I know I’m showing my age here, but I remember the launch of the original Suzuki Vitara in Ireland back in 1989 and, although a mere motoring whippersnapper at the time, I recall noting that the car marked a sea-change not only for Suzuki itself, but for the motor industry.
Suzuki had been noted for making extremely cheap and very rugged 4x4s like the SJ and the Samurai, which were characterised by their terrific off-road abilities but, sadly, equally renowned for their appalling on-road characteristics.
Indeed I also recall doing a review of the SJ and damning it to hell as being one of the most frightening road-going experiences of my then nascent motoring career.
The then MD of Suzuki in Ireland, the late Niall O’Gorman, was so dismayed by my opinion of the thing he arranged a special off-road test for me at Donnelly’s Hollow on the Curragh to illustrate just how tough and able the SJ was in extreme off-road conditions. Having seen the little car take on all sorts of implausible inclines and dips, I did have to admit it was a plucky beast. But there was still no denying it was a dreadful drive once you got tarmac under the tyres.
Obviously spurred on by my uncomplimentary condemnation, the powers that be at Suzuki were stunned into action and ere long they had come up with the Vitara, which was a groundbreaker in very many ways. Of course, I take full credit for this.
Joking aside, however, the Vitara was not only the first crossover the industry had ever seen and although the segment did not have a name back then — Nissan would later lay claim to having invented the niche with its Qashqai, but the reality was they were decades behind Suzuki.
The Vitara had something for everyone; it came in 2x4 and 4x4 guises, it was extremely practical and hardworking and, on top of that, it was also largely indestructible. Mechanically simple and robust, the Vitara also drove really well and came with a modicum of creature comforts. Thus it became reasonably popular and for those who owned one, almost legendary.
Speak to anyone who bought one of the early versions and they will get all misty-eyed and tell you how they had it for 15 years, how it never let them down, how their kids learned to drive in it (without burning out the clutch) and how they cried when they eventually had to part with it.
Indeed I still know people who own versions of the 7-seat Grand Vitara who swear by it as an unbeatable — and unbreakable — machine with which to cope with a clatter of kids and all their accoutrements.
The Vitara had a good name then amongst the buying public and among the Suzuki dealer network it was regarded with a sort of awe because it needed little effort on their behalf to move substantial numbers of them off the forecourt. Indeed, alongside regular cars such as the Alto, the Swift, the Liana and so forth, the Vitara was a critical element of the dealers’ armoury.
But then Suzuki got sidetracked and went and produced the SX-4 in co-operation with Fiat and it was mildly successful; the S-Cross came along next and while it too was a fine car, it never took off with the public the way the Vitara had. While the “best small car maker in the world” never stopped making the Vitara, it stopped selling it in certain markets — Ireland included. The net result was many lost customers and many lost sales.
But then a new Vitara — the fourth generation of the car, historically — was unveiled at the Paris Motor Show last year and suddenly Suzuki realised what it had been missing, such was the clamour from distributors, dealers, and customers to get their hands on the new one.
And the thing was that not only did the new car look fantastic, but it had decent equipment levels and — best of all — it was cheaper than the older version had been. Things were looking up.
Well I can now tell you that, having spent a week in this excellent little car’s company, Suzuki is back where it started with a little SUV — or crossover, if you wish — which is not only extremely good looking, but has an excellent petrol engine option and comes with very decent kit levels for an entry level asking price a fiver shy of twenty grand. The dealers can hardly contain themselves and, I suspect, new Vitara owners will feel the same way too.
There are downsides to the car — let’s not deny it — but too few of them to leave any noticeable character stains on the car. Sure it is a bit plasticky inside and some of the materials used are not exactly haute couture, but what the hell do you expect for this price.
The upsides, though, are many and pleasing; this is a fine car to drive (although if you wanted to get really picky you could describe the steering as being a little on the dead side) and it handles the vagaries of the Irish road network with considerable élan — much more so than many of its’ opponents.
Readers will know that, in general, I’m not a big fan of faux 4x4s, but the Vitara we tried in GL+ specification and fitted with a 1.6-litre petrol engine (allied to a five speed manual ‘box) and only with two wheel drive, turned out to be a decent enough old skin. Although it outputs just 88 kW (118 bhp) and 156 Nm of torque, it turned out to be a lot more nimble than you might credit.
The 11.5-second 0-100km/h time might appear to confirm your worst suspicions, but the 180km/h top speed demonstrates an unexpected sprightliness. And sprightly it is. Ok so you’re not probably going to win many traffic light grands prix, but once you get her up and running, this engine provides everything any normal driver would need. It will also return a claimed 5.3 l/100km (52 mpg) and has 123g/km of emissions for an annual tax bill of €270.
It is then very much a case of welcome back for the Vitara and its return will not only put a big smile on the face of the collective dealer network, but also on that of those that purchase one. It can be summed up in four words: Excellent car, great value.
From €19,995 to €21,395 as tested.
There is a diesel available, but we tried the petrol unit and it is a fine thing indeed.
Surprisingly good with a lot of stuff you might not expect to see coming as standard.
The Overall Verdict:
A cracking return to form from Suzuki.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved