Suzuki specialises in cheap small cars with lots of character. It can take humble ingredients and cook up a budget-priced machine that’ll give you supercar-sized smiles on the way to the shops.
It’s fair to say that as its cars get bigger, Suzuki gets further out of its comfort zone. Consider the Kizashi medium sedan (2009-16), which was actually a class-leading model in its day – AA New Zealand Car of the Year winner, even - but fell pretty flat in the market because people struggled with the idea of a larger Suzuki family car.
Or even the Vitara, which lost its way a bit over the years as it got bigger (it became the “Grand” Vitara and even grew into a seven-seater), until Suzuki pulled it back into something more pint-sized and perky with the current model.
The current Vitara brings us neatly to the new S-Cross. This model line started as the SX4 crossover compact-hatch in 2006, but from its second generation it grew into a larger and more mainstream SUV, on a shared platform with the current Vitara.
The “all-new” S-Cross isn’t exactly that: same basic platform and powertrain as the outgoing model, not to mention the Vitara that’s been with us since 2015. But it is a major inside-and-out refresh, taking the brand forward in technology/equipment. And also a little further into risky (for Suzuki) mainstream family-car territory.
For the record, it’s 225mm longer overall than a Vitara, with a 100mm stretch in the wheelbase. Lower (both in height and ground clearance), but wider. Not exactly massive at 4.3m long, but definitely the biggest thing you’ll find in a Suzuki showroom. Larger than the Hyundai Kona or Mazda CX-3, a snip smaller than the Toyota C-HR or Subaru XV.
The previous model was accomplished but hardly a looker, especially with that toast-rack grille. The new one looks a lot more grown-up and actually quite swish at the front, with a sliver of chrome that joins the grille and LED headlights. The back’s gone all butty too, with a massive full-width garnish; so very 2022.
There’s the odd nod to Suzuki-specific styling cues though: check the subtle fold of sheet metal at the top of the front guard, mimicking the clamshell bonnet of the Vitara, Jimny and Ignis.
The new interior propels it ahead of sister Vitara, with the obligatory iPad-like nine-inch infotainment touch screen propped up on the centre console. There’s a new OS and graphics and it’s also the first Suzuki to have wireless Apple CarPlay, which worked seamlessly for us during our test week; Android users get a lesser deal, because that still requires a cable.
The cabin is still far from fashion-forward: neat but very conservative and a sometimes-strange blend of new-tech (infotainment, 360-degree camera display on our JLX turbo test car) and old school, like the analogue instrument panel, spindly trip-reset button and manual handbrake.
It’s a spacious small-medium SUV though, with the wheelbase stretch liberating impressive rear legroom and a pretty decent 440-litre boot (65l more than a Vitara). The cargo floor is a removable dual-height affair, so you can have either maximum space (up to 1230l with the seats folded) or click it up a level to have flat load-through with the seats down.
So far, so good. But does it feel grown-up on the road? Suzuki has been a bit bold and only offers the S-Cross with the 1.4-litre BoosterJet turbo engine – the same as a Swift Sport, or of course the top Vitara models. No cheaper (and cheaper-to-run) naturally aspirated engine option like there was last time.
The S-Cross is in the Clean Car Discount neutral band, no rebate or fee, but it’s worth noting that it’s no economy king in small-car terms, with an on-test average of 7.5l/100km (official figure 6.9l). And you have to feed it 95 octane fuel.
There’s a mild-hybrid version of this engine available in Europe (for Swift Sport too) and that may come. But it would potentially push the price up, the economy gains are small – no EV running, for example – and it still needs premium fuel.
From a driver point of view, the BoosterJet is a treat: lots of low-down torque and beautifully smooth, even if the 103kW peak power output is quite modest. Past SX4s have dabbled in continuously variable transmission (CVT) technology, but the turbo has a six-speed automatic which is also pretty slick. Another ratio or two might be more contemporary, but we can’t honestly say the transmission feels lacking.
The upgraded safety-assist suite now includes “adaptive cruise with stop & go”, according to Suzuki. The adaptive bit is excellent and it will indeed brake down to standstill – but it only holds for two seconds, and if the car ahead hasn’t moved by then it cancels.
The top JLX turbo is available with AWD for an extra $2k and it’s a worthwhile spend if you’re venturing anywhere outside urban limits. It’s an on-demand full-time system so well-tailored towards on-road driving, with a Sport mode that shifts a little extra torque to the rear.
It’s no sports SUV, but that perky powertrain, clever AWD setup and a 1265kg kerb weight give the S-Cross an agile character on the open road. You might even say it’s fun, which is not a given with cars in this class.
AllGrip is simply Suzuki’s name for AWD, so the system in the S-Cross is different to the hard-core part-time 4WD “AllGrip” setup in the Jimny, for example. But the S-Cross still features a Snow mode and a proper 50/50 Lock setting to get you out of the truly slippery stuff. So while the S-Cross is no rock-hopper, for off-tarmac driving it’s harder to think of any small-medium family SUV more versatile this side of a Subaru XV. No, a Jimny is a not a family SUV by the way.
Suzuki is clearly aiming for much broader appeal with the new S-Cross. It has mainstreamed the styling massively and sharpened up the tech/equipment. It now ticks the important space and safety boxes for sensible people and the looks certainly won’t offend. It’s Serious face emoji.
But there’s a little more to the S-Cross JLX AWD than meets the eye. There’s enough verve in the mechanical package to still put a smile on the driver’s face and take you to new places. Any $40k family SUV that can still do that is okay by us.
SUZUKI S-CROSS JLX AWD
ENGINE: 1.4-litre turbo-petrol four
GEARBOX: 6-speed automatic, AWD
CONSUMPTION: 6.9l/100km, CO2 161g/km (3P-WLTP)