BY JONATHAN CROUCH
If ever a car was designed according to a marketing department's orders, the Suzuki Vitara is surely it. This fashionable compact 4x4 was the model that put the franchise on the map in Britain and quickly became a style accessory. Though obviously an off roader, it isn't really designed for the exceptionally rough stuff, though the car's relatively low weight and high ground clearance are an advantage off the beaten track. On the road, the loud bodykits and aggressive alloy wheels fitted to some examples often try to suggest a post-GTi performance car; here too, however, compromises are in evidence. Best just to think of it as something affordably different - a breath of fresh air.
Models Covered: 1988-2000: Three-door 2/4-seat soft top, hardtop, 5-door hardtop: 1.6, 2.0V6, 2.0 turbo diesel [Sport, JX, JLX, JLX SE, JX 16v, JLX SE 16v, Sport, 4U, V6 24v]
There are three body styles but only one, the three-door hardtop, was available at the November 1988 launch. The first engine was a 1.6 and it also featured in the second version to be launched; a soft-top, in August 1989. The SE three-door arrived in the December and boasted alloy wheels, central locking and electric windows. The third and final shape, a five-door, was released in September 1991 with a 16-valve version of the 1.6-litre engine. Other models did not receive the new engine as standard until November 1994. The (Mazda-powered) turbo diesel arrived in January 1996, six months after the first V6-engined cars. The 1997 changes consisted of a more powerful diesel engine and minor changes to the car's appearance; all three-door cars received a new bumper and grille, while dual airbags became available on all models. In early 1998, the V6 five-door model was replaced by the all-new 2.5-litre V6 Grand Vitara. Later that year, the turbo diesel five-door model was also replaced by a Grand Vitara variant. However, when the three-door soft-top 2.0-litre Grand Vitara arrived in June 1999, the importers decided to continue it alongside the 1.6-litre Vitara JX Sport and JX Soft-Top models which had continued to sell strongly. The car was phased out in October 2000.
What You Get
A certain image. Loud music accompanies some Vitaras as they cruise the streets of Britain's cities and suburbs. If you want to remain anonymous, try and find a virgin example, which remains as it came off the boat from Japan; otherwise, this is not your car. On the other hand, if you want something that says you're 'kickin', then look no further. The Vitara is actually fine as an off roader, but the part-time four-wheel drive system is probably only used rarely by most owners. Still, it's good to have it for those mornings when you wake to find a sudden fall of snow. You won't be in one of those cars that are sliding all over the road.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
If your Vitara has been used extensively off road, you'll soon see. That's not necessarily a worry, just cause for some extra bargaining with the seller. Paint scratches and minor dents on the underside will be obvious tell-tales. The engines are strong and reliable but always check the service history if you can. The 2.0 V6 loves to rev so check for damage (look for a smoky exhaust), especially if the seller is waxing lyrical to you about his car's amazing on-the-limit handling.
(Based on a 8v 1.6 three-door and exclusive of VAT) A clutch will set you back about £320 and a new exhaust £210, however this does include the cost of a catalyst. Front shocks are close to £80 each. An alternator comes in just under £150, as does an exchange starter motor. A new windscreen will be just under £120 and an exchange radiator about £75. Replacement door mirrors are around the £85 mark.
On the Road
On the road, as long as you take it easy, a Vitara will handle adequately. If you try and push it, however, particularly on bumpy surfaces, you'll soon want to back off - despite those racy looks. Like many 4x4s, the short wheelbase and high centre of gravity lead to pitching, front to rear, as you drive along on undulating B roads. In extreme circumstances, it might even make your passengers car sick, especially if the shock absorbers are also worn. The steering is fine by off road standards, but a bit ponderous for an enthusiast driver. Remember, this is a car that has been designed for a life both on and off the road and you may well forgive the compromised driving characteristics.
Like any 4x4, drive before you buy, just in case you were expecting the handling of a sports car. That's not what the Vitara's about. It's a practical car that you can play and show off in, as well as take off road. You couldn't say that about a GTi, could you?