Vince Pornelos / Kelvin Christian Go | April 30, 2018 15:57
Superb, Bar None
Let me start this off by saying this Vitara is good; like really, really good.
It's highly unusual for us to start off a review right away with our verdict on the vehicle, but it's difficult not to. After several days living with and driving it, I'm honestly hard pressed to find any glaring (or even minor) flaw with this new generation Suzuki Vitara.
What I'm sure of, however, is that purists -particularly fans of the old Vitara- do have a few bones of contention, the first and foremost of which is the fact that it's gone soft.
Vitaras of decades past have always been different. Since 1989, this bigger (yet still relatively small) brother to the Jimny has always been an SUV in the truest sense of the acronym. Body-on-frame was its game, and they kept at that formula even when contemporaries like the RAV4 and CR-V were already crossovers from the start. The result was clear: the competitors from Toyota and Honda sold very well, and the Vitara became a bit of a niche model.
That's not to say the Vitara was a sub-standard model to its peers. No, Suzuki were doing their own thing, opting to produce a true SUV (with a real 4x4 system) that you can play with whether you're in a jungle of trees or concrete. They did make some changes when they made the previous model by fusing the ladder frame onto the body instead of the more traditional bolt-on way, but still, the competition soared ahead and sold in far greater numbers.
Finally Suzuki tore up the old playbook. It was time for Suzuki to take on the bigger names in the industry toe-to-toe, but the strategy was clearly rewritten by them to suit their specialty: small cars. And thus, they made it smaller.
Instead of upsizing like the RAV4 and CR-V and basically every single one of the Vitara's (and subsequent Grand Vitara's) peers, Suzuki made it smaller. A downsizing was what they performed, and as such the size of the Vitara is more similar to crossovers like the HR-V, Juke, CX-3, and the like. They even dropped the “Grand” moniker.
Clever is what it is; the B-segment SUV category is where the action is at, and is very competitive. It was natural for Suzuki to play to their strengths by downsizing the Vitara to the B segment, but that's not to say they cheaped out on the Vitara because they really didn't.
There's nothing “budgeted” about the Vitara's look. This Suzuki Vitara looks proper, and is even two toned with their bright shade of red for the lower body, then gloss black for all the sheet metal and pillars above the beltline. I like the proportions, the shape and the stance, though I do miss the ground clearance of the previous Grand Vitara (or GV); that one had 200mm (thereabouts) while this new crossover has 185mm of clearance. Still, it had no problems dealing with those pesky speed bumps at BGC or oddly angled parking lot ramps.
Given the pricing, it would have been OK to expect cost-saving measures like a plain looking vehicle with flat black door handles and halogen headlamps, but no. This comes with handsome 17-inch alloys, LED headlamps, and most unexpectedly: a full panoramic glass roof which can retract. Unless I'm mistaken, this is the most affordable vehicle in our market that offers near-open top driving pleasure.
The cabin is quite airy and has a somewhat cozy but spacious feel to it; I suspect it's because of the light brought in by the retractable fabric ceiling. The seat is quite upright as a crossover's should, and I quite like it that way; the seating position of the driver gives quite a clear view of the road ahead and around. The seat material is leather on this variant with some suede inserts. Both the steering wheel and shifter are upholstered in the leather material too. The rear seats are quite comfortable and not particularly snug; the space is just right for a comfortable drive.
Latches mounted on the rear seats fold them (almost) flat with the trunk; there's a bit of an angle when they're folded, but you can definitely load big pieces of cargo without much of a problem. The trunk is also interesting; it's got two layers with a movable shelf/cargo floor. The standard position of the cargo floor is aligned with the backrests folded, but there's another space underneath that could fit things like laptop bags to keep them away from prying eyes.
A customary look around the cabin shows that this Vitara comes fully loaded with some interesting equipment. Of course there are the usual power features like motorized windows and mirror adjustment, but it also comes with power retractable mirrors. On the panel near the driver's left knee, are buttons for the foglamps (not stalk mounted), the stability control system, and the front and rear sensors. There's a big LCD screen in front of the driver with readouts on fuel economy, odometer, and other bits of information. There are two airbags in front, two more airbags beside each of the front seats, and a pair of curtain airbags on the B-pillars. And instead of a standard manual airconditioning unit, this Vitara gets a full automatic climate control system. Even the keyfob is the smart-type; the kind you can keep in your pocket when you drive.
On the steering wheel you'll find that the Suzuki Vitara GLX gets audio controls, paddle shifters and cruise control as well. I also like the clock that they sandwiched in between the A/C vents in the middle, but perhaps the most eye catching feature of the Vitara is its 10-inch Android touch screen unit; it's massive, and comes loaded with everything you need. For anything else you want to install, just connect it with the Wifi hotspot on your smartphone and download any app you want from the Google Play Store. Yes, you can use Spotify or Waze right there.
