It’s not often you see so many Japanese bigwigs at an Australian vehicle launch – let alone a New Zealand one.
But with the offer of a jaunt in the Outback to celebrate the Vitara’s 20th birthday, Suzuki’s designers and engineers arrived in droves.
So we didn’t just sample the facelifted Grand Vitara’s new petrol engines and put the tweaked suspension to the toughest of outback road tests. We could also ask its designers what they did.
Leaning back in his chair, downing a cold beer and inhaling the smell of campfire-cooked steaks as the sun sank into the crimson horizon, suspension wizard Naomi Fujimoto was clearly in his element.
And so he should be, for he seems to have fulfilled his brief.
The Vitara scrambled over rocks, charged across thick, Toyota Prado-swallowing sand (yes, one was being dug out as we passed), and raced over appallingly corrugated dirt roads.
But it also felt more refined than before on the seal – no longer a rough truck, but almost a soft-roader, despite its monocoque body and built-in ladder chassis construction.
Fujimoto says perhaps the most important element was the stiffer body, which allowed a softer tune for the four-wheel independent suspension.
Bar its slightly modified nose, the new Vitara looks identical to the outgoing car but the side rails are thicker and the rear subframe shape is different.
There’s slightly more steering assistance too.
Otherwise, the basic suspension’s the same, though there are small changes to the internals, like different shock absorber bulbs. Small changes perhaps, but they’ve made a difference.
The new Suzuki-developed 3.2-litre six isn’t bad, either. At 165kW and 284Nm it offers more power and torque than the outgoing 2.7.
It uses variable valve timing on both inlet and outlet valves to improve power delivery and fuel efficiency – now at 10.5 litres/100km from the five-speed auto.
Not bad, but the new 2.4 is more frugal, yet offers enough power to suit most drivers.
Fitted to both the three and five-door Vitara, it offers 125kW and 225Nm, with an 8.9 litres/100km claimed thirst in the manual, and 9.9 litres for the four-speed auto.
The 1.9-litre turbodiesel, still sourced from Renault and not available at the launch, has been retuned for better fuel economy, and New Zealand retains the 1.6-litre three-door and the 2.0-litre five-door, in manual or auto, giving us a choice of five engines.
But the 2.4 is my pick. It never felt as if it was working hard.
It cruised the dirt at or near the Northern Territory 130kph limit with ease, and the four-speed auto happily dropped down a cog to accelerate from that speed, and immediately proved a four-speed may still be up to the job.
Indeed so effortless was the 2.4’s performance at this pace that my passenger actually complained I was going too slow.
It’s not just the engines that are better.
Other refinements were aimed at reducing noise-vibration-harshness (NVH), already improved by the stiffer body.
For example, the door seals are more efficient and got a good testing in the Outback dust. The window glass is thicker.
Suzuki says cabin noise has dropped two decibels at most speeds.
Certainly this Grand Vitara feels more refined, and the cabin redesign only helps. The outgoing car’s interior was old-fashioned. This one feels smart, if a little unimaginative.
The Vitara is smartly specced, too, with climate air standard, ESP standard with all the new engines, cruise control on the five-door cars and a higher airbag count for all but the 1.6.
The range-topping V6 also gets hill descent control and hill hold, though Suzuki admits they could be fitted to the 2.4 if enough people demand them.
It’ll be interesting to see how sales go. I suspect the engine’s refinement will see more people buying the 2.4-litre, for its performance boost lifts it above the 2.0, and offers more than most drivers will need from a vehicle like this.
The 3.2’s advantages are lost at the petrol pump.
Having a 2.4 option in the three-door as well as the price-leading 1.6 could tempt more buyers into the smaller car too.
Though a little looser on the dirt than the longer wheelbase version, it’s not as choppy as many short wheelbase SUVs.
It looks good, offers a couple either seats or luggage space, and with the lighter weight, there’s brisker performance allied to slightly better fuel economy.