The word ‘fun’ has been used a lot to describe this vehicle since its launch, so I’ll try to avoid it. I drove from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass and back with a detour up to Craigieburn Valley Ski Area. To say this was fun is not enough.
There are people all over this fine country looking for a vehicle that can happily fulfil the requirements of an urban family that craves the outdoors. The point of having an all-terrain SUV is that it will do pretty much anything to suit your lifestyle, and the new AWD Suzuki Vitara Turbo is no exception. I left Christchurch behind and headed for the white, folded crags of the Southern Alps looming steeply to the west as the sun rose higher in the bright blue sky behind me. I put my foot down flat and smiled for the first time that day as the Suzuki surged forward. I’d been told that the Vitara Turbo could move despite its 1.4-litre engine. Small but undaunted. Small but surprisingly powerful in this lightweight SUV.
And so it doesn’t matter. Size, I mean. Because this thing responds willingly and immediately to the gas pedal, getting up and moving more readily than I would have thought. Those long, straight roads across the Canterbury Plains could, I imagine, invite a wee bit of speed-limit defiance as you overtake campers and trucks effortlessly. If you didn’t know it you’d swear it had another litre under the bonnet. The turbo has virtually no lag, and I was having a good time even before I hit the winding climbs and curves of the majestic Great Alpine Way.
When the going got steep, the Vitara never faltered. The Sport mode on the central mode selection dial lifted the revs and I blasted up like it was flat. Again I was surprised at what can be done with a smaller lump under the hood. A fuel efficient lump, at that. Because this thing sips the 95 octane at 6.2 l/100km on a combined cycle, and even my inefficient, ‘I’m not paying the fuel bill’ driving had me travelling around 300km to Arthur’s Pass and back using less than 25 litres of petrol. Yes that’s more like eight litres per hundred, but I had no intention of saving gas – plus I had a storage box on the roof rack, which increased drag and therefore consumption.
Anyway, this is a vehicle that will easily cover most lifestyle and recreational needs, especially those of couples and young families who want to head well out of the suburbs. The Vitara’s all-wheel drive system gives you peace of mind in wet and loose conditions, and the locking centre differential and selectable Snow/Mud setting means you can get to an isolated camping, surfing or mountain biking spot when you need to.
Rough, steep gravel tracks are dispensed with easily, as I discovered when I drove six kilometres to the Craigieburn ski field through dense beech forest, winding up the loose trail. Bear in mind that this test vehicle was armed with all-terrain tyres, which I would probably fit as standard. I hit the snow line where it was a bit icy and I had complete confidence that if I was taking the kids up here I’d be able to make it back in one piece. A two-wheel-drive car probably wouldn’t fare as well by comparison.
Torque of 220Nm, while not massive, is available at just 1500rpm; that’s useful in the rougher stuff in a vehicle weighing only 1230kg. I selected Snow mode, and when things got slippery, as they did a couple of times, locked the centre differential to ensure that the front and rear axles turned at the same rate to maximise traction. With hill descent control (HDC) thrown in, the Vitara Turbo is pretty capable away from the tarmac, and for the use it will be getting, that’s all that’s required – low range gearing will probably never be needed. I tested the HDC and it works well; it’s a real safety feature when you’re on steep, slippery surfaces, which can be daunting: the vehicle’s traction control system brakes the wheels automatically to markedly slow any descent. The Snow/Mud setting can be activated at any speed if the driver suddenly encounters treacherous conditions like ice on the road, although you have to be under 60kph to lock the differential and gain real traction.
The Great Alpine Way winds through steep, tussock-covered country and provided a good opportunity to see how the Vitara handles, although I needed to factor in the all-terrain tyres, which did slightly compromise the experience. Despite this, it soaked up the bends nicely; sure the tyres meant it was no sports car, and I’d like to try with some tarmac-biased rubber, but I was still enjoying myself. There was a little body roll, although nothing I didn’t get used to and nothing I wouldn’t have expected. The ride is smooth and comfortable, just taut enough to be sporty, the steering highly responsive and directional. The paddle shifters on the steering wheel added to the seat-of-the-pants driving experience, and it felt more solid than I would have thought considering its weight and size.
The higher occupant vantage point of an SUV is a real bonus – the Vitara gave me great views over the road and out into the spectacular, rugged landscape.
The interior is comfortable. They’ve kept the materials and design simple, with a nod to the functional, rugged qualities of past SJ/Samurai and current Jimny models. And this is no bad thing: they’re easy to clean and they help keep the vehicle’s cost down, plus they help provide that sense of space you often lose when vehicles are full of plump, luxurious mouldings. The leg room in the back is a little on the minimal side, although that wouldn’t bother me if I was buying one with the kids in mind. The 375-litre boot isn’t huge but the clever sectional divider does help organise your stuff, and the storage box on the roof is a great addition. The rear seats fold forward 60:40 to provide room for mountain bikes or camping gear.
It’s a stylish and contemporary looking vehicle, sculpted to dynamic effect, while the ‘Rugged Pack’ extras of the example I drove add a certain functional, aspirational impression –the additional rear and side mouldings, the tough front grille treatment, the light guards, all combine to advertise its intentions as a vehicle ready and willing to take you away.
It might sound a bit weird, but by the end of the day I was starting to feel like the Vitara was my mate. Okay, that does sound weird. Take it for a proper spin and you’ll see what I mean. It’s so willing to please, so keen to do everything well, that you’ll start to understand why people have SUVs and swear by them. They can be comfortable and yet sporty on the road, assured and safe away from it. The Vitara Turbo is, for my money, an inspiring all-rounder, great for a city dweller who likes to get out of town. (And okay, it is fun.)