1999 Suzuki Vitara
Like its predecessor, the Sidekick, the new Suzuki Vitara comes as a two-door convertible or a four-door hardtop. Changes include new exterior and interior styling, two more refined four cylinder powerplants including a slightly larger 2.0 litre engine on uplevel JLX models, a revised rear suspension, and a stronger body-on-frame design.

Sidekick replacement is quieter and more powerful

by Greg Wilson

On the heels of the V6-powered Suzuki Grand Vitara comes the four cylinder Vitara – Suzuki’s replacement for the ten year-old Sidekick.

At first glance, the Vitara appears to be little more than a freshly-restyled Sidekick. The Vitara is about the same size as the Sidekick, offers two similar four cylinder powerplants, and retains a traditional, truck-like body-on-frame design and a part-time four-wheel-drive system. And as before, it’s available in two bodystyles, a spunky two-door convertible and a bigger, roomier four-door hardtop.

It’s not until you get behind the wheel of the Vitara that the differences become apparent. While the Vitara Convertible’s base 1.6 litre four cylinder is carried over, the optional 2.0 litre four cylinder engine (upgraded from 1.8 litres) is all-new, has more horsepower, and is much smoother and quieter than before. Suzuki engineers put a lot of effort into reducing the thrashiness of the 2.0 litre engine, and combined with a stiffer body and more sound insulation, the Vitara offers a much quieter passenger cabin, even in the convertible. (The 2.0 litre engine is standard on the four-door Vitara).

Ride and handling have improved too, courtesy of a revised five-link solid axle rear suspension with coil springs, a tighter body, a new reinforced boxed ladder frame, new gas shock absorbers, and different spring rates.

Another important difference between the Vitara and Sidekick is the interior – the Vitara’s redesigned dashboard has a more contemporary look, more user-friendly controls with the center-dash inclined towards the driver, and higher quality dashboard and seating materials.

The base two-door Vitara JX Convertible retains a 1.6 litre SOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine with 97 horsepower, up slightly from 95 last year. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard, however an automatic transmission is not available with this engine. Fuel consumption is very thrifty, particularly for a 4X4, averaging 8.4 l/100 km (34 mpg) in city/highway driving when equipped with a manual transmission. In fact, the Vitara was recently awarded the EnerGuide Award by Natural Resources Canada as the Most Fuel Efficient Special Purpose Vehicle in Canada.

JLX Vitaras have a new 2.0 litre DOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine with 127 horsepower, replacing the Sidekick’s 1.8 litre four cylinder powerplant with 120 horsepower. The new 2.0 litre engine has a lightweight but rigid aluminum alloy design, a new valvetrain design for improved performance, a new fuel injection system for reliability, and new hydraulic engine mounts to reduce vibrations. Both manual and 4-speed automatic transmissions are available with this engine. Fuel consumption averages 9.5 l/100 km (30 mpg) with the manual transmission, still pretty reasonable for a 4X4.

The Vitara’s part-time four-wheel-drive system, for use on slippery surfaces only, can be shifted ‘on the fly’ into 4WD at speeds up to 100 km/h. 4WD Low Range can only be engaged when the vehicle is stopped.

My two-door Vitara Convertible JLX test-vehicle was equipped with the more powerful 2.0 litre engine and proved surprisingly peppy. Acceleration times (with the 2.0 litre engine) are even better than with the four-door Vitara because the two-door model is 80 kg (176 lb.) lighter. The two-door Vitara has some other advantages over the four-door model – a shorter wheelbase which allows a tighter turning circle, a shorter length that makes it easier to park in tight spots, and of course, a convertible top for enjoyable top-down motoring during fair weather.

However, there’s no doubt Suzuki will sell more four-door Vitaras than two-doors. With a wheelbase that is eleven inches longer, the four-door hardtop offers a better ride, improved security, more interior room, easier access to the back seat, more cargo space, and five-passenger capacity instead of four.

Still, the two-door Vitara has more passenger room than you might expect. Its tall roofline provides plenty of headroom for front and rear passengers, and allows the seats to be positioned higher, thereby permitting passenger’s legs to be positioned vertically rather than splayed out in front. In addition, rear passengers have adjustable head restraints, wide outboard armrests, and open storage bins for magazines and snacks, and individual cup holders.

However, the stubby two-door Vitara lacks cargo room with the folding rear seats in the ‘up’ position. There’s just 6.3 cubic feet of cargo area behind the rear seats – about half that of a typical small sedan. If you’re not transporting rear passengers, however, the rear seats can be folded down, and cargo space triples in size. The Vitara’s rear seats fold flat – the bottom cushion pulls up against the front seatback, then the rear backrest folds flat on the floor – providing a surprisingly useful cargo area.

