by Huw Thomas
LESS than a year since its UK debut, Suzuki now offers the Vitara with a new petrol engine as a more distinct, up-market model. The standard line-up stays the same – SZ4, SZ-T and SZ5 with asking prices ranging from £13,999 to £21,799. Engines for these are either a 1.6 litre petrol or 1.6 DDiS Diesel both producing 120ps. The Vitara S combines the ALLGRIP (on-demand) 4WD system, previously available only on the SZ5, with a 1.4L variant of the newly-developed BOOSTERJET (turbo-charged, direct injection) petrol engine range. Power output is 140ps and (at last) there’s a new six-speed manual gearbox to do proper justice to the petrol unit’s output. The 1.6 DDiS engine has had a six-speed manual transmission for some time and the auto-box option for the petrol unit is also six-speed. That’s available on the new S too for an extra £1,390 but, some sort of necessity aside, the manual’s the obvious choice. The 1.4 BOOSTERJET might not boast anything radical but its well-wrought turbo application and free-revving nature transforms the car, pulling strongly through the gears. It’s altogether more responsive than the modest 0-62mph time might suggest. The six-speed manual ‘box is good to use and well-matched to the engine. Suspension is a little stiffer for steadier cornering and body control but ride quality does not suffer too much. Steering is sharp enough – not too light if rather lifeless and uncommunicative. As with many of its ilk a transfer box and high/low ratio gearing are gone but, despite a front wheel drive default setting, the 4×4 set-up with Auto, Sport, Snow and (50-50 front-rear) Lock modes provide a decent amount of off-road capability. Hill-hold and Hill-Descent, via the car’s electronics, are further assets. Rather than merely react to front wheel slip, ALLGRIP apparently is more proactive. It will kick in on-road not just off it during acceleration and fast cornering, for example, more overtly when Sport mode is activated. Its immediate benefit is preventing front wheel spin during a sharp step-off on a wet road, track and/or when towing etc. Like many compact SUV/Cross-overs, the Vitara combines the virtues of a five-door hatch with MPV-like versatility inside. So, where does this S variant stand? For the SZ4 headline equipment includes silver roof rails, 16” alloy wheels, DAB-CD audio, Bluetooth, USB connection and airconditioning. SZ-T adds 17” alloys, active ‘phone pairing and standard fitment of Satellite Navigation (it’s aimed at business buyers). A step up to SZ5 brings polished alloys, LED headlights, active cruise-control, radar emergency braking and a glass roof: £18,499 (petrol); £19,999 (DDiS). The SZ-T, however, seems a better buy at £15,999 or £17,499. From the outset, offering 4×4 on the SZ-T appeared to be a good idea and, to an extent, that’s what the new S does. More highlighted bodywork includes an upper aero-spoiler at the rear and polished black alloys. Inside, red stitching for the seats adds to the plusher ambience. It’s great to see a proper mechanical handbrake retained (as for the entire range) which, combined with the standard ALLGRIP system, confers real dynamic credibility both on and off-road. This stands it in good stead when up against its more obvious rivals: Nissan Juke; Vauxhall Mokka; Skoda Yeti; FIAT 500X; Renault (FWD only) Captur. Although clearly frugal for a petrol vehicle of its type, the Vitara S is expensive at £20,899 when compared to the SZ-T (albeit FWD only) and SZ5 petrol ALLGRIP (£20,299) if cheaper than SZ5 DDiS ALLGRIP (£21,799). That said, there is no doubt the S is the best Vitara model by a country mile. The new engine and gear-box has given this remarkably driveable and likeable car a real “boost” throughout. Facts and figures: 124mph; 0-62mph 10.2 secs; 52.3mpg (official combined); 35-37mpg on test (brim to brim); 40mpg (trip computer); CO2 127g/km (road tax band D and £110pa); insurance group 16E; maximum braked trailer weight 1,200kg.