New & Used Suzuki Vitara: In Depth
2003 Suzuki VitaraEnlarge Photo
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The Suzuki Vitara was a compact sport-utility vehicle sold in North America from 1999 through 2003. When it was introduced for the 1999 model year, it replaced the Suzuki Sidekick in the Japanese carmaker's lineup.
The 1999 Suzuki Vitara utility vehicle came in two body styles: a two-door convertible, and a four-door fixed-roof utility wagon with a tailgate. The base engine for the two-door was a 97-horsepower four-cylinder engine, paired with either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission. A more powerful 127-hp four was optional on the two-door, and standard on the four-door. Like the Sidekick, the Vitara continued to be based on small-truck components--unlike the increasingly popular car-based "crossover" utility vehicles offered by other makers. That meant that its engine powered the rear wheels, not the fronts, if all-wheel drive option was not specified as an option.
Two trim levels were available at the 1999 launch: the base two-wheel-drive JS, and the four-wheel-drive JX. For 2000, the trim options were expanded with the addition of the upmarket JLS and JLX models, which included air conditioning, power windows, power locks, and cruise control (on the four-door only). The following year, 2001 Vitara models were fitted with a slightly restyled grille and updated interior fabrics. For 2002, the two base models (JS and JX) were eliminated, and the underpowered 1.6-liter engine vanished along with them.
The trim-level designations were eliminated the next year, and 2003 would also prove to be the last year for the two-door soft-top Vitara. In the model's final year, 2004, the four-door gained a new standard engine, a 165-hp V-6, still offered with either the manual or automatic, and the option of all-wheel drive with either transmission. This finally eliminated complaints over the relatively heavy Vitara's lack of power.
Although Suzuki had come early to the small utility vehicle market, car-based entries from major manufacturers--Ford, Honda, Subaru, Toyota--were making big inroads into the growing market segment by the turn of the century. Consumer preferred the car-like ride and handling of the crossovers to the less comfortable, more truck-like feel of Suzuki's utility vehicles. While the Vitara had decent off-road capabilities, it was neither as spacious and comfortable as the car-based crossovers nor as capable on rough terrain as most Jeep models.
After five model years, the Vitara was discontinued in 2004 when its twin, the Chevrolet Tracker, ended production at the companies' shared plant in Ontario, Canada. While the Tracker was replaced by the five-seat Chevrolet Equinox crossover utility vehicle, GM did not share a version with Suzuki. Instead, Suzuki continued with the slightly larger Grand Vitara, imported from Japan.