact crossover. I should be happy about all of these things.
Like a petulant child, faced on Christmas morning with a Spider-Man costume when he asked for Batman, though, I’m unhappy. The updated Vitara is many things. It is not the new Jimny.
The new Jimny, that tiny, rugged 4x4 that looks like a cross between an original Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen and a garden shed, is arguably the most publicised, most hyperbolised car of the past 12 months. It’s many things, including tough, capable in the muck, surprisingly crude, and lacking a cutting-edge engine. What it’s mostly not, though, is not coming to Ireland.
The Suzuki powers-that-be have decided that the Jimny’s Co2 emissions (thanks to its un-turbo’ed 1.5 engine it would attract a whopping €750 annual motor tax bill) mean it’s a non-runner in Ireland. Doubtless the relatively small overall production numbers and the rapacious appetite for the car in the UK market (it’s sold out across the water as much as twice over) are also stumbling blocks.
Mind you, it’s worth pointing out that Suzuki has excellent engines with low Co2 ratings in its armoury, such as the 1.0 BoosterJet and the 1.2 mild hybrid. So why not design the Jimny, a car that was obviously going to be popular, around an engine fit for purpose?
Why saddle one of the coolest (word used advisedly) cars of the year with an engine that’s more polluting, less efficient, and less sell-able? It’s a decision so wrong-headed, so run-eared to the eco-friendly zeitgeist, that even Suzuki personnel, sotto voce, are voicing the same disbelief.
Whatever about the Jimny, I should be happy with the Vitara. After all, Suzuki has given it a nip-and-tuck and a general tidy-up for 2019. The styling at the front has been revised with a neater headlamp and grille layout, and a new front bumper that makes it look a bit less be-chinned.
Inside the cabin looks basically the same, but Suzuki has upgraded some of the materials used in order that it should feel a bit more expensive. So the top of the dash is now moulded in a nice, soft-touch plastic, there are rather classy-looking new instruments, and top-grade SZ5 models get seats with smooth suede inserts, cut to mimic the tread pattern of a tyre.
On the powerplant front, the 1.6 diesel model has been excised, and replaced by that excellent little BoosterJet turbo petrol triple. That may not sound like much of an engine for a compact crossover, but the Vitara weighs an impressively trim 1,160kg so the eager little 111hp engine has no trouble shoving it along, and it brings an entertaining, warbly, exhaust note to the process.
You can upgrade to a 140hp 1.4-litre, four-cylinder petrol turbo, which can be optionally equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission and “AllGrip” four-wheel drive. Of these the AllGrip system seems like it’s worth the candle, with switchable Snow, Normal, and Sport modes.
We’ve tried the Vitara, thus equipped, with this system on a forest path strewn with treacle-like mud, and it coped really quite brilliantly, so if you have a need for rough-road access on a budget it’s a very good choice.
The automatic we wouldn’t bother with – it’s a touch slow-witted, even though it has the engine’s healthy 220Nm of torque to play with, and it doesn’t do the fuel economy any favours.
On top of that the BoosterJet three-cylinder engine just suits the Vitara so much better. It’s a fraction lighter than the 1.4, and you can feel that in the corners, where the 1.0 version is just that little touch more enthusiastic in how it turns in.
Adjustable and agile
The Vitara’s steering is strictly a feel-free zone, with an over-abundance of assistance, and nothing much in the way of feedback, but even with that handicap it’s quite engaging to drive. It still manages to transmit, through the seat of your pants, how much grip is available underneath, and it feels adjustable and agile when bombing along a twisting country lane – a task for which it appears tailor-made.
On practical considerations, there’s decent space in the back seats, and the boot (at 375 litres) is just a little bit more useful than those of most of its rivals.
There are, however, drawbacks. The biggest problem, actually, is in the cabin. Whereas you’d expect the improvement in cabin quality to be… well, an improvement... in fact the reverse is true. The use of nicer materials has actually thrown into sharper contrast the areas that are still cheap and tacky – notably items such as the door cards, the column stalks, and the lower reaches of the dash. There are some other cheap-feeling things, not least the manual gearbox, which feels so loose-limbed and imprecise in its shift that occasionally you worry that you’ve broken it. Maybe the automatic isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Still, the Vitara gets the fundamentals right. It’s compact, but usefully practical. It’s designed to be light, nimble, and easy around town but equally adept at dealing with demands of a more rural nature. It may feel flimsy in places, but Suzukis generally demonstrate better-than-solid reliability, so it should be fine in that respect too.
But. But. But you know what’s coming. You know the Suzuki I wanted to be driving. The Vitara is fine, it’s grand, and the updates to it are largely successful. But if you want true star quality in your small Suzuki SUV, you know where to look…
THE LOWDOWN: SuzukI Vitara 1.0 BoosterJet SZ-T
Price: €22,995 as tested; (Vitara starts at €20,995)
0-100kmh: 11.5 sec.
Top speed: 180km/h
Claimed economy: 53.2mpg (5.3 litres/100km)
Co2 emissions: 139g/km
Motor tax: €280.
Verdict: As far as small crossovers go the Vitara is one of the more practical and more likeable, and the 1.0 engine is a sweetheart. But…
Our rating: 3/5