Crossovers and SUVs have that high-riding style that appeals, but most would-be buyers forget they are also expensive to buy and feed, and don’t handle that well. Most are no good at sustained bundu-bashing anyway. But here are two semi-serious contenders, both with a low-range pedigree of sorts: Suzuki’s Grand Vitara baseline 2.4 manual model and Subaru’s third generation Forester, a second-tier XS manual. With Suzuki revisiting this market and keen to impress, we are the fifth country to get the latest upgrade. That means a 122kW 2.4 J24 VVTi engine, up from the old 2.0 litre, plus minor changes like indicators in the wing mirrors, adding little to the major shell revamp in 2006. At R269 900, the pricing is aggressive. The Forester is virtually all new inside and out with more Impreza platform and suspension borrowings and fractionally revised drivetrain tech. It has traded on driving dynamics, cult status and little else for years, and the redress attempt for Gen III is hardly thoroughgoing, nor is it especially cheap at R289 000. Outwardly then, we have two modern five-seater SUVs with longitudinally mounted four-pot petrol engines, five-speed manual gearboxes with a low-range option and permanent four-wheel drive. Yet each has a very different persona.
Market share is the name of the Forester’s game, chasing the success of Toyota’s RAV and Honda’s CR-V in world markets, so Subaru chief designer Mamoru Ishii broke out of the boxy mould to craft a more generic shape dimensionally closer to what the market now expects. Tribeca themes abound in a silhouette that looks taller and sturdier. Emphatic creases over the wheel arches are a pleasing sporty touch, and the sides are integrated by a strong shoulder line that rises to meet the huge angular taillights. The old frameless windows are gone. The bits that define are now the upswept sill on the rearmost window and the ‘dog-in-the-wind’ front end.
Compared to Gen II, the Forester is 75mm longer (to 4560), 60mm wider (to1795), a full 110mm higher (now 1.7m) and 90mm has been added to make the wheelbase 2615mm. Offroad ability has been enhanced by adding 20mm to the ride height (with standard 215/65 R16 tyres) to make 215mm. To compensate the centre of gravity has been kept down by fractionally lowering the engine and transmission mounts. Adding to the handling and stability is a 45mm wider track, now 1530 at the rear. Kerb weight, though up 80kg, is still a commendably low 1465kg. The rear looks squat and solid, helped by two businesslike exhaust outlets, and while the plastic engine protector and flimsy rear diffuser are a joke, the solid roof rails, alloy door handles and big rear-view mirrors impart dollops of SUV cred. The Suzuki is all overgrown Tonka toy, its cute ‘n chunky looks disguising a spacious interior. It looks a lot smaller, but is just 60mm shorter than the Forester, fractionally wider at 1810mm, with an extra 30mm in the wheelbase and a 30mm wider rear track. By placing the wheels emphatically in the corners and using wider rubber (225/65) and 17 inch alloys instead of the Forester’s 16s, that chunky look becomes a signature. Key elements are that pretty clamshell bonnet, huge wing mirrors (with integrated indicators for this upgrade) and short overhangs. All on a squared-off bodyshell which manages to combine deep side panels with a large glass area. It’s attractive, purposeful, and has a proper metal protector under the nose. The essential shape was defined back in 2006, though the bigger engine takes the Vitara further into territory stamped out by the RAV. It’s tagged as a ‘real’ 4×4 and as such trades on a utility ticket on top of its softroader status.
The Subaru’s cabin, never a strong point, is still off the mark. The XS trim offers no factory options and there’s no cowhide in sight. Instead you are served up an array of hard plastics, wood trim accents courtesy of Tupperware and seat fabrics not out of place in a ’70s strip club. Rather opt for the baseline model (R269 000) which offers aluminium trim inserts and might leave space in the budget for leather at the expense of steel wheels and a less premium sound system. There’s a lot to like about the basic Tribeca-like swooping dash, even if it’s lets down by metal-look plastic inserts. So forget surprise and delight. I didn’t particularly thrill to the Pepsi inspired red and electric blue instrument lighting either, and found the lever for actuating the step-down ratio on the final drive was exactly where the handbrake should be. On the upside there’s iPod connectivity and a six-CD changer with quality sound. While the seats are supportive and comfortable, strangely only the driver’s seat has height adjustment, the front passenger being denied view of anything but the dash. Rear legroom is improved by 109mm to 965mm and there’s a clever flip-out cupholder for entertainment. Previous shortcomings have been addressed: the doors open wider, the tailgate opens high instead of to forehead-cracking levels, while the rear loadspace is wide thanks to adopting the Impreza’s double wishbone rear suspension design, so no strut towers to intrude into the load bay. The seats flop forward too, but in all, standard stuff in a field of clever rivals.
