Peter Anderson road tests and reviews the 2016 Suzuki Vitara RT-S with specs, fuel consumption and verdict.

Aside from the much-beloved Swift, the Suzuki brand doesn’t have a lot of nameplates that resonate with Australian markets, but Vitara is one of them.

As a result, the re-introduction of the Vitara badge has been a serious, boots-and-all job by the local office, with two petrol engines, a diesel, three types of transmission and some unexpected goodies in the spec list to attract buyers.

The car has been around almost a year now and it’s starting to (finally) catch on with its sharp pricing and hatchback-like presentation.

After a drive of the top-of-the-range RT-X diesel, it was time to spend a week at the other end of the range, the 1.6-litre, non-turbo, five-speed manual petrol engine RT-S.

The RT-S is tremendous fun. You weren’t expecting that, and neither were we.

Price and features

The RT-S kicks off the range at $21,990 drive away, which doesn’t look like a bargain at first until you see the price of the RT-X diesel (a distant $14,000, or one whole automatic Celerio further up the price list) and the list of standard gear.

Standard inclusions are 17-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, reversing camera (which is rather good), remote central locking, cruise control, front fog lamps, satnav, leather steering wheel, power windows and mirrors, dark tint on the rear windows, roof rails and LED running lights. 

The stereo is run from the 7-inch screen that’s common right across the range. Cut into quarters it’s one of the better contenders from Japan and downright brilliant from Suzuki given their poor form in other cars. The sound is acceptable from the four speakers but has an irritating pair of soft buttons instead of a volume knob to control the loudness. It’s the kind of fiddly stupidity that would slowly drive you spare over an extended period of time, but fortunately the steering-wheel-mounted controls give you a better option.

Options are pretty thin on the ground, with $500-$995 metallic paint and a black roof for $995. Spec it up and you’re still getting out of the dealership for under $24,000. That’s value.

Practicality

It’s very hatchy in here, which means decent space in the boot – 375 litres with the seats up, 1120 with the 60/40 split fold seats down – and a clever false floor that can easily be whipped out for a bit of extra space or used as a laptop/briefcase hidey hole.

There’s a decent-sized glovebox, two cupholders up front and bottle holders in every door, the rears taking an upright 1.25 litre bottle without hassle. There’s no rear armrest, so no cupholders in the back.

Design

Upright and SUV-ish, the Vitara is quite deceptive. There’s all the expected design cues from the marque, with a clamshell bonnet, big headlight cluster, chunky cladding – all things to make it look bigger than it is. It’s quite an attractive car, overall, with the unpainted plastic employed with restraint to give it a slightly rugged look.

Inside, there’s a lot of hard plastic but it does feel light and airy, except perhaps for the front passenger, because the dash is quite high and the glovebox presents a steep cliff face of hard grey plastic.

This basic car has very little colour in it, even with the white accents in the fabric, so a few hundred bucks (or a bit of arm-twisting at the dealership) to get the dash trim and vent surrounds lightened up will improve things.

The dash is an almost entirely conventional design, but well-built and crafted with simple ergonomics in mind. The interior feels pretty solid, actually, with the exception of a few areas like the plastic mouldings for the bottle holders.

The window seats in the back are very comfortable for almost six-footers and those not too far over will fit as well, because the fronts seats sit high, meaning your can cram your feet in underneath.

There are no air vents back there, so things can get a bit stuffy, but hopefully the super-dark tint will take the edge off the heat.

If you’re in the middle, let us offer our condolences – the empty transmission tunnel and uncomfortable, narrow space reserved for what would have to be a bony bum borders on the inhumane.

The doors are really light, too, which speaks of the car’s cheap cheerfulness, and need a  good shove to get them to shut.

Engine and transmission

This is probably the only part of the Vitara that feels a bit old; it’s a 1.6-litre, naturally aspirated 16-valve four cylinder, puffing out 88kW and a measly 156Nm. Luckily, the Suzuki weighs less than most traditional hatchbacks (and some cars that are quite a bit smaller) at just 1075kg (thank you, light-feeling doors). Sadly the 0-100km/h is a glacial 11.5 seconds, with power transferred, eventually, to the front wheels via a five-speed manual.

Fuel consumption

Suzuki claims a 5.1L/100km on the combined cycle. In our enthusiastic, city-bound peddling of the Vitara we got a more realistic 8.0L/100km, which is not bad considering our merciless, joyful revving.

Driving

What is genuinely surprising to learn is that the RT-S is tremendous fun. You weren’t expecting that, and neither were we.

Suzuki was, however, because it’s completely upfront about this car being tuned to handle like the hatchbacks the company is baiting with its price point.

While the engine is completely gutless, once you’re under way the light kerb weight, decent tyres and front-end grip mean you can have a great deal of fun, in much the same way you would in a fab little 1.0-litre Renault Clio.

The engine cheerfully revs to the redline and if you’re in any kind of hurry at all you’ll appreciate that, because below about 3500rpm very little happens. It feels like a free-spinner and works well with the gearbox, even if the ratios are a bit long.

When driven normally, the clutch and gearbox work very well together, with just a mild notchiness in the shift that you won’t notice after a few days. You won’t miss sixth gear either, because there just isn’t the torque to hold the speed steady.

The ride is on the firm and sometimes bouncy side, with sharp vertical movements occasionally upsetting the mood in the cabin. There’s also a fair amount of body roll but it’s controlled and predictable, with the added benefit of an otherwise smooth highway ride.

You can barely hear the engine once you’re up and running, unlike most of its competitors, which have engines that sound like an upturned hornet’s nest when you sink the throttle. As with all the other Vitaras, the steering engineers drew the short straw when it came to funding (the Swift is the same), with a dead tiller the only real problem for the driver. You really have no sense of what’s going on under the front rubber through your steering wheel.

Safety

Seven airbags (including knee airbag), ABS, traction and stability controls and hill-descent control add up to a five star ANCAP rating, the highest possible score.

Absent are clever things like autonomous emergency braking, reverse cross traffic alert or blind-spot sensors. Sadly, they’re not even available as options, or at least not in Australia. This is the same right across the range.

Ownership

The Vitara comes with Suzuki’s three-year/100,000km warranty and five year/100,000km capped-price servicing regime. The Vitara’s services come at six months or 10,000km, with prices fixed at $249 per service, with a blip up to $295 for the two-year and four-year services.

The total over five years is $2582, with an average $258.20 per service. Unlike most rivals, there is no complimentary roadside assist on offer and the dealer network is rather sparse compared to, say, Mazda or Holden.