Your opinions on a 1996 Vitara

I’m considering buying a second hand Vitara that’s being advertized. I know that 10-year-old cars need to go through a yearly roadworthy test, but I read online that they are fairly reliable.

The main owner’s complaints are that it’s not powerful or fast enough, but I’m not gonna driva that fast here and I’ll probably only go offroad a few times a year.

I have heard from some Taiwanese that the parts are expensive and hard to come by. This seems strange because it’s a 1.6 so I guess the engine is similar or identical to the same vintage Escudos. There are so many of them around you would think that parts would be cheap.

Anyway, does anyone have any personal experiences with this car, or any views you could share to convince my to buy (or not to buy) this car.

Thanks in advance!


I had a early model (1991 or 1992) XL Escudo for several years. I found that while it required a bit of TLC, part were plentiful and relatively cheap. The service network is very complete with most people knowing how to fix them. It never left us stranded (unlike my new passat) and most fixes were upgrades to old part. This info. is dated 1999- 2000 or so.

My wife and I still miss that car…it had lots of personality. Sold it to a family friend in Pingtung and it is still going.

Thanks Elegua. Do you know if the Escudo parts are compatible with Vitaras?

Here’s a pic:

My concern with these mockjeeps is that if hit on the side, they will crumple.

Got kids?

[quote=“jdsmith”]My concern with these mockjeeps is that if hit on the side, they will crumple.

Got kids?[/quote]

Not yet … do you have anything to back up the above statement?

The aluminum block on this vehicle is very prone to cracking. It’s a factory casting defect, and well known issue with the 1.6 liter motor. I had to find out the hard way.

Check the temp gauge on this truck, and climb a few hills with the A/C on. If the gauge moves even slightly then have a good visual inspection done on the block itself before going to the rest of the cooling system.

The crack is along the left side of the block, where the water jackets reside in this section of the motor.

The VIN number for this vehicle resides on both the dash and the motor, so changing blocks is a real hassle. This is the single most important thing you need to check before considering this purchase. Take it to a mechanic that is familier with this problem, or bring it down and I’ll take a peek. I know from bitter experience right where the crack (if present) lives.

What does the guy want for it?

[quote=“teggs”][quote=“jdsmith”]My concern with these mockjeeps is that if hit on the side, they will crumple.

Got kids?[/quote]

Not yet … do you have anything to back up the above statement?[/quote]

Just a few wrecks that I’ve seen.

My feeling is that they sit too high and are too light, so any side impact spells trouble.

It’s my gut feeling, so take my opinion with a pound of salt.


Like many cars here - yes, they are not up to ww safety standards.

My understanding is that the Vitara is the same thing as the escudo but with a longer wheelbase.

I did not know about an aluminum block. Mine was cast iron - but that might be because I had an early model.

Yep, they moved over to the aluminum block later…in 93 or 94 if memory serves. Your older model was also a 1,300cc correct?

All the mid-90’s models run the the aluminim 1.6 liter four.

Thanks for the input guys. He’s asking 125k. I haven’t seen it yet, I’l let you all know when I do…

P.s. Apart from all the bad things already mentioned, are there any good things about the truck?


It gets reasonable milage for a SUV, and has a comfortable, but bouncy ride. It’s part-time four wheel drive system is primative (that’s a good thing) and is only used when needed. A couple of things regarding. First, have you checked the Zuk in 4-wheel drive? Most people don’t use it much, and that is to it’s detriment. Check for clicking/grinding noise from the hubs, and make sure that his service records include times on when his 1)Transmission fluid 2) Transfer case and 3) Front and rear differential fluid were last changed.

It doesn’t look to be set up in any way shape or form for true offroading. If he doesn’t have these records available, and you still decide to buy, then change these fluids straightaway. If the hubs are making noise, then keep in mind that a new set is 30,000NT. 80% chance they are shot. They need to be engaged fairly often to stay properly lubricated. About once a month is industry standard. You can replace them with manual ones (stronger, better) for about a third the price.

As for crashing and top heaviness I don’t buy into the danger issue as much. The Suzuki uses a stout truck frame, and the addition of the 4-wheel drive system adds hundreds of pounds to the frame which has to be reinforced to compensate for all that extra hardware. It’s not nearly as top-heavy as it looks.

