8/10 (9/10 if we could lose the wheels…)
Full disclosure: I’m a big Suzuki fan; I think that its cars are among the most under-rated you can buy, something I sometimes struggle to understand as the engineering is beyond reproach.
I have to admit that Suzuki does sometimes give the impression of having spent the development budget on the oily bits, being forced to scrabble down the back of the sofa for some loose change to design and build the interior. If so, this lack of showroom appeal is a real shame, because the cars are generally very good.
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Roomy and comfortable
The Vitara S is a case in point. It’s a variant of a car I first drove a year ago, which I liked a lot. I found it roomy and comfortable and with road manners that were easily good enough to raise it into the top half of its class.
That it had a cheap interior (you saw that coming, didn’t you?) might have deterred me a little, but that I preferred it to the Land Rover Discovery Sport is praise indeed given how much more the Land Rover costs.
Initial impressions of the new Vitara S were mixed. It’s distinguished from its cheaper and more conventionally powered siblings by its black alloy wheels, silver door mirrors, LED headlights, a rear spoiler, and black side trims. The theme continues inside with red stitching and accents to the heating vents and instruments.
It’s fair to say that it’s a bit of a Marmite look. I don’t like Marmite.
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Engine that punches above its weight
Slightly dodgy styling aside, the new 1.4-litre BOOSTERJET* turbocharged petrol engine might be small in capacity but it punches well above its weight, developing 138hp and 162 lb ft of torque, endowing the Vitara S with respectably sprightly acceleration.
It also has enough mid-range torque – something that is always more useful than outright power – to make overtaking effortless, something that the six-speed manual gearbox encourages, allowing you to snap through the gears with a flick of the wrist.
It’s a cracking package and while I’m a normally a huge fan of automatic gearboxes, in this case I think the manual gearbox suits the car perfectly.
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Four modes adjust to conditions
Cross-country pace is further bolstered by a sure-footed ALLGRIP** chassis that can be tuned via a rotary selector with four modes: Auto, Sport, Snow, and Lock.
Auto just gets on quietly, shuffling power from the front to the rear axle when it detects that the front wheels are spinning.
Snow locks the Vitara into four-wheel-drive by default, while Lock distributes the power split equally between the front and rear axles, enabling the car to claw its way out of deep mud and other low-friction surfaces (it helped me out of a very embarrassing situation on the launch in Portugal when we were momentarily stuck on the beach in sand that was a lot deeper than it looked).
Sport is designed for twisty roads, altering the torque and accelerator settings to give a, well, sportier drive.
And you know what? It works, and it works well. I drove around Croft racing circuit half-a-dozen times (“great lines, but slow” according to my instructor) and had some genuine fun, which isn’t something you could have said about hot laps in some of the Vitara’s competitors.
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Power and performance
I then hoofed it back to the hotel for lunch along some terrific North Yorkshire roads and regularly found myself having to ease back on the throttle, not because the chassis wasn’t up to the job but because if I hadn’t my licence would have been in grave danger.
That I eased off with a huge smile on my face was further proof that a four-wheel-drive with raised suspension doesn’t have to be all about the off-road performance.
You might assume that given the current economic climate there are deals to be made in the showroom. If so, the Vitara will spring one of its few unpleasant surprises: the factory price is very reasonable and while it pains me to say it, you are unlikely to find a dealer that is prepared to offer anything other than a token gesture off the sticker price.
The Suzuki Vitara S is an example of a car in which an engine update has actually made a significant difference, turning a good car into a great one, making it worth every penny of the asking price.
If you can overlook the mediocre showroom appeal and those ghastly black wheels, nothing in its class comes close to being as satisfying to own and drive.
*Yes, BOOSTERJET is capitalised. Still, there has to be at least one thing to dislike about the Vitara S, doesn’t there?
** Yes, Suzuki likes capitalisation far more than it should.
Best-in-class – Suzuki Vitara S: Cheap, tough, and great to drive.
The best of the rest – Honda HR-V: If you have to have a premium badge, then this is the way to do it. It does nothing very well, but everything as well as it has to.
Left-field alternative – Renault Kadja: More road-biased than the Vitara, if you like your SUVs/crossovers sporty rather than muddy, no-one does it better than this.
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