I want to buy either of these SUVs, which do you recommend?

The Pajero gets better mileage owing to its GDI-fitted engine, but this only applies when its functioning as it should, which is rarely. 

Photo credit: Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The Vitara in its previous iterations feels somewhat less civilised and is a bit gruff.
  • The Vitara feels like it was designed for use in a driving school. A win for the Pajero, then.
  • Both cars are very competent off-road.
  • Tthat is because they carry a proper 4WD system complete with low range and locking diffs.

Hi Mr Baraza,

I’m a veterinary doctor in private practice, which means I have to be on the road to visit my clients on a daily basis. The places I visit are sometimes inaccessible because of bad roads. I’m looking for a SUV for this reason, and for social events. I’m considering these two models: Suzuki Grand Vitara/Escudo and Mitsubishi Pajero iO. Please comment on:

1. Fuel consumption.

2. Maintenance index (availability of spare parts).

3. General driving performance on smooth roads and off-road, space for the family.

4. Between manual transmission with 4WD and Auto with 4WD, which one is superior?

Please recommend any other car that can fits these specs if the two I am considering fall short.

Dr Kamuti Kariuki


Greetings Doctary,

Well, this is a fairly easy comparison. While both cars you consider are exceptionally gifted 5-door wagons with 3-door variants and full-on 4WD drivetrains that make them veritable instruments when it comes to traversing the clag, one does not quite measure up to the other, and it's the Mitsubishi. No need to create suspense here. Let us find out why...


1. Fuel economy: both are surprisingly thirsty vehicles for their size and capacity, but then breeze-block aerodynamics and all that underbelly metal being heaved around in the name of a 4WD transmission are to blame.

The Pajero gets better mileage owing to its GDI-fitted engine, but this only applies when its functioning as it should, which is rarely. Get one that is suffering from mechanical infidelity and it will empty itself faster than a fighter aircraft escaping a dog fight. A friend of mine had such a vehicle and would struggle to cross beyond 5km/l in the city. 5km/l in a small 1800cc Mitsubishi. That is not a good look.

Suzuki Vitara

The Vitara is not much better. 9km/l seems to be the norm and unlike the Mitsubishi, mechanical issues are unheard of with this car.

Photo credit: PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

The Vitara is not much better. 9km/l seems to be the norm and unlike the Mitsubishi, mechanical issues are unheard of with this car. So expect both cars to do less than 10kml, which is a bit high for a crossover-sized SUV in this day and age. This makes fuel consumption a draw; and not a good one.

2. Maintenance index (I like our choice of words): spares and expertise abound for the Pajero. There are a lot of GDI specialists out there so you don't have to go far to find one. There is a reason for this: as stated earlier, the GDI engine in the Pajero is not exactly a paragon of excellence as far as reliability is concerned. Oh, well.

The Vitara is made of sterner stuff throughout its various generations, so it will not break easily. This means garage visits are infrequent if at all they happen.

Over and above that, All Futtaim (a.k.a CMC Motors) are always quick to remind me about availability of spares and support (expertise) of all the vehicle models they sell, so there goes another fear allayed. Toyota Kenya now sells the Vitara as well. This is a win for the Suzuki.

Drives rather well

3. Well, this is where things start happening. The Pajero iO drives rather well owing to its compact dimensions, and it feels better behind the wheel, sportier even.

It is also smooth but the ride is a bit bouncy when the road underfoot is less than pristine. The Vitara in its previous iterations feels somewhat less civilised and is a bit gruff.

You can tell it is a cheap car because it feels like one. The ride may be less bouncy than the Pajero on imperfect roads, but the driving experience feels disconnected.

The Pajero feels like it was made by passionate people who wanted buyers to enjoy driving that vehicle. The Vitara feels like it was designed for use in a driving school. A win for the Pajero, then.

Off-road

Both cars are very competent off-road and that is because they carry a proper 4WD system complete with low range and locking diffs. Their smaller size makes them even more capable than established giants like Land Cruisers and dare I say it, Land Rovers. Yea, I said it: these two pint-sized mudpluggers can venture into places the big boys may struggle with. This is an even draw between the Pajero and the Vitara.

Interior space for the family is a foregone conclusion and needs no explanation. The Pajero is claustrophobic up front and back, starting with an instrument cluster pressing up against your chin and a steering wheel that acts like a vest. You could reach over and open the passenger door without having to lean.

There is forced intimacy if you are more than a single occupant and the boot is ideal for groceries only if you are on a diet. This makes it an easy win for the Vitara which suffers no such problems. It feels positively palatial in comparison to the Shogun-at-60 per cent-zoom.

Manual vs automatic transmissions

4. This is always a touchy topic, especially with self-proclaimed off-road "experts" who claim manual transmissions are superior for off road use. They are not. They only outshine automatics in one specific task and that is if you get stuck in mud and snow and try to rock the car out of its predicament.

How often will this happen anyway? Some automatics will allow you to slide from D through N into R easily and back, which makes the previous argument moot. Some other automatics require the vehicle to come to a dead stop when shifting between forward and reverse which means you can't rock them back and forth no matter how hard you try.

I experienced this in the Ngong Hills one day with a Volkswagen Amarok that wedged its nose into a mud pit and refused to budge. Rather embarrassingly, I had to be towed out. With a manual, a deft shifting hand and a quick left foot makes rocking easy so you can unstick yourself without much assistance.

Other than this, automatics are superior in every other circumstance, and that is why people who are serious about building off-road rigs equip them with automatic transmissions.

There is less risk of burning a clutch, there is torque multiplication, there is the handy creep feature, there is no rollback on steep slopes, they will not stall and automatics are easier to drive anyway.

It frees up your mental capacity to think about other things besides what gear you are in and if you need to shift.

Diesel engines

5. I'm not a huge fan of diesel engines, especially in small cars, but as a vet dabbling in the occasional off-road adventure, derv is your drink of choice.

Torque and economy are its primary advantages over premium unleaded, as is range (diesel cars can drive very far between fill-ups, even when the road is nonexistent). For reliability, the bigger the capacity of the diesel engine the better off you are. So we are talking of 2500cc plus. Below that, stick to petrol.

*****

While the Vitara is the obvious and recommendable choice here (for the above reasons and also because it's still in production whereas the iO bowed out long ago), it may not hurt to look at some old Toyotas, especially diesel ones.

I'm talking of cars like Hilux double cabs or an old Prado. I have family in the same line of work as you are and guess what? They had a Vitara JLX, the same vehicle I cut my driving teeth in, and that little jeep was as dependable as the rain on a plain in Spain.

The capability of that car beggar’s belief even though fuel economy is outlandish for a 1600cc.

A bigger, hardier, diesel 4WD offers more practicality, comfort, reliability and passenger space, and they will last longer so if the Suzuki is not an urgent choice, you could cast your eyes further up the automotive ladder.