Also, the Suzuki is easy to modify/lift. With some gearing changes they are very competent off-road vehicles, especially in the short box 3 door version.

Check the service records, and take the vehicle to a mechanic that you know and trust. If he’s not willing to do so, then move on to the next seller.

4-wheel drive vehicles need a bit more TLC than your average family sedan, but if properly maintained they’ll go for far longer. But you have to ask yourself, do you really need a 4-wheel drive vehicle?

Is it manual or auto? Not that the manuals are rockets or anything, but the autos are really, really slow… Auto boxes are expensive to refurbish or replace, so there are a few things you want to check before buying. Waiting for your answer before I get into typing that all out :slight_smile:

I remeber mine being very slow to accellerate and a 3 speed automatic means high revs on the highway. Also, check the master cylinders. The brakes can be very slow if not properly maintained.

I use to stick in the 2 door version:
2 kids in car seats
1 stroller
1 fold-up crib
2 full-sized bikes
1 weeks luggage
1 10 person tent, sleeping bags, tripod and cost-iron pot.
2 sets of scuba gear

I still laugh when I look at the pictures. Of course now I’m sticking tha same stuff plus 3 windsurfers and sails all into/onto a Teanna

… auto

MJB, thanks for the great post, lots of good info there.

No, I haven’t seen it yet.


I think my next move must be to go and look at it and then get back to you about all the things you mentioned. I also don’t know as much as you about cars and the guy probably doesn’t speak English, but I’ll see what I can get out of him.

Thanks again for all the info!


P.s. MJB, what’s the “Zuk”?

Power is transmitted through an automatic gearbox via a series of planetary gearsets all joined together by clutch packs. If you’ve ever seen a wet multiplate clutch in a motorcycle that’s exactly what they look like. Instead of a cable to operate that clutch there are hydraulic cylinders which clamp and unclamp them. Due to the quite favorable design of the gearsets and the environment they operate in, they usually last a very long time.
The clutch packs wear over time because they slip some while both engaging and disengaging, and that’s happening every time the transmission shifts gear. The hydraulic cylinders that operate the clutches have a series of piston rings and rubber seals to maintain the pressure needed to clamp the clutch pack. Those will also wear over time from sliding up and down the cylinder bores.
It can be pretty hard to diagnose a malfunctioning transmission, especially the newer electronically-controlled ones, but there are some things to look for that you will not see in a healthy unit.

How to check the health of an automatic transmission 101

First off, start the vehicle and get it up to normal temperature. A ten minute test drive should do that. Stop and then cycle the shift lever through each of it’s ranges and be sure that it engages (the vehicle will move if you let off the brakes) within at most 5 seconds. A healthy transmission should give you a smooth but firm engagement within 1 or 2 seconds.

Next, try brake-torquing in ‘D’ by putting your left foot firmly on the brake and press on the gas pedal with your right. The engine rpm should come up to about 2,000 to 2,500rpm and then not climb any higher, regardless of how much more gas you give it. Don’t do this for more than 10 seconds at a time and let it rest a minute between attempts, it makes the transmission very hot. Needless to say you shouldn’t do this while parked right behind some gangster’s Mercedes.

Since the hydraulic pressure used to clamp the clutch plates varies with speed and load (to modulate the feel of the shift) a sign of a failing hydraulic circuit is a soft shift. Drive on a level road using light throttle to the speed where the transmission shifts from 2nd into 3rd. That should be about 60kph or so, just make a note of the speed. Then repeat the same run, but lift your foot slightly out of the gas just before the transmission was about to shift. The shift should be smooth, but quick. The engine revs should just drop quickly as the trans shifts and there should not be any rise in rpm or loss of momentum.

Now check the fluid. Park on level ground and leave the engine running for a few minutes with the shift lever in ‘P’. Pull the dipstick and look at the fluid. ATF should be clear and cherry red. Fresh ATF has a strong chemical smell from all the additives and detergents. It does not smell like motor oil or gasoline. Wipe some off with your finger and check it’s really clear, not frothy and has no floating particles in it. Wipe the stick and put it back to check the level. There will be two marks on the dipstick, low and high.