The rear cargo door opens sideways towards the curb. It’s easier to open than tailgates and hatches, but makes loading difficult when parked next to a sidewalk because the door blocks entry to the cargo area from the sidewalk. The long door also means that you have to allow half a car’s length behind the Vitara to fully open it. On the plus side, since most roads are slanted towards the curb, the door falls open naturally towards the curb, and stays there due to the pull of gravity. If the door were to open in the other direction, there might be a problem getting it to stay open. One problem: when equipped with power door locks, the rear cargo door doesn’t unlock/lock with the other doors.

The Vitara’s convertible top is a blessing and a curse. It has two separate sections, a folding ‘sunroof’ above the front passengers, and a removeable rear convertible top over the rear passengers. The front sunroof flips over easily by releasing two clips on the windshield header, or removes entirely for a full sunroof effect. The rear convertible top however, consists of four separate parts – the roof, two side windows, and a rear window joined together by buttons, clips, zippers and velcro strips. Taking them apart or putting them back together takes ten to fifteen minutes, and is a laborious task. This is not the type of top you want to put up in a sudden rainstorm. In addition, the fit is uneven in some areas, particularly across the rooftop.

From a security standpoint, the convertible top doesn’t provide much protection from thieves. It can be easily unclipped and unzipped from the outside.

From the driver’s seat of the Vitara, outward visibility is excellent to the front and sides, but rear vision is obstructed by a high window ledge, a rear-mounted spare tire, and a high-mounted third rear brake light. The Vitara Convertible is very easy to drive, very comfortable, and is surprisingly resistant to side-winds considering its height and short length. However the same attributes that provide nimble handling and quick steering mean less directional stability at highway speeds, and the driver needs to concentrate more on steering accuracy.

Despite its admittedly ‘cute’ appearance, the two-door Vitara is a very capable vehicle off-road, perhaps even more capable than the four-door Vitara. The two-door Vitara’s short 2200 mm/(86.6 in.) wheelbase, high 8.0 inch ground clearance, short front and rear overhangs, beefy P215/65R-16 inch tires, and a part-time four wheel drive system with a Low Range gear allows the Vitara to tackle steep inclines, negotiate narrow trails, ford streams, and plough through mud and snow with relative ease. In my opinion, the two-door Vitara and the Jeep TJ are the best off-road buys on the market today. Competitors like the RAV4, CR-V and Forester don’t offer a Low Range gear needed for serious off-road driving.

For a base price of $17,795, the two-door Vitara JX convertible includes standard power steering, dual air bags, tilt steering wheel, tachometer, cloth seats and rear one-piece folding seatback, variable intermittent wipers, colour-coordinated bumpers, P205/75R-15 inch tires, a full-size spare tire and spare tire cover.

Two-door JLX Vitaras, starting at $19,995, add a standard AM/FM/cassette stereo with four speakers, power door locks, power windows, power mirrors, 50/50 split folding rear seatback, overhead map lights, larger P215/65R-16 inch tires and standard five-spoke alloy wheels. With an automatic transmission, the price jumps to $21,495.

Other major options include ABS and air conditioning.

The only real competitors for the two-door Vitara are the two-door Toyota RAV4 ($23,550 4WD hard-top), and the Jeep TJ ($19,205 4WD soft-top) and perhaps the Chevrolet Tracker ($19,275 4WD soft-top), the Vitara’s GM clone built in the same joint GM/Suzuki plant in Ingersoll, Ontario.

The Tracker and TJ have similar part-time four-wheel-drive systems and a body-on-frame design. The RAV 4 however, comes with front-wheel-drive (2-door soft-top) or all-wheel-drive (2-door hardtop) and has car-like unit body construction.

The Vitara has a good basic warranty of 3 years or 80,000 kms, but it lacks the five year powertrain warranty offered by Toyota.

More information is available at www.suzuki.ca.

Technical Data:

1999 Suzuki Vitara JLX Convertible
Base price $17,795
Price as tested $22,295
Type 2-door, 4 passenger convertible SUV
Layout front engine/rear-drive/PT 4WD
Engine 2.0 litre four cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 127 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 134 @ 3000 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic (std. 5 speed manual)
Curb weight 1290 kg (2844 lb.)
Wheelbase 2200 mm (86.6 in.)
Length 3860 mm (152.0 in.)
Width 1710 mm (67.3 in.)
Height 1690 mm (66.5 in.)
Trunk capacity seat up 177 litres (6.3 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 10.3 l/100 kms (27 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.5 l/100 kms (33 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/80,000 kms

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