There’s no need to agonise over a car, hatch or wagon when you’re shopping for a small Japanese car.
Think a bit laterally and you can have one of the most versatile, distinctive and dependable vehicles on the road; one which combines the attributes of all three. Suzuki’s three-door Vitara, or Escudo in used-import guise, is a tremendous little vehicle, ideal for around-town running, yet perfectly capable on a long highway trip. The same can be said of the five-door, which rides better, but it’s longer and loses the distinctive styling edge of the three-door. The larger vehicle was introduced six years after the three-door.
Readers with a long memory will know that the Vitara had a reputation as a “hairdresser’s special”, but it’s managed to rise above the put-down to be one of the most recognisable, most original shapes from Japan’s auto designers for many years. Although most customers never bought a Vitara for its off-road abilities, it’s quite good in the rough, aided by small size and low weight but hindered by lack of ground clearance. Suitably modified, growing numbers of old Vitaras are being used in 4WD competitions and acquit themselves well. Even if you never plan to go down to the woods today, the 4WD can still be useful in low-traction situations such as unsealed back roads, sand, mud, heavy rain or snow. The Vitara’s 4WD origin means the driver sits higher than in most cars, and with generous mirrors and windows, has an excellent view of what’s going on ahead, behind and either side. The seats are comfortable and supportive and even today the interior looks good. Its rear seats split/fold to provide a decent cargo area. With both seats flat, it’s amazing how much can be stowed back there.
Some softtop Vitaras were sold to people who enjoy fresh air, but flapping at highway speeds was often annoying. And in 1996, Suzuki went off on a tangent and produced the X-90 two-seater version. Its styling was widely derided and its small boot managed to destroy the wagon’s excellent utility. It disappeared a couple of years later and today may be appreciated more for its novelty value than it ever was when in production. A 1.6-litre 60kW eight-valve motor originally provided power for New Zealand Vitaras, replaced in 1992 by a 71kW 16-valve version. A 97kW two-litre motor from the Baleno car was sold alongside the 1.6 from 1997, offering 36 per cent more power and 25 per cent more torque. A 2.0-litre 100kW V6 was introduced in the five-door in 1995, but some used-import three-doors also have it. Diesel appeared in 1997 in the five-door but the 64kW motor was underwhelming. A four-speed automatic was available in some models.
Ten million Vitaras were sold worldwide, from 1988 to replacement by the Grand Vitara in 1999. Although improved in many areas, the Grand Vitara’s styling was ordinary and lacked the “wow” factor of its predecessor. At one time, the Vitara enjoyed one of the highest resale values of any vehicle in the country, but a flood of used Escudos starting around 1996 quickly ate away the great residuals. Today, a good one offers excellent value for money. Closest rival was the Daihatsu Feroza. In some respects it was better than the Vitara, but lacked the Suzuki’s styling appeal. Far more common and a ground breaker in its own right, the original Toyota RAV4 would be a good alternative.