By the late 1990s, the major Japanese automakers had established a new design direction for compact SUVs by introducing models with car-based platforms for enhanced comfort and efficiency. However, Suzuki had been in the cute-ute business longer than almost anyone, and when the time came to replace its long-running Sidekick, Suzuki stuck to its traditions for the then-new Vitara.
Essentially, the Suzuki Vitara was born with the roots of a truck. Instead of adapting new, lighter unibody construction, the Suzuki maintained a rugged body-on-frame design. Every Vitara rode on a solid-rear-axle suspension and came with either rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive with low-range gearing. Thanks to 8 inches of ground clearance, 4WD models possessed better-than-average off-road ability.
An available two-door convertible body style also made it possible to equip a Vitara as a fun-in-the-sun runabout, and responsive steering made it enjoyable on any surface.
Still, the Suzuki Vitara had too many detriments weighing it down in real-world driving. Slow acceleration was a problem with either of the small four-cylinder engines, and a hard-to-shift manual transmission didn’t help. The low-tech suspension could never absorb bumps very well, the rear seat was cramped (space was identical in both body styles) and cargo capacity was a modest 45 cubic feet even on the four-door.
Finally, the interior looked dated even when new, and some of its controls weren’t user-friendly.
Suzuki raised the Vitara’s standards in power and features over time, but at both the beginning and end, we’d still say Honda, Toyota and Subaru had better SUVs for the street, while Nissan and Jeep had better off-roaders.
Most Recent Suzuki Vitara
While the upscale Grand Vitara lived to see another generation, the regular Suzuki Vitara led one lifetime spanning from 1999-2004. Body styles included a four-door hardtop and a two-door convertible soft top that was shorter than the four-door by 11 inches in both length and wheelbase. A 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 97 horsepower was the base engine on two-doors; a 2.0-liter version with 127 hp was optional on the two-door and standard with the four-door.
Both engines came with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, with shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive optional with any combination.
The Vitara’s initial trim lines were JS (2WD) and JX (4WD), though by its second year that expanded with the JLS and JLX, which became the only models with power windows, power locks, air-conditioning, and on the four-door, cruise control. Among two-door Vitaras, the JLS and JLX were also significant for having the more tolerable 2.0-liter engine.
Many details changed over the years. Along with the trim line changes for 2000, the two-door Vitara earned standard air-conditioning. For model-year 2001 came a new grille, seat fabric and an easier-to-use stereo.
In 2002, the JS and JX got dropped completely and took their 1.6-liter engine with them, trimming the Vitara line down to JLS 2WD and JLX 4WD models. All trim lines vanished for 2003, and only the four-door model made it to the Vitara’s final year in 2004, when a 165-hp 2.5-liter V6 became the new engine.
If you feel compelled to buy a Suzuki Vitara, later is better: The improved content and ergonomics of more recent models make for a more appealing SUV. Regardless of year, try sticking to models with at least the 2.0-liter engine, whose 127 hp is just enough.
If you are looking for older years, visit our used Suzuki Vitara page.
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