DTW seems to really like Suzuki. Autocropley hated the 1998 Ignis. We like it anyway because we like Suzuki.
Today we will get our loafers muddy as we venture off road in order to look more closely at the 1998 Suzuki Grand Vitara.
Conveniently and handily a similar (but later one) was parked not far from where I was holding a camera:
The 1998 version is a little different, lacking the chrome garnish spoiling the snout of this car. And it had two little grooves on the front bumper that disappeared at facelift time.
1998 was a busy time for the big world of small SUVs. Land Rover struck gold with the Freelander and Opel were packing a V6 into the Frontera. Now that so long has passed I see that car in all its late 1990s GM glory. Here is one I actually saw and never wrote up in article. The Frontera didn’t appear until September 1998. Opel gave the car a 173 bhp 3.2 litre V6 (and it replaced the Isuzu-based Monterey):
That Frontera engine is significant. Until the Frontera landed the Vitara had the small V6 SUV field to itself.
But back to the story. WhichWhyCar?? put the Vitara up against the Freelander in a dual test, dubbing it a “duel of outlooks” as well as a tussle of the “routine abilities of two leisure off-roaders”.
Suzuki used a ladder-frame chassis and had selectable high- and low-end ratios which makes it, like the Jimny, a proper off-roader. We like Jimnys as well around here. This kind of thing makes Suzuki a really interesting company because in a quiet way they are pretty serious about engineering. And whereas the Freelander had a monococque chassis to save money and because customers “don’t care anyway”, Suzuki carries on making sincere cars with not a lot of nonsense about them.
The Freelander took “a different, and in theory, more tarmac friendly approach. Like a normal saloon it has a combined body and chassis….” And so on. No transfer box has the Freelander, no extra gearlever, aye. It has instead hill descent control to let it slither down the greasy slopes around Waitrose.
Interestingly, Suzuki’s Grand Vitara cost much less than the Freelander, £16,370 to LR’s £20,420. Further, Suzuki fitted a 2.5 litre V6 with 142 bhp whereas for your extra four grand LR offered a lousy 1.8 litre four-pot with 118 bhp. According to Car (June, 1998) “the 2.5 litre V6 is very useful… it’s smooth and strong at low revs, and it sweeps the Grand along surprisingly swiftly.” The auto ‘box: good, said Car. The manual, less so. Notchy, they claimed.
It wasn’t until 2001 that LR saw fit to make the world’s least efficient V6 available to lucky landroverists: the 2.5 litre KV6, which is a kind of verucca of an engine, everywhere and really annoying whenever it is fitted.
The Grand Vitara claimed a “relaxed gait and engine refinement” and was nearly as economical. Car wrote: “The whole experience is immensely relaxing and strangely peaceful for a vehicle that purports to be a workhorse.” The LR had a boot that was too small and poorly located switches. And cost four thousand pounds more, did I mention that? The Vitara had better leg-room and a bigger boot. We like those. And it was superior off road thanks to the ladder-frame chassis. The steering lacked the precision of the Freelander – because you don’t want steering kick off-road, do you?
And the Freelander won the test because it was least like an SUV: smooth ride, more precise steering and good enough at going off-road. Yet the Vitara was best at what an off-roader can do and cost less. In the end, it was a falsely premised test because those in search of off-road capability will rank the Vitara higher and buy it.
The LR Freelander was more like a saloon for people who may struggle with a damp driveway from time to time, red wine for white wine fans if you like. WhatHowCar??? concluded with a hint of their bad conscience: “But we can’t help reminding ourselves how much better (the LR) would be if it ran the Vitara’s engine and matched its price tag”.
They really meant to say it was a dumb test and might well have tested the LR against a VW Golf instead and concluded it was taller and better off-road though not as nice to drive because it was taller and designed for occasional off-road use.
I suppose LR gets credit for spotting the demand that existed for faux-off-roaders and gleefully supplying it. They built a solid base of customers. Being right is not always good though.
I don’t mind real off-roaders since the customers are usually serious about the cars and put up with a lousy ride and poor fuel economy as a cost of not being stuck in wet clay. The Freelander was a harbinger of the world of pointlessly tall cars with no ability at all to do what their height and chunky wheels suggest. The Vitara has a clear conscience: useful cars for serious jobs.
Fun fact: Suzuki launched the Grand Vita at the Nurburgring because Shimizo Nakanishi, European general manager, thought it a nice place.