Automotive

Review: Suzuki strikes the right balance with light-footed Vitara Turbo

Review: Suzuki strikes the rig...
The Vitara Turbo has a nice, light-footed feeling 
The Vitara Turbo has a nice, light-footed feeling 
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The Suzuki Vitara Turbo is the nicest city four-wheel drive we've driven
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The Suzuki Vitara Turbo is the nicest city four-wheel drive we've driven
The Vitara Turbo looks tough, but it's front-drive only 
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The Vitara Turbo looks tough, but it's front-drive only 
The color of our Vitara Turbo won't be to everyone's taste, but it certainly helps the car stand out 
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The color of our Vitara Turbo won't be to everyone's taste, but it certainly helps the car stand out 
The Vitara Turbo looks meaner than the standard Vitara
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The Vitara Turbo looks meaner than the standard Vitara
Suzuki has dipped into the tinsel box and added plenty of fake vents and colorful touches to the Vitara Turbo 
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Suzuki has dipped into the tinsel box and added plenty of fake vents and colorful touches to the Vitara Turbo 
Suzuki has taken a leaf from Audi's book with the mirror caps on the Vitara Turbo 
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Suzuki has taken a leaf from Audi's book with the mirror caps on the Vitara Turbo 
Just in case you weren't sure, the Vitara Turbo is, well, turbocharged 
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Just in case you weren't sure, the Vitara Turbo is, well, turbocharged 
Suzuki is not afraid to show off its badge on the nose of the Vitara 
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Suzuki is not afraid to show off its badge on the nose of the Vitara 
Another splash of color on the Suzuki Vitara Turbo 
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Another splash of color on the Suzuki Vitara Turbo 
The Vitara Turbo has just over 100 kW of power 
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The Vitara Turbo has just over 100 kW of power 
Black wheels are standard on the Vitara Turbo 
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Black wheels are standard on the Vitara Turbo 
The Suzuki Vitara Turbo is deceptively small 
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The Suzuki Vitara Turbo is deceptively small 
The Vitara Turbo is shorter than a Mazda CX-3, but feels and looks bigger
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The Vitara Turbo is shorter than a Mazda CX-3, but feels and looks bigger
The Vitara Turbo is front-drive, but an all-wheel drive version is available 
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The Vitara Turbo is front-drive, but an all-wheel drive version is available 
The boot of the Vitara with its false-floor in place
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The boot of the Vitara with its false-floor in place
The boot of the Vitara is deeper than that of the Mazda CX-3
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The boot of the Vitara is deeper than that of the Mazda CX-3
The BoosterJet engine is a highlight of the Vitara Turbo 
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The BoosterJet engine is a highlight of the Vitara Turbo 
The BoosterJet name hints at the fun that lies within
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The BoosterJet name hints at the fun that lies within
The compact nose of the Suzuki Vitara Turbo
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The compact nose of the Suzuki Vitara Turbo
The 1.4-liter turbo engine in the Suzuki BoosterJet
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The 1.4-liter turbo engine in the Suzuki BoosterJet
Rear seat space is acceptable, but not incredible, in the Suzuki Vitara Turbo
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Rear seat space is acceptable, but not incredible, in the Suzuki Vitara Turbo
The seats in the Vitara Turbo are comfortable and nicely trimmed
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The seats in the Vitara Turbo are comfortable and nicely trimmed
The dials of the Suzuki Vitara Turbo
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The dials of the Suzuki Vitara Turbo
The Vitara Turbo even has a clock 
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The Vitara Turbo even has a clock 
There's plenty of joy to be found behind the wheel of the Vitara Turbo 
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There's plenty of joy to be found behind the wheel of the Vitara Turbo 
The Vitara Turbo has a six-speed automatic gearbox 
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The Vitara Turbo has a six-speed automatic gearbox 
The Vitara Turbo has a tall, spacious cabin 
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The Vitara Turbo has a tall, spacious cabin 
Metal pedals in the Suzuki Vitara Turbo 
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Metal pedals in the Suzuki Vitara Turbo 
The cute little Vitara Turbo looking good in the city
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The cute little Vitara Turbo looking good in the city
The new Suzuki Vitara Turbo rides nicely, and handles flat 
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The new Suzuki Vitara Turbo rides nicely, and handles flat 
The Vitara Turbo in its natural environment 
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The Vitara Turbo in its natural environment 
The Suzuki Vitara Turbo is inherently likeable 
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The Suzuki Vitara Turbo is inherently likeable 
The Vitara Turbo is at home in the city 
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The Vitara Turbo is at home in the city 
The Vitara Turbo has a nice, light-footed feeling 
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The Vitara Turbo has a nice, light-footed feeling 
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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.

Just in case you weren't sure, the Vitara Turbo is, well, turbocharged 
Just in case you weren't sure, the Vitara Turbo is, well, turbocharged 

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.

The Suzuki Vitara Turbo is inherently likeable 
The Suzuki Vitara Turbo is inherently likeable 

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.

The compact nose of the Suzuki Vitara Turbo
The compact nose of the Suzuki Vitara Turbo

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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2 comments
davimill
You give us this rave review of the car and then IN THE VERY LAST SENTENCE tell us that it's not sold in America?
Jason Catterall
@davimil Yes, because there are other countries besides America.