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Suzuki Vitara 1.6

 

They said I was mad driving Suzuki's 1.6-litre three-door Vitara over 1800 kilometres.

It's too big for the engine, not big enough for the luggage was the verdict from the many smart-mouthed motor-noters questioning my sanity. They also questioned this car's right to exist, forgetting that not everyone buys a vehicle based purely on engine size, or dynamic ability. And we all know few SUVs are actually bought to go off-road.

This one's effectively a compact car with attitude; sold to people who like the combination of high-riding driving position and compact dimensions, who want something easy to use in our towns or cities, but who don't want a sensible hatch - or who need a bit of 4WD grip without going overboard.

Mainly, it has to be said, to women - so wherever I went, I conducted an informal survey. What did they think? Rural blokes hated it, thought it a pointless waste of space. The one metrosexual I asked - a mountain biker and tramper, nightclubber and cafe frequenter who hauls photographic equipment in his daily job - liked it. And every woman loved it.

But loving it's one thing. Can it do the job?

As it happened, I had to move out of my house for 10 days while floor work took place. I had to pack into the Suzuki my motorcycle gear (SJ50QT commuter scooter economy ride); my smart threads (couple of business meetings); wedding clobber (boyfriend's mate); stuff for everyday; the laptop, plus assorted crates and bags of work. In other words, a LOT of stuff, some of which I'd need to access frequently.

Luckily the rear seats swivel-fold completely out of the way, a quick and easy process thanks to the lever mounted on the rear of each seat. The result is a surprisingly spacious 516-litre space with a flat load floor, and the option of leaving one seat in use.

Loaded up, I now had to drive nearly 600km to Palmerston North to meet the scooter, appropriately enough also a Suzuki. Now, this Vitara has only a 1586cc engine, with 78kW on offer at 5900rpm, and 145Nm at 4100. To push a vehicle weighing 1425kg. Yes, that's 150kg less than the bigger Vitara five-door, but it's a lot for a 1.6: the Suzuki Liana 1.6 hatch weighs 255kg less, with virtually the same engine to push it.

Moreover, an SUV is hardly an aerodynamically efficient vehicle. So I'm lucky this car comes only in manual form.

Stir up the cogs and it gets about quite nicely round town. Indeed it gets up to the open road speed limit just fine, and on smooth, open roads it scampers along apparently effortlessly - and without too painful a thirst indicated on the instant fuel read-out. By Rangiriri my bank balance was relaxing, and I was enjoying the wide, comfy seats, the capable sound system, the decent array of cubbyholes and the smart interior. But as I headed south the engine's lack of pep began to intrude. Hit a long uphill and you'll need to change to fourth. Or third. In third it'll still pull surprisingly strongly uphill and the engine didn't sound as thrashy as expected, but the instant fuel trip meter didn't bear consulting.

On the bright side, ride and handling was surprisingly good. These short-wheelbase SUVs can get a little choppy, especially on rough roads. But this wheelbase isn't as short as the overall dimensions suggest. It's 200mm shorter than the five-door, yes, but only 40mm less than that Liana. Sure, it's a tad bouncy - it's a high-riding SUV with full-time 4WD, and that's what you expect. But there's minimal body roll and overall the set-up is more confident and refined than I'd expected.

Better yet, at journey's end my rear was still in good order. Which couldn't be said for it the next day. After five hours on the scooter I blessed the Vitara's broad and comfy cushion. The boyfriend was less impressed. He's a useful type, this Vitara didn't ring his bell, and he was happy to tell me about it - all the way to Wanganui, and all the way back. Again, the 1.6 didn't like the hills, but dropping a cog in anticipation got us up them without much loss of momentum - we even overtook a few cars.

What about round town? Suddenly it feels much smaller than it is. At 4004mm it's 465mm shorter than the five-door, and 235 shorter than that Liana. Factor in the excellent all-round visibility and it's a doddle to park and manoeuvre. The wide doors make using the rear seats a practical proposition, and though the boot's only 184 litres with all seats in use, that's more than some small hatches and proved adequate for the daily grind.

What if I'd wanted to go off-road? Small SUVs have an advantage in that they'll thread easily between trees, plus their ramp-over angle, which lets you clamber over sharpish edges, is better than that of the longer cars. In this case the three-door also offers a better departure angle than its bigger siblings. But you won't be seriously bush-bashing without low range.

No, this Vitara's more at home on easier tracks, going skiing, boating or hiking; negotiating that tricky campsite or clambering over those kerbs.

It's ideally suited to singles or couples who want to carry luggage or people, but not both. Those owners will mainly be tooling around town, and will like this car's style - and usefulness - enough to make the compromises needed.

One of which is the car's thirst. Suzuki says it will sip at 7.8 litres/100km on the open road and a more hefty 11 round town for a 9.0 litre/100km overall figure. The instant readout certainly dropped below 7.8 on stretches of motorway, but factor in the hilly bits and the news wasn't so good.

Still, it wasn't far off - after 1150km she'd drunk 9.49 litres/100km, including all the urban stretches, and I still had the 600km-odd return trip to go. Add in the equivalent of the trip down, and she'd have averaged 9.15 overall. Not brilliant, but much better than I achieved in a 2.0-litre Hyundai Tucson.

Would I buy one? No. I'd want either more off-road ability or more sporting on-road prowess - though I'd have to pay more than this Vitara's $25,500 to get either.

I'd been as big a sceptic at the start of the trip as my colleagues. Yet by the end I was fond of the wee Suzuki. It's stylish, cheeky and fun; more practical than I'd expected, and certainly capable of making the argument against more traditional compact cars.

Suzuki Vitara 1.6 three-door specifications

Engine: 1586cc inline four-cylinder with variable valve timing, Maximum power, 78kW at 5900rpm. Peak torque, 145Nm at 4100rpm.

Transmission: Permanent four-wheel drive. Five-speed manual gearbox.

Wheels: 16-inch steel.

Tyres: 225/70 R16.

Fuel economy: Urban, 11 litres per 100km. Highway, 7.8 litres/100km. Combined, 9 litres/100km (Suzuki's figures). Observed, 9.45 litres/100km (overall).

Dimensions: Length, 4005mm. Width, 1810mm. Height, 1695mm. Wheelbase, 2440mm.

 


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