True to form the Vitara’s interior is funky and fun. The main element is a prominent centre stack with an integrated seven-speaker six-CD/radio player. The material and detail execution may not be top drawer, but it’s an appealing cabin and should take hard wear. There’s no pretentious fake wood or silver plastic, and even some leather on the wheel and gearlever. The detail controls are simple, the seats set high for visibility and swathed in an inoffensive hard-wearing material. Storage spaces include deep door pockets, a veritable bucket under the front armrest and generous twin cupholders up front. The multi-function computer operates by jabbing at a stalk protruding from the instrument binnacle, which is almost laughable considering the Suzuki has audio controls on the steering. A neat touch is the keyless transponder jump in and turn the switch but there’s no iPod connection. The rear seats easily tumble forward to increase cargo area. Compared to the Forester, however, legroom and headroom don’t feel as generous. Rear access through the wide opening door with its low sill is good, there are plenty of tie-down hooks, and the door-mounted full-size spare looks rugged. Bottom line, it has less kit than the Forester and feels built strictly to the price. Don’t expect cruise control or hill start assist they aren’t part of the 2.4 package. But like the Forester you do get disc brakes all round with ABS, stability control (ESP) a full complement of airbags (front, side and curtain) with Isofix anchorages at the rear.
ON AND OFF THE TAR
As you’d expect, the Forester is a pretty sharp driving tool. This is what lures and seduces. The proven Symmetrical All Wheel Drive system apportions torque front to rear depending on grip levels from a 50:50 default, making for a predictable, planted drive tending to understeer. The double wishbones out back and stiffer McPherson struts up front do their job, helped by a strengthened platform. The steering is arguably too light, even at speed, though the ratios are now quicker, enabling more precise control. Body roll there is, but the car settles well and gamely rewards being taken by the scruff of the neck and hustled. It’s pretty unflappable on tar, will handle fair gravel roads and sand, but is no rock hopper. The 21% reduction gear is good only for pulling away with a load or for slowish offroad sections where the relatively high torque peak needs to be called on.
The ratios on the five speed manual gearbox are widely spaced, particularly the top two, making for relaxed highway cruising, but forcing the driver to row about at lower speeds to avoid the dead spot below 2500r/min. The gate is tight, the shift firm if a little notchy, so it’s no hardship to keep the Forester on the boil. The engine has been reprogrammed for more low- and mid-range torque using Subaru’s new Active Valve Lift technology, wringing an extra 5kW and 4Nm torque from the mill, while the dual exhausts are also quieter, not that you’d notice. The ride comfort is good and NVH levels commendably low it’s the least jittery on gravel of the pair here, with well damped steering chatter. The crisp performance and delicious boxer engine note makes driving a pleasure, the downside being an unseemly thirst forget 9.3 litre/100km claims with enthusiastic progress; 11 litres plus is more likely.
The Suzuki is dubbed ‘Grand’ because it’s the longer wheelbase version with five doors. The new J24 VVTi engine which puts out 122kW/225Nm is an update of the previous J20A (103kW/185Nm) engine which does duty in the smaller RX4. A bigger bore, balance shaft and silent cam chain ensures it is smoother, though it is a little raucous in the upper rev ranges, and at 1615kg has 150kg more to lug than the Forester. The willing engine is let down by the major controls. The clutch on our test unit took late and grabbily, while the excessive play on the long-throw gear lever made gear selection a hit and miss affair. Some will like the overly light steering, but not everyone will welcome the bouncy ride. This is an inevitable downside of the big rubber and harder, off-road biased suspension, which is of a conventional McPherson up front and multi-link rear format with coils all round and anti-roll bars, coupled to a stiff integrated-ladder chassis. Permanent four-wheel drive should mean safer handling, but the Vitara did not always feel well planted. It certainly grips in low-speed situations, but tends to wash out when pushed. It’s also quick enough on the open road. Off the tar the Suzuki makes a lot more sense. Its proper transfer box with a 1.970 ratio low range is just under half the high range ratio, coupled to a mechanical dry clutch torque sensing differential that shuttles torque from the default 47% front/53% rear depending on conditions. Using a rotary dial on the centre console, the system can be switched from standard 4H to 4H lock (which locks the differential to a 50/50 torque split) and uses the ESP/traction control system to slow or stop a wheel that loses grip. Switching to 4L gives the Suzuki the edge when taking on the rough stuff at lower speeds. It’s still not low enough for proper rock crawling, but offers more functionality than any other softroader. The price even includes some 4×4 driver training.
The Forester is good in parts, excellent in others, downright average inside for the price. Ironically, going mainstream means the Forester might have lost some of the iconic status that has made the car so appealing to a diverse range of people.
The Grand Vitara is a softie with a steel heart. It’s a funky, aggressively priced package that has its faults, but also has lots to enthuse about. One of these has to be reasonable fuel economy. Commuting runs delivered just on 10.0/100km, long-distance travel at constant speeds would easily take that to single digits. And there’s the promise of Japanese reliability.
I’d still take the Forester. It offers superb handling, excellent ride quality and that addictive boxer thrum. Spend money on seat covers or aftermarket leather, add a bashplate and invest in a set of offroad tyres, and you have a brilliant all-rounder. Or maybe I’m just another moonie, dazzled by those six spiky stars.