The Suzuki Grand Vitara has been thoroughly overhauled for 2009, with more advanced drivetrains, better brakes, new cosmetics, and added features. A new V6 engine is available in addition to the four-cylinder engine. It has not turned soft in the process, nor has Suzuki tried to put seven seats where five belong. The Grand Vitara is quite capable in rugged terrain and offers superior durability than the car-based crossovers.
Four-wheel drive enthusiasts use the term soft-roader for vehicles that have all-wheel drive but aren't really built for anything rougher than a graded dirt road. Built on a front-wheel-drive platform, these car-based crossovers include the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Mitsubishi Outlander, and Nissan Rogue.
Suzuki's Grand Vitara is a tougher little bugger. It's built on a rear-wheel-drive platform and is available with four-wheel drive, not all-wheel drive, the former distinguished from the latter by its added low-range gearing. This allows the Grand Vitara to climb or descend steeper inclines and walk over rocky obstacles without boiling its drivetrain. It has a proper underbody layout, with steel suspension arms rather than aluminum, and attention to the engine compartment means the muddy river at the door bottoms won't faze it. For two-wheel drive owners it means a nearly indestructible runabout.
However, just because the Grand Vitara can take some abuse doesn't mean the occupants have to. With fully independent suspension, able engines and a clean cabin, the Grand Vitara does not have the rough-and-tumble ride quality and cabin surroundings the term four-wheel drive often conjures up. It is quite happy on the pavement and doesn't ask any compromises.
The 2009 Grand Vitara is offered in 11 permutations, with nearly every imaginable combination available. All models are rated to tow a small trailer, and many can be flat-towed behind a motorhome.
Suzuki Grand Vitara 2WD ($18,499), automatic ($19,599); Premium 2WD ($18,899), automatic ($19,999), 4WD manual ($20,349), automatic ($21,449); XSport 2.4 2WD ($21,749), 4WD ($23,399); XSport 3.2 V6 2WD ($22,999), 4WD ($24,749); Luxury 2.4 ($23,249), 4WD ($24,899); Luxury 3.2 V6 ($24,549), 4WD ($26,299)
Since it's a compact SUV, the Suzuki Grand Vitara isn't all that grand in scale, but it's more space efficient than a lot of utility and crossover vehicles. Short overhangs, fairly straight and vertical sides and cargo door, and excellent outward visibility designed for trail use are equally welcome in urban environs.
The 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara is an inch longer than its predecessor.
Head-on, the Grand Vitara's styling is reminiscent of a Saab, with horizontal headlamp elements that appear inset and protected, clean lines and a wraparound clamshell hood that has no bodywork seams on top where they could be seen by occupants. The line that forms the hood opening sweeps upward and carries all the way to the back door, creating a smooth character line.
Although the top window line slopes downward in opposition to the character line, neither is aggressive and the back-seat side windows are still quite large, as opposed to the tiny angular glass on some similar vehicles. Wheels are simple spoked arrangements that don't pack in snow or mud, fender flares keep them trimmed without adding excessive width, and privacy glass is used on upper trim levels.
From a lower vantage point you will also notice that approach and departure angles, which indicate how steep an object or incline you can tackle without body contact, are both very good. Perhaps even more important, departure angle is almost the same as approach, so if you get the front over there's a good chance the back will go over clean as well. Urban dwellers with high curbs will appreciate this because of U-turn ability.
An Appearance package that adds side steps and textured fender flares is offered for XSport models, but we submit since the Grand Vitara doesn't tower over you that no step is needed, and that a few rock scrapes or hunks of mud will far better provide the appearance that you use your 4WD.
From the rear the Grand Vitara takes styling cues from its big brother, the Suzuki XL7, and squares it off to promote more cargo area, easier loading, and less snow-scraping off the rear glass. The Grand Vitara slightly resembles the Toyota RAV4 but comes across as more purpose-styled. Placing the rear tire low on the cargo door doesn't interfere with rear visibility, frees space inside and means you won't have to lie on the muddy, wet or snow-covered ground to reach the spare nor load the dead dirty tire in the cargo area.
In back, the license plate holder that hangs down will be the first thing scraped on trail adventures but it is expendable and won't keep you from driving home.
The Grand Vitara is not based on a front-wheel-drive car like most small SUVs, and has a hybrid unibody with a ladder frame like a truck underneath it. This adds a bit of weight but the payoffs in strength are worth it for serious use; we parked one on two opposite wheels with the remaining two hanging in mid-air and could still open and close the doors and cargo door with normal effort.
The 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara cabin puts to rest any notion that small equals penalty box. There is nothing ground-breaking in style or features but the logic and execution are first-rate, the materials fully appropriate and cheap to neither eye nor touch.
It's as easy to get in and out of the Grand Vitara as it is with most big cars and many drivers will appreciate that they can almost slide in rather than sit down and later have to climb out. Seats are nicely shaped to allow freedom of movement and supportive enough to empty the fuel tank. While appearance and materials vary by model, the entry-level model offers the same layout, usability, and safety features of the top-line model. Interior materials are upgraded as the price increases, and the Limited comes with leather seats. Regardless of fabric, the center and door armrests are nicely padded.
A three-spoke tilt wheel offers illuminated redundant controls on all but the base model and frames the three-pod instruments; tachometer, speed, and temperature/fuel/gear display on every model. Often-used operating controls are stalk mounted and easy to use. The shifter, gated on automatics, and handbrake are both well-placed.
