TEST DRIVE: Suzuki Vitara

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Super Suzuki – Steve Sharpe drives the new Vitara

Suzuki has experienced a change of reputation over time.

In the dim and distant past it often seemed that while the Japanese company excelled in the motorcycle production side of the business, it was kind of dipping its toe in the car world.

With just a few models available like the Jimny jeep and Alto hatchback, they seemed to be quirky little things, cheap to buy but lacking a bit in quality and finesse.

But things have changed over the years, and while the stable can’t compete against the mega-manufacturers in terms of choice, models like the little cheap-as-chips Celerio and the Swift have picked up plaudits for their value for money.

And this year the company has brought out an all-new version of its SUV, with a new look, more equipment and better performance figures.

More than 25 years after the original model’s debut, the Vitara, which accompanies the larger S Cross in the SUV market, has been brought bang up to date with an option of a cutting-edge ALLGRIP four wheel drive, advanced safety and connectivity equipment is available and, naturally, personalisation options.

In a world where everything seems to be getting bigger, Suzuki has bucked the trend by reducing the dimensions of the Vitara.

The redesign has been a massive success and the Vitara is a great-looking car, although it is still larger than sector rivals like Renault’s Captur and Nissan’s Juke

The familiar Vitara front-end has been retained, as have hints of previous styling, but elsewhere the edges have been smoothed off and things are altogether more rugged yet smoother.

The steep angle of the blunt front end gives some presence to the forward end of the car, while the daytime running lights and sunken foglights project a modern look.

While some may bemoan the loss of previous models’ quirkiness, it does mean that the Vitara sits very comfortably among its 21st century rivals.

Inside Suzuki has kept things simple and straightforward in design. A large analogue clock sits between central air vents, while the circular gauges viewed through the steering wheel are clear and easy to read.

The body coloured inserts add a bit of flair, and the large media screen in the centre is fairly easy to operate, being laid out in quarters of different colours.

Some of the touch-screen controls are fiddly, though, like the volume control.

Clutter in the cabin is reduced because the media / satnav controls are operated on screen, or by the steering wheel, and there are no manual buttons.

The heating controls sit underneath the screen, but the buttons are dark and in shadow it can be difficult to operate on the move.

While the prices the Vitara retails at means that there won’t be the quality of an Audi or a VW, the interior surfaces are very hard to the touch and scratchy, and the doors shut with a clank rather than a thud.

On the positive side the plastics do look like they’ll take a hammering, and look nice too. The upholstery in my test car was also good quality, and the seats were comfortable too.

It’s a roomy SUV which is right at the top of the tree as far as space is concerned.

There’s plenty of headroom and legroom for front seat passengers, and although there’s a hump in the floor in the middle which has to be straddled, there are good amount of room for normal-sized passengers in the back.

It’s worth remembering that there’ll be less headroom if you opt for the panoramic sunroof which was fitted to my test car, but that’s the same with every manufacturer.

Boot space is also at the top of the class, too, and there’s no shortage of storage space in the cabin, either, with a large glovebox and various cupholders and storage trays dotted around.

The new Vitara is powered by either a 1.6-litre petrol engine or the 1.6-litre DDiS 
engine.

The diesel version I drove didn’t sound too appetising on paper, with 0-60 figures of over 12 seconds and a top speed of 112mph, but the torqueyness of the diesel means that the Vitara rarely struggles when the revs are up.

The power is greatest in mid range, so there’s a surprising, and pleasing, surge of acceleration throughout the gears.

It means that the SUV provides a fine all-round performance in everyday driving.

It’s nippy around town, while a large amount of glass and nice driving position means that you get a good view all around.

Take the Suzuki out into the country and the SUV handles surprisingly well for a big, tall car. Take a corner quickly and there’s very little body lean, while the steering is well-weighted for easy manoeuvring.

A five-speed manual transmission is available for the 1.6-litre petrol engine but the diesel I drove came with a six-speed manual version, which was perfect for the job, nicely spaced and slick. A six-speed automatic gearbox is available for the petrol engine as well.

The suspension’s set up for everyday driving so it absorbs pretty much all the roads of the north east can throw at it, and once it’s settled into motorway cruising speed you can motor comfortably.

The diesel engine is raucous at pretty much all speeds, even at idle, but it’s not an unpleasant noise, and while road noise and wind noise are also present it’s not too intrusive overall.

Opt for the ALLGRIP all-wheel drive option and you get off-road capabilities if you need to venture off the beaten track.

The system has four driver-selectable modes for safe – Auto, Sport, Snow and Lock – a system which debuted in the Suzuki S-Cross.

It’s just another aspect of this new and improved Vitara which may tempt customers away from rivals like the Juke, the Captur and the Citroen Cactus.

Economy figures compare well, with average miles per gallon around the mid-60 mark, while low-ish emission figures means you won’t be paying through the nose for road tax.

The range starts at £14,000 and while you’ll have to pay to get some of the luxuries you may long for there’s an impressive amount of kit even in the standard versions. There are three spec levels, starting with SZ4, which includes seven airbags, 16-inch alloy wheels, DAB Radio with USB and Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control with speed limiter, auto air conditioning, front and rear electric windows and projector headlamps.

SZ-T adds 17-inch silver painted alloy wheels, rear privacy glass, Smartphone link audio and navigation system.

Moving up to SZ5 adds LED Projector headlights, 17-inch polished alloy wheels, suede seat fabric, keyless entry with start button, Adaptive Cruise Control, Radar Brake Support and Panoramic sunroof.

There’s also a wide range of options to personalise your car, from colour combinations to interior packages.

The family is in safe hands, too, as the Vitara scored a maximum five stars in the new 2015 Euro NCAP crash safety test.

The new much-improved Vitara is better-looking, better equipped and a better performer than previous versions – and the previous version wasn’t bad either.

My range-topping ALLGRIP version headed the price list at around £22,000 but the well-equipped entry-level version kicks off at a very respectable £14,000.

There are a growing number of low-cost SUVs appearing from manufacturers like Dacia and SsangYong, but Suzuki look to have ensured that the established Vitara still has a strong presence in the market.

Fact file

Suzuki Vitara

Engine: 1.6-litre diesel

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

0-62mph: 12.4 secs

Top speed: 112mph

Fuel economy: 67.2mpg avg

Price: £22,599.