I popped the clamshell hood open and take a look at the 1.6-liter M16A engine. The engine isn't particularly new; in fact Suzuki's M engine has been around since the early 2000's. Perhaps the clearest indication of the engine's age is the configuration of the exhaust and intake manifolds; unlike many newer engines which have the intake manifold in front and exhaust closer to the firewall, this Vitara still has the older configuration with the hotter exhaust headers in front (complete with heat shielding) and the intake at the back. An interesting note is also the location of the air filter which is built into the engine cover; the big plastic structure above the valve cover.
You can also tell a lot from where a vehicle is manufactured from a closer look at what's under the hood without looking at a manufacturing sticker or having to ask the salesperson, the PR executive, or Google. Normally we'd expect to see a lot of parts from Denso or other similar Japanese supplier, but this Vitara also a lot of components under the hood that are European like Bosch (anti-lock brakes, ECU, etc.) and the like. Perhaps the most telling is the EU-made Varta battery because cars are commonly equipped with batteries from the country or region where it is built or assembled. Having a Varta battery implies that this Suzuki Vitara is European made, and it is: Hungary, to be exact. That can also be confirmed by the manual which is printed by Magyar Suzuki of Hungary. So this is a European car then; now we know what kind of conduction plate design would match it.
Impressed as I am with the design (it just looks good), the build quality (it's solid), the features (there really is plenty), and the versatility (that trunk is really useful), I truly expected the 1586cc engine under the engine to be the weak point given my past experiences driving crossovers with engines that should have been left for little hatchbacks. In that respect, I was pleasantly proven wrong; the Suzuki Vitara is rather sprightly despite the puny engine.
In stoplight to stoplight traffic, this Vitara responds to my throttle inputs with an eagerness to move. It's not quick, per se, but it certainly doesn't feel slow or underpowered if you're driving in the city. More importantly, there's none of that unnerving noise that we usually get from CVT-equipped crossovers holding a relatively high RPM while trying to accelerate; this one comes with a proper 6-speed automatic, meaning the sound from the engine (which is nicely suppressed by the insulation) is commensurate to the actual speed or acceleration of the vehicle.
The ride over urban concrete is just right; it definitely feels well dialled-in by Suzuki's engineers to deal with the ribbed concrete common in developing countries (i.e. ours). Potholes or expansion joints on bridges don't unsettle the Vitara; just about the only thing that upsets the Vitara is a set of rumble strips (especially the ones built with too many layers). That's just the trade off for a short wheelbase vehicle; the front wheels is still moving with one bump when the rear runs over another strip.
The Vitara, if you've noticed, is no longer an off-roader. All the versions we have in the market are front-wheel drive, shedding away the 4x4 roots of the original. Personally, that's OK; majority of its customers wont be taking it off-road anyway. This is something that's perfect for daily driving in the city, given the light steering and ride height. The airconditioning system also does well to suppress the tropical heat, though I would recommend getting a darker or high quality film for the panoramic roof to deal with the noontime sun. The Vitara is easy to park given its size, but moreover it's perfect for those who are relatively inexperienced at maneuvering within the city or tight spaces given the presence of the sensors and the reverse camera display on that huge Android screen.
But the most impressive quality about the Vitara is the fuel economy. After fueling up, average of 18 km/h in city driving (which is relatively heavy traffic for my daily route) this Suzuki's fuel economy readout was at 9.6 kilometers to a liter. I verified the accuracy of that readout at the fuel station, and it was 0.2 km/l off the actual... lower, in fact. The real economy was 9.8 km/l. On the highway, the readout was 16.2 km/l at an average of 91 km/h.
When a mountain pass opens up, however, the Suzuki Vitara showed me another impressive dimension of itself: it handles well. The steering isn't much for feel in the classic sense, but the control of the body's weight by the suspension is really good; it feels properly suited for cornering with minimal roll. And the way the Aisin automatic gearbox responds is confidence inspiring; you don't really have to pull the paddles to get it to kick down as it naturally reacts when you put down your right foot on the go pedal, maximizing the available potential from the 1.6-liter engine. Just for the sake of nitpicking, we could wish for Suzuki's 1.4-liter turbocharged motor, but that would definitely push up the price, so that's fine. The engine is just right for the size and performs well with the gearbox.
The best bit is the price. Despite having to be shipped halfway around the world and with such good equipment, this top-of-the-line 2018 Suzuki Vitara GLX costs just PhP 1,098,000. Mind you, that price has already gone up from the launch price at PhP 1,048,000 in November of last year, but at the current price, it's definitely still a great value.
To say the 2018 Vitara has impressed us is quite the understatement. Rarely does a new vehicle impress on every quantitative and qualitative yardstick we have, and then some. The only thing we wish Suzuki did was bring this fourth generation Vitara in sooner (it was launched internationally in 2015) because -after driving and enjoying it- we've been missing out on one of the best small cars for the price, bar none.