Considering that Suzuki is the company that made four-wheel drive vehicles fashionable in the first place with the Vitara in the late-1980s, it's curious that it has been so slow to capitalise on the crossover craze.
The Grand Vitara has remained a hard-core off-road vehicle, while a segment has grown up around it of wagons that look tough but are built on road-car underpinnings. It's now a really big segment. Suzuki had a crack at it in 2006 with the SX4, although that's more in the small-car mould than family wagon size.
So you definitely can't accuse it of rushing into anything. But it has at last responded to the market with the S-Cross. It's sort of a replacement for the SX4 and sort of not.
The new car's correct label is SX4 S-Cross, so it's in the family. The smaller SX4 has now finished production in Japan, so the S-Cross certainly picks up where the old car leaves off. However, the S-Cross is substantially larger and more visually overt than the previous SX4. In fact, Suzuki NZ reckons the two are different enough to have bought up enough stock of the smaller SX4 to sell it next to the S-Cross next year.
The old SX4 will be trimmed down to a single variant: the front-drive Limited.
The S-Cross is about the same size as a Nissan Qashqai. You might also think it looks similar to a Qashqai and there's a good reason for that: the Nissan is a huge success in Europe and Suzuki makes no secret of the fact it benchmarked that model when creating the S-Cross.
The Suzuki is just 30mm shorter than its Nissan rival, yet boasts better interior space and a bigger boot. So you can see what they've done there. It's still a bit smaller than a Toyota RAV4, though - 300mm shorter. The S-Cross will debut next month in six different variants, priced from $27,990 to $35,990. There's just one engine, a 1.6-litre petrol four that is essentially a detuned version of the Swift Sport powerplant. It makes 86kW and 156Nm. There's a diesel version (engine by Fiat) in Europe, but demand in that part of the world means it hasn't been made available for Australasia yet.
It's manual transmission-only at the moment anyway, so don't hold your breath. New Zealand's S-Cross entry-level specification is GLX, which comes in two- or four-wheel drive, with five-speed manual or continuously variable transmission (CVT). The flagship Limited comes only with CVT, but you still get the 2WD/4WD choice.
Standard equipment for Limited includes satellite navigation and reversing camera.
Suzuki New Zealand did consider a Prestige package being offered in Australia, which brings leather upholstery, a trick two-piece panoramic sunroof and privacy glass. But that was rejected for launch, because of cost and the severe impact the sunroof has on headroom (confirmed during our Australian launch drive).
Lack of leather is a drawback in the local market, but Suzuki is looking into aftermarket options. Dealers have experience with Auckland-based Retro Vehicle Enhancements (RVE) in putting leather into Swift and Kizashi models, so there's no reason why the same can't be done with this car.
S-Cross makes two significant advances in technology for Suzuki. The first is in fuel economy: the previous SX4 is/was a relatively thirsty proposition, both on paper (7.6 litres per 100km) and in the real world. The S-Cross is a larger car that weighs 100kg less and has a smaller, more modern engine. It returns 6.2 litres per 100km in the Combined cycle and on our brief launch drive - where the throttle was not spared - it still managed 7.0 litres per 100km. It has the potential to be frugal indeed in more considerate hands.
The four-wheel drive system, which Suzuki calls AllGrip, is also more sophisticated than the old SX4. You still get the choice of automatic mode and a 50/50 torque lock for slippery terrain, but there are also now snow and sport settings. Sport increases engine revs (which is not always a good thing with a CVT) but also apportions 20 per cent more torque to the rear axle for better on-road handling.
The S-Cross aims for the middle of the road in many respects, but it still has the ability to surprise. It has a better-power-to-weight ratio than the SX4 so performance is sprightly, although the transmission technology means that you still have to adopt a gentle driving style if you want to avoid the curse of CVT: excessive engine revving under load.
The chassis is remarkably good. The steering is accurate and evenly weighted, much better than the SX4, which always seemed to be afflicted with inconsistent power assistance in urban driving. The chassis is surprisingly surefooted and the ride compliant: the suspension thumped into big bumps with quite a bit of noise on a couple of occasions, but overall progress is smooth.
The real strength of S-Cross is its generous cabin space and big 440-litre boot in a compact exterior package. Family buyers will be surprised by the practicality.
You'd be hard pressed to argue that Suzuki has pushed many boundaries with this car. But it has been diligent in ticking boxes and the S-Cross is a worthy entrant in a highly competitive class.