Shooting over sandhills; scribing a track across a snowy meadow; rounding bends, or mucking about in mud - I doubt any of it would stop a Suzuki Vitara with All Grip 4WD.
Suzuki has high hopes for this reintroduced badge, on its formerly sector-dominating small SUV. Mind you that was quite a few years ago when the original Vitara first 'defined' the concept of a small, compact SUV. It sold like hot cakes, and led Toyota to develop the RAV4.
Suzuki has now launched the 2016 Vitara confident that its re-imagining of the original concept, and badge, will strike a chord with buyers in the SUV segment.
However, to quote someone famous: "Life's what happens when you're making plans."
Make no mistake, the new Vitara is a good-looking vehicle, with excellent equipment and credentials, great customization options, outstanding fit and finish and it's keenly-priced, but while Suzuki's concept seems sensible - the competitors have moved on. Nobody stands still in this ultra-volatile segment.
I applaud the intentions behind the planning and execution, but even this latest Vitara is still found wanting.
Its 1.6L naturally-aspirated engine is willing, but in the sector it's underpowered, and even mated to the excellent 6-speed Aisin-Warner auto, the on-road performance borders on the breathless.
The calibration of the automatic transmission in the high-spec test car is poorly executed, and the up and down changes are harsh, and lack refinement.
On paper the Vitara looks the goods.
Low kerb weight, willing engine, six speed transmission and excellent fuel economy - however, on the road its performance is just not competitive.
Under acceleration it holds lower gears too long, and despite massaging the accelerator to induce an up-change, the Vitara revs out to a ridiculously high engine speed until the transmission decides it's time to change gear. This is especially an issue on freeways.
I figure this is a vehicle conceived and developed by hardcore engineers favoring off-road performance using a manual gearbox. That would explain the poor auto performance. Those engineers probably think auto is a soft option for well-heeled western markets. They'd be right, but that's also where the Vitara's competitors shine.
However, take the new Vitara off-road and all is forgiven.
Grinding up, down, and through rough and boggy tracks, the Vitara is in its element.
This compact SUV is extremely competent off-road, and combining the willing engine, with the multi-operational 4WD system, the car really shines.
But, that's not going to cut it against its current and future competitors. Just as Suzuki gets the 2016 Vitara to market, along comes a cheaper Chinese competitor (Haval's H4); the established Ford EcoSport; the very tidy Renault Captur, and even a new left-field Toyota, the new C-HR based on the Corolla platform, just shown in Geneva.
Against its established sector competitors, Holden Trax, Mitsubishi ASX, Mazda CX-3 and the Honda HR-V, the Vitara is finely balanced in terms of finish and value - but the engine needs more go, and needs to be better calibrated to the auto. Simple as that.
Look at this lineup of newcomers!
Most of these new competitors beat the Vitara in terms of powertrain refinement; matching or exceeding equipment, and have strong image and brand values. Even though the Great Wall Haval H4 is new to the market, and lacking any sort of image, it will compete strongly, and be underpriced compared to the Suzuki.
In a way, I feel sorry for Suzuki. It is a competent, experienced and high-integrity carmaker, with a host of successful vehicles in its long and impressive history.
However, I believe this Vitara package has been beaten to the punch just as it leaves the gate.
As you leave your driveway the powertrain combination will annoy the hell out of suburban drivers. It will never feel as if it's in the right gear, revving its head off, and on the freeway, struggling to keep up with the flow, without planting the right foot and worsening the fuel economy.
It features excellent equipment levels, from world class suppliers like Bosch, VDO and Continental. As I said, the fit and finish is exemplary, margins are tight, although the hard plastic surfaces are just that.
The standard nav/audio unit is high quality, but even here, as you press the touch screen, the whole unit moves uncomfortably in its plastic surround. Also the system always reverts to 'radio' when you switch on; rather than reverting to whatever media was in use when the ignition was last switched off.
A few more pluses and minuses:
1. Great, innovative design presents a 'secret' compartment under the floor of the rear loading area. Good for hiding cameras and other valuables.
2. Excellent rear seat room, despite short wheelbase.
3. Very comfortable front seats.
4. Rear seats don't fold completely flat, restricting flexible loading. Why is this so hard to achieve in this day and age?
The electric steering is, like many in use today, 'sticky' and vague at TDC. On the other hand the ride quality is not only compliant on suburban roads - all round I'd describe it as excellent. One other thing, Suzuki builds well-engineered and robust vehicles and I'll bet this one would outlast any of its competitors long after they've gone to the scrapheap.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that the new Vitara is a good effort, but not completely well-resolved. You may well ask, "What does 'well-resolved' mean?"
In school test terms, the verdict is: "Must try harder."
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