Outboard dash vents are omni-directional, with conventional horizontal vents at the top of the central dash area. The audio system and climate control run down the panel, and the only potential issue is display visibility with polarized sunglasses. Door pockets, center console storage and a smaller one overhead, glovebox, and smaller bins handle miscellany.
Rear-seat passengers will find more than adequate leg and headroom, even with a sunroof, although some car-based truck-lets have a bit more room. Sheer width dictates that three-across should be youngsters or petite people but the fairly flat cushion and three full-size headrests equalize comfort among them. The rear seat splits with the narrow side behind the driver, and both sides recline independently.
The cargo load floor is not very high thanks to the rear suspension and with the tire outside there is a sizable open bin underneath it. Volume is decent given the compact exterior dimensions and shaped more upright than laid out flat. Various nets and clips help secure items, and the rear seats fold easily to increase volume by a factor of 2.8.
The back door swings open to the right, so you will have to step around it when loading and unloading curbside at the airport or in the big city. (This is in deference to the more crowded Japanese home market.) However, you will never scrape it on a low ceiling as you might a hatch nor have to jump up to reach the pull strap. Adding a piece of non-skid material, clear cover, or scuff plate to the top of the bumper would protect the paint from loading scars.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara offers two engines, a brand-new, unique-to-Suzuki, built-in-Japan 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a 3.2-liter V6. Both engines are all-aluminum and included in the zero-deductible, transferable 7 year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Fuel mileage varies from 19/26 mpg EPA City/Highway for the four-cylinder 2WD manual to 17/23 mpg for a V6 automatic 4WD.
The 2.4-liter four-cylinder is quite competitive and goes about its business smoothly with minimal fuss, delivering 166 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. You will floor it for uphill on-ramps and sand dunes, and it will happily deliver everything it has without sounding stressed, strained, or underpowered. Either transmission works well with it, and you'll get the best out of it with the manual.
The 3.2-liter V6 engine, also built in Japan, is a derivative of the high-feature V6 used as a 3.6-liter in the Suzuki XL7 and Cadillac CTS and the 2.8-liter turbo used in the Saab 9-3. The 3.2-liter version is designed for longitudinal use, as in the Grand Vitara and other trucks, as opposed to a transverse layout where the engine sits sideways, usually over the front drive wheels. The 3.2-liter delivers 230 hp at 6200 rpm, the same as the 3.2-liter, 400-pound heavier Land Rover LR2, and 213 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm through a five-speed automatic gearbox.
Smoothness and refinement characterize the V6 and the added oomph shows up more at highway speeds than around town or around the rocks. The fuel economy rating hit is relatively small because the V6 gets an extra gear in its automatic, but if you make a habit of using the extra 64 horsepower you will pay in mileage.
Two-wheel drive Grand Vitaras drive the rear wheels, a long-time staple of trucks and taxis and other working vehicles, and a favorite of enthusiasts for driving dynamics. 166 ponies do not make a hot-rod, but the Grand Vitara's ideal 50/50 weight distribution deliver good on-road handling and response and, with the traction control switched off, a heck of a lot of fun drifting around an off-highway vehicle park or snowy field.
With all-independent suspension the Grand Vitara gives up little in ride comfort to most car-based crossovers; in many cases where the crossovers use very low-profile tires the Suzuki rides better because the tires absorb more of the sharp impacts. The Grand Vitara quietly rolls down the highway, the steering and brakes working exactly as you expect with little effort. It might not be the ideal commuter car everywhere, but for rural Minnesota, New Mexico or Alaska, it makes a compelling argument with its decent fuel economy, non-punishing ride and solid build.
Two four-wheel drive systems are available, the single-mode system on Premium trim and a four-mode system on XSport and Luxury models. Both have low-range gearing to get you through slow-speed situations like steep ascents and high-load situations like deep sand and mud. The four-mode system has a setting for four-wheel drive on pavement, as you'd use in winter weather or extreme rain, and it normally drives both axles evenly but can deliver full power to either front or rear axle if needed. Both systems are controlled by a dash-mounted switch. A traction control component helps in very low friction surfaces, and proper axle gearing and torque converter setup ensure maximum use of available power.
While the Grand Vitara is more capable off the highway than most cute-utes and high wagons, it does not compete with the likes of Jeep's Wrangler or Hummer's H3, both heavier, more expensive, more severe-duty machines that extract a penalty in ride comfort and fuel economy. However, a Grand Vitara will handle small rocks, off-camber climbs, and water crossings deep enough that opening a door would flood the floor and the exhaust burbles like one of Suzuki's outboard motors; if you look under hood you'll find the engine air intake is located well up high and the area is quite serviceable by modern vehicle standards.
Tow rating for the Grand Vitara is 3,000 pounds, sufficient for a pair of personal watercraft, dirt bikes or small pop-up trailer, but a little shy for a bass boat. Grand Vitara 4-mode models may be pulled on all four wheels, as a dinghy behind a motorhome, following instructions in the owner's manual and proper fitting of an airbag-compliant tow bar.
The Grand Vitara is a solid choice, both figuratively and literally, in compact SUVs. Suzuki has eschewed making the Grand Vitara a station wagon in favor of keeping the components and durability required for off-highway use. And it has done so while making it more efficient, comfortable for daily use, and sporting a good degree of features, finish, and value.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G. R. Whale filed this report from the Texas Hill Country.