Suzuki re-entered the South African market at a time when the global economic crisis started rearing its ugly face. The company has however seen immense success in the nine months that it’s been trading in SA, with both the Swift and SX4 small cars making particular inroads in their respective segments, so much so that both were nominated for the coveted title of SA Car of the Year 2009.

With brisk sales boosting the company’s confidence, it wasn’t long before the latest Grand Vitara and Jimny SUVs joined the model line-up. Having been impressed with the Swift and SX4 when evaluating them in the run-up to the COTYs, Mambaonline was eager to put their manlier siblings to the test.

While the SUV concept is not exactly new, the Grand Vitara treads the middle ground visually with a design that leans towards the conservative without being completely boring. To front end is squared off and has a hint of machismo to it, with the bulky headlights and large radiator grille working together to enhance the generally purposeful stance. The large taillight clusters have the same effect, but I found that the large housing of the rear-mounted spare wheel makes it look longer and clumsier than it really is.

On the inside, the Grand Vitara is immediately identifiable as a Suzuki, with a centre console similar in appearance, layout and general ergonomics to that of the Swift and SX4. The plastics look of a high quality (although it’s still of the hard and hollow-sounding variety), and the seats are covered in fabric, all of which work together well in the utilitarian surroundings. It’s well put-together and decently specced – an honest car with no excessive frills, if you like.

Our test model was powered by and 2.4-litre engine that delivers 122 kW of power and 225 Nm of torque, which is enough to take the Grand Vitara to 100km/h in 10.58 seconds, and a top speed of 181km/h. It’s no rocket then, but I doubt whether outright performance was Suzuki’s aim when creating the Grand Vitara. It does however feel unusually dead in reality, which could be because the peak power is only available very high in the rev range (6000rpm).

We didn’t have the opportunity to test the Grand Vitara’s off-road prowess, but I am confident that the Grand Vitara will get you where you need to go. While I can’t really fault the Grand Vitara on anything, I do think it’s probably Suzuki’s weakest model, especially when compared to its competitors.

Priced at R312 900, it has some serious contenders to fight; many of which I believe are worthy of the slight price premium. Subaru’s Forester 2.X is only R2 000 more, while you can get Mitsubishi’s Outlander 2.4 GLX and Honda’s CR-V 2.4 RVi at R319 500 and R321 900 respectively. There’s also the Toyota RAV4 2.0 GX at R306 100, and Renault’s brand-new Koleos 2.5 Dynamique (with renowned Nissan X-Trail underpinnings) at only R305 500…

It’s ironic then that the diminutive Jimny comes out as a much stronger package even though everything about it is smaller and weaker than thought possible. Physically, it’s tiny, with the front occupants touching at the shoulder regardless of how big they might be. There’s also zero boot space, with the awkward rear seats taking on that role.

It’s a very decently put-together package though, with aircon, power steering, electric windows and a CD player as standard (even though the sound is not comparable to that of a Lexus). It again shares the same basic Suzuki interior styling, but in a much smaller space.

On the exterior, its chunky styling left most opinions divided, with especially the front design being particularly disliked. Generally I like it though – the miniscule dimensions have been used well, with chunky alloy wheels and a rear-mounted, exposed spare wheel adding some muscle to the generally scrawny body.

The engine is also tiny, a 1.3-litre mill that develops 63kW of power and 100Nm of torque. It takes almost 15 seconds to get to 100km/h and won’t go faster than 145km/h. But, unlike the Grand Vitara, Jimny feels much quicker than the figures imply, and with the higher riding height, constantly nudges you to drive where you wouldn’t normally consider.

Ride is (very) firm and (very) bumpy, but for some reason makes you smile even though you want to curse the unsupportive seats. In fact, I haven’t grinned this much in a small car since putting Fiat’s Panda 100HP through its paces. What’s even better is that the Jimny actually has low-range, meaning you can do some real off-roading in it (within the limits of its engine capacity, of course).

What’s however unique about the Jimny is that it has absolutely no direct competitors, and as such lands with a wheel in many market segments. Its R173 900 price tag doesn’t exactly make it cheap, but when it comes to small off-roaders with real off-road ability, you won’t find anything this affordable. Daihatsu’s Terios with off-road capabilities, for example, is priced at R249 995…

Having now evaluated Suzuki’s entire local model offering, there’s no need for me to further extol the brand’s virtues. The Swift and SX4 impressed immensely and undoubtedly form the backbone of Suzuki’s local line-up. The Grand Vitara is a worthy competitor in its segment but has to fight for its place amongst its many (and arguably better) rivals.

In a world where there are preciously few cars that really excite below the R200k mark, the Jimny, as the most basic Suzuki on offer, is however the biggest surprise. With no real rivals it brings heaps of unexpected, inexplicable fun into the picture, even though it’s small, uncomfortable and could lead to kidney damage.

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