Although the Lada was crudely assembled its engineering was sound, so it proved a robust and capable off-roader that in the '70s captured 40% of European 4X4.
The earlier Vitara, also marketed as the Escudo and Sidekick at different times in different markets, was produced from 1988 until the arrival of the fourth-generation current model in 2015.
The new version, as recently delivered to us for evaluation, is now a front-wheel-drive compact crossover that's 125mm shorter, 85mm lower, 35 mm narrower and with a wheelbase 140mm shorter than that of the earlier model. Although the current model is available with four-wheel-drive it should not be confused with the previous model or the current Grand Vitara, because it's not a true 4X4.
So, that's what it isn't, so what is it? An attractively styled, well built and lively crossover with the makings of a very good family wagon.
There are five models available here, GL and GLX versions each in two and four-wheel-drive with five-speed manual transmissions, and a GLX 4X4 version with a six-speed auto box. All use the same naturally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol engine that brings 86kW at 6,000rpm and 151Nm of torque at 4,000rpm to the party.
The model we drove was the second cheapest version, the 1.6 GL+ manual that adds a few niceties like alloy wheels, grey fender trim, cruise control, electric rear windows, a leather-covered steering wheel and fog lamps to the GL spec. The standard GL spec is adequate, with traction and stability control, ABS, sounds and front, side, curtain and knee airbags.
The interior of the Suzuki is tidy, although some of the plastics lack a quality feel. My biggest gripe stems from the fact that the driver's door and boot hatch feel light and flimsy, sometimes requiring a fair bit of force to get them to close properly. This is something I whinged about on Nissans a decade or so ago, saying that if I were importing the cars I'd stuff 500g of lead into the bottom of each door to give it a solid feel.
The Vitara thrives on revs and feels a little flat at the bottom end, but not enough to be distracting. The factory's coy about quoting performance figures, but independent testers have recorded a 0-100km/h time of 10.79 questions and a top speed of 180km/h, which ties up with the way it feels. Ride, handling and steering are all good and there's loads of space for people and luggage.
All in all the Suzuki Vitara is a likeable car built by a very reputable manufacturer. Its biggest problem is that there are so many other offerings with similar claims. I think its styling, space and Suzuki's reputation are strong points, and at R269,900 it's certainly worth consideration.