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1999 Suzuki Vitara

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

When I pulled into our driveway in the Suzuki Vitara

sportcute, 11-year-old Patrick said, "Didn't we already have that

car?"

"That was the Grand Vitara," I replied. "This is just a

Vitara."

"What makes this one less grand?" he queried.

Good question. The two vehicles are, in fact, nearly identical

under the skin. Even the skin is virtually the same, too, apart

from lower body side cladding on the Grand. Both of our testers

were also silver.

The major mechanical difference is under the hood. While the

Grand uses a sweetheart of a 2.5 L four-cam 24-valve V6, the

non-Grand has an all-new twin-cam 16-valve 2.0 L four cylinder,

producing 127 hp at 6000 rpm, and 134 lbft of torque at a

remarkably (for a multivalve engine) low 3000 rpm.

While these numbers are 28 and 26 lower respectively than the

V6, the four actually propels the little truck along very nicely

thanks to the low torque peak.

Lady Leadfoot said, "The only time I missed the V6 was coming

up the hill on the Sixth Line." There really is no replacement

for displacement, even if Suzuki's four still has more torque,

and at lower revs, than the Toyota ,1,0 RAV4, and gets better

fuel economy, too.

The engine revs freely, sweetly and quietly, not even becoming

unpleasantly loud as it approaches its peak revs. Nice.

My tester was equipped with the four-speed automatic

transmission, which shifts well. There is a power/economy

switch, which allows the driver to choose the bias the

transmission is supposed to assume.

Some of the newer autoboxes make this function automatic as

well, basing their electronic judgment on the aggressiveness

with which you hammer on the loud pedal.

Overdrive is locked out by means of a thumb button in

practice the quickest and easiest way to do this. It's helpful

in hilly country when you often want the extra pulling power of

the lower i.e., third ratio.

On the road, the tall (height) but short (length) little

Vitara is sensitive to side winds, as was its more powerful

brother. The light, quick steering helps you stay in your proper

lane, and makes the truck easy to handle in town and in parking

lots.

Ride quality is excellent for the breed, thanks in part to the

multiple linkages to the solid rear axle.

Our tester was solidly built, with no squeaks or rattles

emanating from the body in our three-plus weeks of testing.

The doors close with a satisfying "chunk," and the materials,

apart from a few plasticky hard-trim bits, seem of good quality.

The Vitara comes only with a shift-on-the-fly part-time

four-wheel drive system, allowing you to slide in and out of 4×4

mode at speeds up to 100 km/h with a flick of the wrist.

The front hubs lock automatically when you need them, but

there are no locking or limited-slip differentials in Suzuki's

system. Offroad freaks will mourn this, but for most, it simply

limits just how deep and far from home you get stuck.

ABS brakes are optional on Vitara (ours had them), standard on

the Grand.

Inside, the Grand and less-Grand are also virtually identical,

apart from a few trim items and the radio specs. Someone had

inflicted upon our tester a Clarion singleshot CD-equipped

radio, with the same infuriating face plate as my Hyundai

Tiburon last year. Teeny push-buttons, and an unfathomable single

rocker control for station tuning and volume that defies

operation at anything but a dead stop. Repeat after me: "Large

round knobs."

There's decent room inside — lots of height, of course, and

enough total leg room that front and rearseat riders should be

able to negotiate a reasonable compromise.

The seats have longer cushions than most Asian products and

are comfortable to the backside.

The spec sheet says the rear seatback splitfolds in 60/40

proportion.

The pair of head restraints in the back must be removed to

fold the seatbacks down — or if you want any hope of seeing out

the rear window.

To me, the minuscule safety advantage they may or may not have

in a rearend crash is vastly outweighed by the safety

disadvantage of the diminished visibility.

The right-hinged rear door opens wide and easily, assisted by

a gas strut, and is held open by a light detent. The cargo area

isn't terribly long, but it can handle a lot of gear thanks to

its height.

A removable window-blind cargo cover is included, but it spent

most of its time in our front hall.

The less-Grand Vitara comes only in what Suzuki calls JX trim.

This brings dual airbags, variable intermittent wipers, a rear

window wiper, full instrumentation, power steering with tilt

column and a pair of roof rails. The sticker is a reasonable

$19,995 for the four-door model.

The only available factory options are automatic ($1,500), air

conditioning ($1,350), and ABS ($800), which our truck had, an

AM/FM stereo cassette ($450; our CD unit was, presumably, a

dealer-installed extra. Don't let them do this to you) and

aluminum wheels, which ours didn't. No loss; these always seem

odd to me on a sportute, considering that these things are

supposed to be offroad-capable.

Conspicuous by their absence on either the standard or

optional equipment lists are things like power windows, locks

and mirrors. My, don't we get spoiled. To get those goodies you

have to migrate to the Grand Vitara, which starts at $23,495,

which also brings you the V6 motor and the ABS.

If you also check off the JLX trim level box on the Grand

order form, you'll get the aircon, the AM/FM/CD radio, the alloy

wheels, plus cruise control and add another three grand to the

price.

Any of these represents pretty good value in this segment.

Simply choose between what you must have and what you can

afford.

Regular readers know I'm not much of a fan of sportutes. But

if you do want the TallBoy/TallGirl seating position and

four-wheel drive capability, any of the Vitara line at least

offers these attributes in a reasonably sized, reasonably

fuel-efficient, not terrible-to-drive vehicle which poses far less

threat to our environment and to other road users than the

typical SUV mastodons.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

Email:jbkenzie @ interhop.net

The basics

1999 Suzuki Vitara JX

Vehicle type: 4-door sportutility 4×4

Engine: DOHC, 16-valve, 2.0 L 4-cylinder (127 hp)

Transmissions: 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic Brakes: front

ventilated discs, rear drums

Tires: P215/65R16

Standard equipment includes shift-on-the-fly 4WD, with auto

locking front hubs; dual airbags; power steering, with tilt

column; variable intermittent wipers; rear window wiper; roof

rails

Options include automatic transmission, 4-wheel ABS, a/c,

upgraded stereo, aluminum wheels Fuel efficiency (manual

trans.): 10.4 L/100 km city, 8.5 L/100 km highway

Warranty: basic and powertrain, 3 years/80,000 km; rust

perforation, 5 years/unlimited km

Base price: $19,995 ,5

As tested : $23,644 + tax

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