Froth: If the fluid level is too high it could be that some rotating assemblies are dipping into the fluid in the pan and whipping it up. Maybe draining some will fix this. It could also be that there’s a bad leak in the hydraulic system. You would want to know which it is.

Brown fluid: ATF doesn’t get polluted with carbon like engine oil because it doesn’t come into contact with combustion byproducts, but after a long time it will get contaminated with material from the clutch packs as they wear. It could be that everything is fine and the fluid just needs changing. It’s not a good sign that the owner is looking after the vehicle though.

Strawberry milkshake: Thank the seller for his time and go home. Opaque, milky fluid is contaminated with water (it’s emulsified) and the friction material is fixed to the clutch plates with water-soluble glue. Guess what happens next…

Now, the thing with brown fluid is that it can be completely benign. It’s just old and a little dirty and changing it out will make the trans almost as good as new. ATF has some very powerful detergents and seal-swelling agents in it which are used to keep the hydraulic circuits squeaky clean and the rubber seals plump and soft. As the fluid gets old this breaks down and it no longer does such a stellar job of housekeeping. Sludges and varnishes build up in odd places and start to block the maze of passageways, restricting the flow of fluid and possibly causing problems like slow shifts or lazy shifts. In one other way this may actually be a good thing. As the piston rings and rubber seals get old they wear and also harden. This can be offset with the build-up of sludge on their mating surfaces and the end result is that the seal holds pressure even though it’s basically worn out. What happens when you suddenly swap out the old brown crud for fresh ATF with it’s powerful additives? Well, it can be that in an instant the sludge gets washed away by the agressive new fluid, opening a gap for the pressure to leak through. Simultaneously the rubber seals start to swell from those other additives, but it’s too late for these old and now brittle seals. Instead of swelling to their original dimensions they develop cracks, and more pressure is lost. Next thing you know there is not enough line pressure to clamp the clutch packs properly and the result will be at best a slow, slipping shift (which will overheat the clutch plates and destroy them in short order) or at worst you’ll have no drive ranges available at all.

So, the important thing here is that if you inspect a high-mileage car with brown and dirty ATF, get the owner to agree to take the car for a fluid change before you agree to buy it. If the seller refuses, walk away. The trans could easily be hanging on to its life by a mixture of sludge and luck. If he agrees, try to be around while the fluid gets changed and see the pan come off the bottom of the pan and that the filter either gets properly cleaned or replaced. If you can, grok the filter and the bottom of the pan for shards of metal or bronze colored particles which indicate wear in the gears or bearings. There will be some dark silt in there from the clutch plates. As long as it is not magnetic or shiny it’s okay. Get a time-out of a few days for the fluid do it’s job of cleaning house (check the odo to be sure it’s been driven around), then repeat the driving test again checking for slow or slipping shifts. Any deterioration in shift quality from your previous test drive says the transmission will fail shortly.

A simple auto transmission for an older Japanese econobox should cost anything from 20 to 40k to replace. The most economical and safest route will be a used unit from Japan. You would pay a similar amount to have the transmission rebuilt here, but I’ve heard far more horror stories than otherwise. From bitter hands-on experience I can tell you it is really difficult to service an automatic trans successfully even when you have access to genuine parts and the proper tools. Everything in there has to be perfectly, spotlessly clean and that kind of environment is hard to find in an repair shop here, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I’ve seen many trannies from supposedly factory-certified legitimate refurbishers fail within a few months, and they seldom give guarantees of more than a few months. Next best bet is to pull one from a smashed car in the scrapyard at maybe 10 to 30k depending how popular the car is/was. You’ll still get no guarantees, but the trans was at least working okay when the car was crashed.

Hope this helps. YMMV, caveat emptor etc. etc.

After some consideration I have decided that I’m going o wait another month or two and get something a step or two higher and much younger. I’m now looking at in the X-Trail, CRV, Grand Vitara range made this millenium.

Thanks for all the input and my apologies if you feel that I wasted your time (because I didn’t buy the car). I think this is the right decision though as 10 years old is too old for buying a second hand car.