Compact four-wheel drives are everywhere at the moment, but that wasn't always the case. When the original Suzuki Vitara launched in 1988, it was essentially in a class of one, a cute three-door with a foldable roof for summertime shenanigans. The Vitara Turbo we've been driving this week doesn't have much in common with the original, but that's no bad thing.

Buyers driving the current compact crossover crop love the commanding driving position, but that usually comes with a few caveats. For one, jacking up the ride height has a negative impact on handling, not to mention adding weight. That weight penalty is worth paying if you head off-road, but road tires and limited ground clearance make most compact SUVs, well, useless off the beaten track.

The Vitara Turbo might have a high driving position, but it doesn't drive like your average city-slicking crossover. Sure, it looks tough, but under the skin is a charming package imbued with a lightweight feeling that makes some hatchbacks feel sluggish in comparison. The little Suzuki is one of the finest city SUVs we've had the privilege of driving.

The original Vitara is still something of a cult hero, although there aren't all that many left on the road. It was small and bright, like the lovechild of a Jeep Wrangler and the Malibu Barbie convertible, and buyers could liven their cars up with sticker packages. Pink paw prints, fluorescent turbo decals and '80s stripes were all optional, and plenty of buyers chose to add them to their cars.

The car we've been driving wasn't a drop-top, and pink paw print stickers were (mercifully) absent, but the sense of fun from the original is still woven deep into its DNA. The joy starts with it four-cylinder BoosterJet turbocharged engine – even the name is fun! Peak power is pegged at 103 kW (138 hp) and peak torque is a handy 220 Nm (162 lb-ft), all put to the road through the front wheels. A manual is offered in the entry-level car, but higher spec models come with a six-speed automatic gearbox.

Those aren't huge outputs, but the Vitara is deceptively small. Not only is it shorter than a Mazda CX-3, it's narrower and significantly lighter, tipping the scales at just under 1,200 kg (2,646 lb). That means the refined little BoosterJet feels more powerful than it really is, pulling strongly from just above idle, and delivering a nice little kick in the back on the way to its 6,000 rpm redline. Are the young mothers and fashion-conscious college kids who like these cars likely to go chasing the redline? Not really, but the Vitara Turbo has a bit of sparkle under the hood, and that really helps it stand out.

Sparkle doesn't come at the cost of efficiency, because the Turbo is properly parsimonious. Suzuki claims a combined figure of 5.9 l/100km (39 mpg), although you do need to fill up with more expensive 95RON unleaded instead of the less refined jungle-juice its non-turbo siblings drink. We averaged 6.8 l/100km (34.6 mpg) in our time, which is impressive given it spent a lot of time sitting in soul-crushing stop/start traffic.

So it's got a perky little engine, and doesn't drink too heavily. It would probably be greedy to ask for fleet-footed handling, wouldn't it? In most cases it would be, but the Vitara Turbo is up for the challenge. Key to the appeal is, once again, weight – or a lack thereof. The nose feels keen to turn, and the steering is reassuringly weighty at speed. Most city SUVs sacrifice heft for low-speed lightness, but the Vitara strikes a perfect balance between reverse-parking friendliness and backroad weight. Its inherent lightness has us wondering how so many manufacturers get it so wrong.

You might have gathered already, but I like this car. City crossovers aren't really my usual diet, and I hate the fact every compact SUV sold leaves a hatchback or wagon still sitting on dealer lots. And yet this front-wheel drive Vitara, which is essentially a regular hatch on stilts, has wormed its way under my skin with its punchy engine and light-footed handling. That said, there are still are a few niggles.

Its styling is handsome, and the two-tone roof treatment is likely to win fans among the fashion-conscious crowd, but in Atlantis Turquoise Pearl Metallic it's a bit much for our tastes. The big-car looks also cloak the fact it's actually a small hatch, but the illusion is shattered the second you open the 375-liter (13.2 cu.ft) boot. It's deeper and wider than the piddling CX-3 load bay, but anyone searching for genuine big-car space should look elsewhere.

The basic layout of the interior is logical, but there are a few scratchy plastics scattered around, and the lack of a central armrest is tiring on longer drives. This isn't a cheap car, but the hard door trim would feel underwhelming in a $10k supermini, let alone a range-topping four-wheel drive. We wouldn't recommend driving around while scratching the dashboard, but the same hard material has been used there too.

The central touchscreen can also be a bit laggy, although it's loaded with functionality. Bluetooth streaming, Apple CarPlay and factory navigation are all standard in the Vitara S Turbo, something you can't say about similarly-priced rivals from Mazda and GM. There's even a clock in the dash, just like you get in a Mercedes E-Class. Unlike the Mercedes, you can even pay around $200 for a new set of trim pieces, and completely change the feel of the cabin to keep it fresh.

Of all the little four-wheel drives we've tested, the Vitara stands out as the undisputed king. It's not the most technologically advanced, and some buyers will bemoan the lack of auto-emergency braking and lane-keeping assist, but there's just something about the turbo that makes it hard to ignore. How does it compare with the Mazda CX-3? Well, the CX-3 we drove was hamstrung by its little diesel engine, and we haven't driven the gasoline-powered version, but it would be hard pressed to impress us more than the 1.4-turbo in the Suzuki.

Pricing starts at AU$28,990 (US$22,000) in Australia, with an AWD version adding an extra AU$3,000 to the price. Unfortunately for those in the Land of the Free, the car isn't actually on sale in the USA after Suzuki withdrew from the market last year.

Product page: Suzuki

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