Car Reviews

Can a 2WD SUV drive offroad? We find out with the Suzuki Vitara RT-S

SUVs are pretend-4WDs, especially 2WD versions. Right? we find out with our long-term 2016 Suzuki Vitara RT-S…

HERE WE HAVE our long-term tester, the Suzuki Vitara RT-S. It’s about $24,000 worth of SUV (plus on-road costs), it only drives the front two wheels (2WD), the engine delivers a mere 88kW and it has just 185mm of ground clearance. So you’d reckon it’d be completely hopeless away from the bitumen, wouldn’t you?

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Road testers have to keep an open mind, so we took the Vitara for a bit of a drive at the Melbourne 4X4 Proving Ground, which is where lots of 4WD driver training is done, many 4WD vehicles are launched to the press and all sorts of offroad events and even competitions are held. 

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We didn’t have much time, but did capture a bit of the action on video. Have a watch, and see what you think.

As you can see, the 2WD Vitara is far from disgraced in the rough. In fact, it surprised me with its capability. There are however several points to make about this test.

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First, this is a training ground and therefore considerably easier than real-world track conditions. Most of the tracks do not require the sort of ground clearance you’d see in the bush and they tend to be firm-packed dirt which doesn’t challenge traction. Back in our long-term test we were stopped in a forest by a simple log across the track which required more than the Vitara’s modest clearance, whereas on these grounds all the hazards are tidied away so vehicles appear more capable than they really are. 

The Vitara was also lightly loaded – it only had one occupant in it, whereas out in the real world there would be two or more, plus maybe some gear in the boot. 

But all that aside, the Suzuki was still impressive for a 2WD SUV. Yet on reflection maybe that wasn’t too surprising, because it is a Suzuki and they are the acknowledged master of small offroad vehicles.

What helped the little Zook was its very low weight, only around 1120kg and it’s a five-door SUV.  To put it in perspective, Mazda go on and on about the MX-5’s light weight of around 1050kg… and that’s a tiny two-seater, two-door convertible. Good on Suzuki for engineering something strong, usable and light that’s even a nippy little daily driver.

With very little bulk to move, the Suzuki didn’t need much traction to get up hills or amble across ruts, and for the same reason it didn’t slip on the way down. The vehicle is also front-heavy, so it tended to keep its two front driving wheels on the ground. In fact, it managed to get places where some more road-biased all-wheel-drive SUVs would struggle. However, the 2WD Suzuki very often needed more momentum than a 4WD would require because it just didn’t have the power or traction for some of the steeper ascents, lacking low range (crawler gears).

The amount of momentum needed was limited by clearance, as the faster you go, the more the suspension compresses and the less clearance you have, bad news when there’s not much to begin with.

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The Suzuki is just out of approach angle at the front, its usual point for touching the ground. However, the earth is soft and the pace is slow so no harm done.

Electronics also helped and hindered. As with many modern cars, the Suzuki has brake traction control, engine traction control and stability control (read our explanation of the differences). The brake traction control always helped the car by braking a single spinning wheel. But a couple of times the engine traction control just didn’t let us have any more power, even though the vehicle wasn’t out of clearance.

The solution was to disable the both of them plus stability control by a long press of the stability control switch, and then there was unlimited power… but then the benefit of brake traction control was lost. Ideally, you’d want brake traction control active with engine traction control and stability control disabled. As ever, how to set a car up to tackle any given obstacle is a judgement call every time based on the car and the situation at hand. You can see in the video where we could only ascend one hill with the electronics fully off, as otherwise engine traction control would cut the power just when we needed it.

So, do you need an all-wheel-drive SUV or will a two-wheel-drive version suffice? If all you want to do is round-town work then you don’t need all-wheel-drive, particularly on a low-powered vehicle like the Vitara. However, all-drive is always a bonus in wet or slippery conditions, and does help stability on dirt roads.

If you want to head offroad then you should definitely opt for an all-drive SUV, but even so be aware that it won’t be as capable as a 4WD with higher clearance and usually low range.  If you want a capable small 4WD at a budget price then the Suzuki Grand Vitara is hard to beat. Still, if your two-wheel-drive SUV happens to be a Vitara then you can do what Suzuki does best, and give some rough terrain a try!

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Check back soon as we’ve got the turbo all-wheel-drive Vitara lined up for a test, and a comparison of an SUV vs a small hatch for round-town duties.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!