For the penultimate feature in this series, Kim Henson unearths one more ‘modern classic’ model from the three decades since the Western Group of Motoring Writers was formed and this time dares to be different…
In my series of 12 articles entitled ‘Back to the Future Classics’, and featuring on our Western Group’s website throughout 2013, I am looking at vehicles which, in most cases and for various reasons, are already highly regarded, and/or surviving examples are being cherished and preserved for future generations to see and enjoy.
This is my own personal selection, and of course I cannot include ALL possible worthy contenders. All the same, my chosen few are intended to represent “12 of the most significant future classics launched in the last 30 years”. So let’s hear it for Number 11…
Some vehicles have become ‘cult classics’ within a relatively short time after their introduction, and their appeal transcends conventional definitions of ‘classic’ cars.
Such is Suzuki’s relatively diminutive Vitara, launched in the UK in the autumn of 1988. Original versions of this fascinating and capable four wheel drive machine have already become increasingly sought after, and the trend is set to continue.
The case could be made – justifiably – that the Vitara was the original compact ‘Sport Utility Vehicle’ (SUV). However, the beginnings of this particular story date back to previous Suzukis, so please excuse me if, to set the scene, I digress backwards a little…
The company has long been synonymous with excelling at producing small cars, and, applying a masterstroke of sensible thinking, in 1970 launched the ‘Lightweight Jimny (LJ) 4×4’. This was intended to provide buyers with a small, affordable ‘leisure’ vehicle with real, effective all-terrain capabilities.
It was necessary for the vehicle to comply with the Japanese legal definition of a ‘small’ car, so it needed to be less than 3.2 metres (about 10 feet 6 inches) long, and had to make do with an engine having a capacity of no more than 360cc.
The result was a small, light in weight but capable all wheel drive vehicle, powered by a 24 bhp two cylinder, two stroke engine.
Development of this vehicle led to the more powerful LJ 80 of 1977, with a 40 bhp, 767cc four cylinder motor, and in due course to the 45 bhp, 1.0 litre SJ 410 of 1982.
In 1985, for the renamed ‘Samurai’ (SJ), the engine capacity grew again, this time to 1.3 litres, and output increased to 64 bhp.
From personal experience in undertaking comparative road tests at this time, including some very challenging ‘soft surface’ driving at military training grounds, I can confirm that the off-road performance of the compact all wheel drive Suzukis of this era was (and remains) highly impressive. This was the case even against some potentially more sophisticated four wheel drive vehicles, and was perhaps even more surprising when taking into account the relatively small size and modest asking prices of Suzuki’s models.
For many buyers, the main aspect in need of improvement for general use on tarmac was power output, although the 1.3 litre models were considerably more lively than the earlier 1.0 litre models.
THE VITARA ARRIVES
Fast-forward to the autumn of 1988. By this time Suzuki’s enviable reputation in the compact four wheel drive vehicle market (in Briatin and elsewhere) was already well-established.
In addition to their effectiveness in difficult ground conditions, and when towing boats (etc.) the firm’s all wheel drive models were increasingly seen as ‘cool’ and fun to own by the growing numbers of younger buyers looking for an affordable leisure vehicle.
Enter the Vitara. Just 3.57 metres (approximately 11 feet 8.4 inches) long, the smartly-styled three door newcomer offered much improved performance, courtesy of a 1.6 litre engine developing 80 bhp. The theoretical top speed of the new model was around 90 mph (having passed the 60 mph mark in approximately 14.5 seconds from a standing start). In everyday use this translated to much more eagerness from the motor, especially noticeable when accelerating off the line, and when hillclimbing.
Commentators and buyers found that the Vitara handled well on tarmac. Its off-road credentials gave contemporary rivals a run for their money too, with on-demand four wheel drive and reduction (low range) gearing helping to tame difficult terrain.
By mid-1989 two body styles were offered in Britain (where initially the designation was Vitara JLX); a three door hard top and a soft top convertible, complete with a roll bar which helped in terms of rigidity in off-road driving, as well as for safety reasons, in the event of a roll-over incident.
In December 1989 a ‘Special Equipment’ version was introduced in the U.K, featuring aluminium alloy wheels and power-assisted steering.
The improved formula for Suzuki’s compact four wheel drive models proved to be popular with customers, and by 1989 some 64,000 Vitaras had found homes around the world.
Introduced in Britain in late 1991, the five door Vitara Long offered more space for passengers and luggage, and its folding rear seats provided greater versatility, thus increasing the appeal of the model to families. Under the bonnet was a 16 valve 1.6 litre engine, developing 97 bhp.
The line-up developed further over the next few years, with an aluminium, 136 bhp 2.0 litre V6 petrol motor being offered from January 1995, and a year later a turbocharged, 71 bhp 2.0 litre four cylinder diesel engine provided a further option giving much improved fuel consumption (plus bags of low speed torque – 172 Nm or 127 lb.ft. at just 2,000 rpm).
The boldly-styled, well-equipped two seater Vitara X-90 was introduced at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show, and was seen as a futuristic, fun car. It was especially notable for its removable ‘T’ profile two-piece glass roof (which could be stowed on board when dismounted), its 97 bhp power unit, sports seats and uprated suspension.
The larger, second generation Grand Vitara was revised in most departments, and arrived in 1998 (a new three door variant soon followed). The model continued to attract buyers looking for a capable, reliable, practical four wheel drive machine.
By this time, the Vitara had become the best-selling four wheel drive vehicle in Europe, with more than 310,000 examples having been sold between 1988 and 1997.
Incidentally, in its home market of Japan, the Vitara was known as the ‘Escudo’, while in the U.S.A. it was designated ‘Sidekick’.
Rugged, reliable, fun to drive and increasingly seen as desirable as a classic vehicle.