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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Mike Hanley
June 25, 2010
Suzuki's Grand Vitara small crossover is one of the few in its class to offer relatively sophisticated off-road capability, something that's increasingly difficult to find in most crossovers.
While that capability will appeal to a certain group of shoppers, what's most impressive about the Grand Vitara is that it also boasts on-road driving characteristics that rival those same competitors.
Even though the Grand Vitara's driving experience is one of its strong points, its interior design significantly lags the competition, which is advancing quickly. Styling The Grand Vitara has been around in its current form since the 2006 model year, and its exterior design has aged quite well. It's one of the more conservatively styled crossovers out there, with a clean, well-proportioned look about it. (To see a side-by-side comparison of the 2009 and 2010 Grand Vitara, click here.)
The Grand Vitara has a full-size spare tire attached to its rear swing gate. It gives the crossover a more rugged look, but the gate's design can limit access to the cargo area; it's hinged on the passenger side and swings out wide, so if you're parallel-parked you might have to move the Grand Vitara to open the gate without hitting the car behind you. The passenger-side hinge also means the gate blocks curbside access when it's open. V-6 Performance, Off-Road Features I tested a top-of-the-line four-wheel-drive Limited trim level with the optional 230-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6. With just a handful of options totaling $524, our as-tested price came to nearly $28,000.
Around town, the V-6 makes the Grand Vitara feel energetic and lively. It's matched with a five-speed automatic transmission that shifts smoothly, and overall drivetrain refinement is good.
The V-6's responses are modest on the highway, but it keeps pace with fast-moving traffic without straining.
Crossover Gas Mileage (city/highway, mpg)
All ratings are for automatic transmission models. Sorted by four-cylinder gas mileage.
The Grand Vitara differs from crossover competitors in a few key ways. Like them, it features unibody construction, but it also incorporates a traditional ladder frame for extra strength. It's also the only one with an optional low-range four-wheel-drive system for difficult off-road driving, and that's supplemented by 7.9 inches of ground clearance on four-wheel-drive models (7.4 inches on two-wheel-drive versions). V-6 models with the low-range system also get hill descent control and hill start assist to help manage the Grand Vitara's progress on challenging terrain. Ride & Handling If you've been shopping around and test-driving small crossovers, you're probably already familiar with the firm ride many of them offer. There are only a handful of models in the segment, like the Jeep Patriot and Ford Escape, that place much emphasis on ride comfort, and the Grand Vitara can be classified with the majority of its competitors; its suspension tuning is on the firm side.
However, for a crossover that offers as much off-road capability as the Grand Vitara, the ride isn't as bumpy as expected. Rather, it approximates the ride of models like the Chevrolet Equinox, Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Rogue — three models that don't offer as much off-road capability. Certain road surfaces, like concrete highways, can make the Grand Vitara start jittering around a little, but for the most part the ride stays composed. The suspension does a nice job managing rebound over bigger dips in the road.
The steering tuning is a high point. The steering wheel has just the right amount of assistance at low speeds to make parking-lot maneuvers easy, while still delivering a solid feel on the highway. The steering is also responsive, which gives the Grand Vitara a degree of nimbleness. The Inside Perhaps the biggest downer about the five-seat Grand Vitara is its outdated cabin, which looks like it's about 10 years behind the times. The biggest offender is the center control panel, which incorporates an audio system with a number of buttons poking through the panel. Maybe it was the tan color of that center panel, but the design just said "old" to my eyes. That impression is exacerbated when you compare it with a recently redesigned model, like the Equinox; the difference is like night and day.
The front bucket seats in my Limited test model had leather upholstery and seat heaters. You'd think for nearly $28,000 you'd also get power-adjustable seats — but you don't. The seats were comfortable for shorter trips, but I was a little sore at the end of a four-plus-hour drive on the highway.
The Grand Vitara's backseat is snug. The Equinox and RAV4 have relatively spacious second rows for adult passengers, allowing them to move about a little, but you feel wedged-in in the Grand Vitara's second row, with your knees pressed firmly against the back of the front seat. You can't improve the situation unless you ask the person in front to move their seat forward because the backseat doesn't slide (though it does recline) like the seats in some competitors, including the Equinox and RAV4. However, the seat cushion is relatively high off the floor, which helps with thigh support. Cargo & Towing There's up to 28.4 cubic feet of cargo room behind the backseat. Maximum cargo volume totals 70.8 cubic feet, but it takes a few steps to get there. You have to fold down the second row's backrest and then flip the whole seat forward until it's vertical against the back of the front seats. You then secure the seat by attaching straps to the front head-restraint posts — a method I've never seen before. Your effort is rewarded with a flat cargo floor — albeit one with some sunken areas for seat connections — but it's a lot of trouble compared with many seat-folding designs that only require you to fold the backrest to expand the cargo area.
With the optional V-6 engine, the Grand Vitara's maximum towing capacity is 3,000 pounds. V-6 versions of the Equinox, Escape, RAV4 and four-wheel-drive Outlander, by comparison, are rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds. Safety The Grand Vitara received the highest-possible overall score, Good, in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal-offset crash testing. It received the second-best score, Acceptable, in side-impact and roof-strength tests, but earned just a Marginal for its protection against whiplash injuries in rear-end collisions.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for both rows of seats, and an electronic stability system. Check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page for a full list of safety features. Grand Vitara in the Market Despite building some solid cars, like the fun-to-drive SX4 compact and the midsize Kizashi, which earned third place in Cars.com's recent $25,000 Family Sedan Shootout, Suzuki has a consideration problem on its hands: It's just not typically in the conversation along with mainstream brands like Chevrolet, Honda, Ford and Toyota, which all market competing models. That's reflected in Suzuki's sales, which are a mere fraction of those brands'.
The Grand Vitara faces the same uphill battle as its car siblings, but if you're willing to give it a look, you might be surprised by its composed ride — I know I was — and its available off-road technology will put it high on some shoppers' lists. The problem for Suzuki is that the number of shoppers who want real off-road capability in a small crossover is small — and will likely only get smaller in the future.