SUZUKI’S Vitara was the first compact SUV. It appeared in 1988 and was six years ahead of Toyota’s RAV4 – claimed by Toyota to be the class pioneer.
Sold with other names, such as Sidekick and Escudo, the Vitara was produced at seven factories between Japan and Argentina, including Santana in Linares, Andalucia – best known to Spaniards as the bullring where Manolete died and as the birthplace of Segovia.
The factory closed in 2011. It had been building Land Rovers from UK kits since the mid-1950s and developed its own versions, ironing out mechanical and ergonomic faults and then going solo in the 1980s. The Santana Land Rovers you see in Spain and South America today are the result.
The fourth generation of Vitara, launched this year is made at Suzuki’s factory in Hungary. It is a very different car from what went before. In fact, 4x4 drive is not standard and an option only on the SZ5 top model. The body that now looks High Street rather than Farm Track. In doing so it meets the aspirations of the new cool, the sleeker SUV cum cross-over exemplified by the Nissan Qashqai and, at a higher price band, the Range Rover Evoque.
It’s surely not a coincidence that the Vitara front section resembles an Evoque. They share the same bonnet closure, aka clamshell, in which the bonnet edges wrap over into the wings. This element was seen on the first Range Rover in 1970 and in all Vitaras since the first in 1988. Saab was another exponent of “clamshell” bonnet design. It gives more access to the engine and reduces the risk of workshop damage to the front side panels.
My Vitara test car was two-tone black over red, which made it look even more like an Evoque. You could always pretend, and the Vitara’s starting price of £14,000 for the 118bhp 1.6 petrol SZ4 is less than half the entry point to buy an Evoque.
Of course most other references are irrelevant. The Vitara does a job at a price and that headline cost is going to attract – though you’ll probably spend rather more. Its standard kit includes Bluetooth phone connection and digital radio with controls on the steering wheel and on the touch screen, hill holder clutch for easier uphill starts, seven airbags including one for the driver’s knee, tyre pressure monitors, remote central locking, locking wheel nuts for the alloys, auto stop-start ignition, cruise control with a speed limiter, leather steering wheel, height adjustment for both front seats, climate control, silver roof rails and so forth.
Move to the SZ-T at £15,499 and you get navigation, a rear camera, 17-inch wheels, darker rear glass, two-tone paint and some other upgrades. My test car was the SZ5 (from £17,999), which has radar safety braking, keyless operation, an analogue clock, “suede” seat panels, a full-length, opening clear roof, auto lights and wipers, LED projector headlamps and some cosmetic and audio upgrades. It had the Allgrip 4x4 system which lifted the price to £19,799. Extras included the two-tone paint at £800.
The other engine option is the 118bhp high torque 1.6 diesel from £16,999 in SZ-T trim. The SZ5 diesel is £19,499, and with Allgrip, £21,299. Whether the £1,500 surcharge for diesel power is worthwhile is a moot point. In its favour is CO2 of 106g (111g with Allgrip) and combined claimed economy of 70.6mpg (Allgrip 67.2mpg).The petrol engine has 123g CO2 (130g Allgrip) and 53.3mpg (49.5mpg Allgrip).
So far, so happy. Here we have a “cheapish” car with more character than a mass-produced hatchback, arguably more versatility and decent fuel economy. What amounts to “running around” returned 35 to 40mpg and a long drive mostly on motorways and “fast” trunk roads produced 46mpg one way and 49mpg the other. That’s acceptable for a petrol engine. However, it felt ready for a sixth gear at 70mph.
Its navigation screen is smart and had speed advice in queues and a swipe-out mode. On this model there is a proper round clock in the central fascia and, an extra, a facade in what looks like burnished steel. This being now, there is no CD player so you’ll get your personal sound track with plug-in devices.
There really is lots in it the Vitara’s favour but don’t expect a full house of delights. Namely, it is not a deft driver’s car, being let down with lack of poise if you chase it through corners. Here it begins to weight-up and did not give me the confidence to drive as nimbly as normal. That’s OK. Once you know what does not feel safe, you avoid it.
Verdict: Suzuki’s Vitara: not as we knew it, but it is cute looking.
It is: Suzuki Vitara. A thorough re-think, replacing the hunky and dated Grand Vitara with a more urban style, but just one model has 4x4 traction.
Models: 1.6 petrol or diesel power, both with 118bhp, but the diesel has vastly more torque and flexibility and economy.
Price: £14,000 for the 118bhp 1.6 petrol SZ4 rising to £21,299 for SZ5 diesel with Allgrip.
Emissions/economy: petrol engine offers 123g CO2 and 53.3mpg.