While most manufacturers are only just catching on to the idea of compact crossovers, Suzuki has been churning out small, affordable 4x4s since the original Jimny arrived in 1970. The first Vitara came 18 years later, and while this all-new model has evolved in a number of ways, its principles of rugged, value-driven family transport remain intact. We drove a range of pre-production cars to see if Suzuki deserves a bigger slice of the compact crossover market, forecast to be worth 1.5m sales globally by 2020.

Before we get down to driving impressions, it’s worth placing the Vitara in Suzuki’s range, because placed side-by-side with the Qashqai-rivalling SX4 S-Cross, it looks virtually identical in size. The Vitara is in fact taller than the S-Cross, to create more of a classic off-roader stance, but measures 125mm shorter overall with a 100mm shorter wheelbase. That puts it slap bang in Nissan Juke territory, although it’s 40mm longer, 10mm wider and 45mm taller than the Nissan, and gets a bigger boot, too; 375 litres or 1,120 litres with the rear seats folded in the Suzuki, versus 354/1,189 litres in the Juke.

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When it comes to looks, we’d take the Vitara’s chiselled bodywork over the S-Cross’ hatchback-on-stilts styling any day. We love the way the chrome grille lines up perfectly with the headlights, the sharp shoulder line and the angular bulge over the rear wheel arch. Suzuki has even cottoned on to the lucrative trend for personalisation, offering 10 body colours (that can be matched with various trim pieces on the interior), a choice of black or white contrasting roofs and two styling packs – one with chrome trim for a sleeker look and the other with front and rear skid plates for a more rugged motif.

The interior is still far from glamorous, but some simple additions like the central analogue clock and the plastic trim panel (available in a variety of colours and textures) that stretches across the dash, give it a fresher, younger feel than the S-Cross. You’ll still find scratchy plastics in abundance, but at least they feel well put together, while mid-spec cars and above get a seven-inch touchscreen, which has bright and clear graphics, but can be fiddly to use. The extra height means there’s generous headroom in the rear, despite the sloping roofline, and enough space for three average-sized adults in the rear.

Choosing an engine is easy – there’s either a 1.6-litre petrol or 1.6-litre turbodiesel to choose from, both producing 118bhp. Suzuki’s four-wheel drive ALLGRIP system (the same as used by the S-Cross) is an option, while the petrol comes with a choice of five-speed manual and six-speed auto, and the diesel only with a six-speed auto. Four driving modes – Auto, Sport, Snow and Lock – adapt the transmission’s behaviour, ranging from a two-wheel drive fuel-saving mode when you’re cruising in Auto, to permanent four-wheel drive modes like Snow and Lock that help extricate you from sticky spots. Sport sends power to the rear tyres when needed, according to throttle inputs.

While the majority of sales are expected to be front-wheel drive models, Suzuki insists that offering four-wheel drive is key to the Vitara’s rough and ready appeal, and we couldn’t agree more. Expected to add around £1,800 to the price, but only 65kg to the kerbweight, we reckon it’s worth stretching to, even if it only gets you off a snowy driveway or across a muddy field a few times a year.

We tried both the petrol and diesel engines, and whichever you go for, you won’t be disappointed. The diesel sounds a bit agricultural at anything more than half throttle, but the decent shove in the back it gives you and broad spread of torque more than makes up for it. The petrol engine is far quieter when cruising, but has a pleasing throaty sound when revved – and this is an engine that while lacking in torque, loves to be revved right to the red line, so you can tap its full potential on public roads without breaking the law. The manual gearbox has a lovely mechanical shift-feel that’s reminiscent of the Swift supermini, too.

What’s curious about the petrol and diesel models – something that was confirmed by an engineer – is that the Diesel has a softer suspension set up so it rolls a bit more in the bends, but floats over bumps that the petrol model hits harder. As a result the petrol model feels more fun when you’re pushing on, not just because the engine responds quicker, but the front end stays flat and bites harder in the bends. The steering is a bit light and low on feedback, but perfectly adequate for hustling along at surprising speeds.

Of course, none of this matters all that much if you’re buying the Vitara for carrying you and your passengers safely and comfortably from A to B, but it’s nice to know that underneath you there’s a sporty SUV waiting to get out. And that’s why a Nissan Juke Nismo-rivalling Vitara Sport, likely to be powered by a 1.6-litre turbocharged engine, will join the range later in the life cycle – a fact confirmed to us by Suzuki’s sales and marketing director.

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