It could just be because I’m of a certain age, but to me, the name Vitara conjures up images of a wide-wheeled, short wheel-base, soft-top mini 4×4, normally found with an over-sized Rhino graphic plastered on the back.

Despite being what we now affectionately refer to as an ‘old-school 4×4’, the Vitara was agile, chuckable, and desperately good fun. It looked good, had bags of attitude, was cheap to run, and could embarrass a Land Rover if driven well in the gloop.

This was 1988, remember, and there are plenty of manufacturers that still haven’t managed to crack that particular formula.

Admittedly, the market changed, and in response the Vitara morphed into the more sensibly-shoed Grand Vitara about which could still be uttered the phrases ‘genuine off-road credibility’ and ‘value for money’ in the same sentence.

Perhaps it was wrong of me, then, to approach the new Vitara with the somewhat rose-tinted expectation that Suzuki had managed to tap into some of that original Vitara spirit.

Suzuki’s talk of personalisation options sounded promising. But nowhere in the press pack does Suzuki use the F-word: fun.

That’s because the new Vitara is a decidedly more grown-up beast.

Although based on the SX4 S-Cross, itself an endearingly honest blend of practicality and even-tempered road manners, the new Vitara is actually shorter (by 125mm) yet a little wider and taller.

Externally, the new Vitara is a chunky thing. There are bold, angular shapes and deep swage lines that offer a more aggressive foil to the more rounded, almost bulbous S-Cross. It’s perhaps a little bland at the back, although the accessory brochure lists a roof spoiler that would no doubt rectify that.

Further personalisation includes the option of a number of two-tone exterior finishes, grille and bumper treatments, interior trim colour options, and a pair of themed packs – Urban and Rugged.

Using the S-Cross platform does appear to have led to some compromises when it comes to interior packaging, though. Tall drivers may find it a challenge to strike a compromise between seat position and steering reach, while compensating by raising the seat height reveals the extent to which the panoramic sunroof in top-spec SZ5 models eats into headroom, too, although this is worse for rear seat passengers.

Boot space is down a little compared to its SX4 brother, too, at 375 litres or 710 with the rear seats folded.

All but the entry-level SZ4 model gain a new seven-inch touch-screen navigation system, and although it offers the requisite number of features such as Bluetooth connectivity and DAB digital radio, we found its interface a little on the clumsy side. Its route guidance proved a little aloof, too, particularly when circumnavigating large roundabouts.

The new car also shares the SX4’s engines – one petrol, one diesel, both of 1.6-litres and both with 120PS – as well as Suzuki’s light-weight and efficient AllGrip four-wheel-drive system.

The diesel is the stronger on-road proposition, its 320Nm of torque making it easier to get up to speed, whereas the petrol unit demands you work it hard to get the best from it.

Neither could be described as rampant performers: Suzuki quotes a 0-62mph figure of 12 seconds for our AllGrip petrol test car, and trying to extract that level of acceleration requires serious gearbox stirring and some rather unkind noises from the engine bay.

The diesel’s six-speed manual gearbox is sweeter than the petrol car’s five-speeder, too, and although Suzuki continue to be masters of providing light yet well-balanced control weights, the petrol engine’s throttle response is a touch too keen just off idle, making for a fine line between stalling and pulling away in an embarrassing cloud of revs.

Once on the move, the Vitara rides well, but with a few caveats. Mid-corner bumps upset the chassis to the point where they are accompanied by an unwelcome sideways skip, and to our mind, the damping needs to be tighter, too, with larger undulations setting off a subtle longitudinal pitching motion.

We should also mention our car’s steering exhibited a strange lack of fluidity immediately around the straight-ahead position, and that seemed to cause it to wander slightly in its lane if not given constant corrections.

That said, and despite fairly pronounced body-roll at speed, the Vitara does an excellent job of maintaining traction through a series of tight corners. It’s just a shame we can’t go as far as to call it engaging.

Efficiency, though, is a clear strong point, with the company quoting economy of up to 70.6 mpg and emissions of just 106 g/km for the two-wheel-drive diesel, with the equivalent petrol model returning up to 53.3 mpg with 123 g/km. Our petrol 4WD test car averaged just over 44 mpg during our testing, with its official figure of 50.4 mpg likely to be achievable with a little extra effort.

It’s also very keenly priced, starting from just £13,999 for a car that still includes alloy wheels, cruise control, climate control, and Bluetooth. Diesel models start from £16,999, while the range-topping SZ5 spec kicks in from £17,999 and adds keyless entry, suede upholstery, panoramic sunroof, LED headlights, automatic wipers, satnav, and other goodies.

It also adds Suzuki’s new adaptive cruise control and radar brake support. The former we found to be quite effective, while the latter was easily confused by cars waiting to turn out of side junctions and resulted in frenzied and unnecessary warnings.

You might be forgiven for thinking we are disappointed by the new Vitara. That’s not the case; indeed, it would be tough – if not impossible – to find a more competitively priced, efficient and genuinely capable compact SUV anywhere else on the market.

No, rather our reservations stem from the use of the Vitara name. Given Suzuki’s vast experience at producing small cars oozing with peppy character and SUVs laden with go-anywhere capability, for our money the new Vitara represented an opportunity to create a unique blend of the two and show the competition how it’s done.

After all, history shows us they’ve done it before. We’d like them to do it again.

Tester’s Notes

  • Driving position appears compromised by shared platform hard-points
  • S-Cross platform twin has greater interior and cargo space
  • Infotainment UI design lacks finesse; sluggish in responses
  • Appealing interior simplicity
  • Diesel is stronger performer
  • Drive-by-wire throttle has over-eager response, leading to tricky pull-aways
  • Steering requires constant inputs
  • Pronounced pitch and dive; touch too much body roll; thrown off-line by mid-corner bumps
  • Collision warning system trigged by turning/parked cars
  • Disappointing lack of fun given Vitara name
  • Well priced
  • 44mpg on test
Entry-level Price £13,999 Price as tested £20,599
Engine 4-cyl petrol, 1586cc Transmission 5-speed manual
Power 120ps @ 6,000rpm Torque 156Nm @ 4,400rpm
0-60 12.0 secs Top speed 112 mph
Economy 50.4 mpg CO2 130 g/km
Dimensions 4175 x 1775 x 1610 (LWH) Kerb Weight 1160 kg

Alex Kefford

Editor

Freelance journalist, ex-offroad driving instructor and long distance road-tripper. If you have any questions about this piece, feel free to hit me up on Twitter.