In a world of urban SUVs, the Suzuki Vitara offers real off-road capability. It's equipped with a two-speed transfer case, body-on-frame construction, and a suspension designed for the dirty stuff. Most of the other utilities in this class (Santa Fe, Escape, Tribute, RAV4) do not offer the equipment needed for real off-pavement adventures.
Vitara is powered by a four-cylinder engine and comes in two-door convertible and four-door wagon styles.
Grand Vitara features a spunky V6 and comes with the wagon body only. For 2002, Grand Vitara's aluminum V6 engine is improved with more power and quicker throttle response.
Vitara 2 Door 2WD JLS ($15,599), 4WD JLX ($16,999); Vitara 4 Door 2WD JLS ($16,799), 4WD JLX ($18,199); Grand Vitara 2WD JLS ($18,599), 2WD Limited ($21,799), 4WD JLX ($19,799), 4WD Limited ($22,999)
The Grand Vitara sits high off the ground. This stance, along with its body cladding, gives it a more rugged appearance than the other small utilities. The Grand Vitara appears fairly large, but it's actually slightly smaller than the wagon-like Honda CR-V.
Suzuki has a reputation for fine workmanship. We sampled three different Grand Vitaras; the paint was lustrous on all three, and the body-on-frame construction produced no squeaks and rattles in the first of two. The third one we tested, however, showing 9500 miles on the odometer, suffered from an ongoing rattle and also idled roughly.
Despite its high stance, getting into a Grand Vitara is easier than climbing into a bigger sport-utility. And once there, the driver enjoys a commanding view of the road, clouded by only a couple of minor quirks. The steering wheel offers a good range of tilt adjustment, but is always angled slightly upward from the bottom. The front seats are a bit narrow, with better bolstering for the thighs than torso. They are still reasonably comfortable.
Passenger and cargo space in the Grand Vitara abounds, with enough front-seat headroom for a cowboy hat. Rear-seat legroom is good, considering the Suzuki's small proportions, and the rear seats seem to work better than do their counterparts up front. For 2002, Suzuki has added standardized LATCH anchors and tethers for child safety seats.
A sizable cargo area lies behind the rear seats; flip the seats forward and Vitara's carrying capacity is huge. The rear door swings out to the right, like a Toyota RAV4's, which is not ideal for curbside loading. A new-for-2002 cargo cover hides packages from roving eyes.
You can order the interior of your Vitara or Grand Vitara in any color you like, as long as you like gray. Still, warm plastics and tweedy fabrics look both durable and pleasing, while the leather hides in the Limited, while definitely plush, seem to make a small truck look overdressed.
Grand Vitara's 2.5-liter V6 responds instantly to the throttle; just a small tip of pedal sends the little truck lunging forward. With 165 horsepower, the Grand Vitara offers more power than the Honda CR-V (146 horsepower) and Toyota RAV4 (148 horsepower). At the top of the power class is the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute (200).
While brick-like aerodynamics and a hefty curb weight take the edge off as speed increases, the Grand Vitara's V6 delivers snappy acceleration in city traffic. The V6 revs smoothly and builds power quickly. Peak torque of 162 pounds-feet arrives at 4000 rpm, peak horsepower is 165 hp at 6500 rpm. Yet the Grand Vitara JLX gets an EPA-rated 19/21 mpg City/Highway. This 24-valve V6 really is an overachiever. It also powers the Chevrolet Tracker, which is a little lighter. So it has to work a little harder in the Grand Vitara.
The five-speed manual gearbox shifts smoothly with a light and direct feel. The tall shift lever with its rubber accordion boot is one of the few reminders that you're driving a truck. The clutch pedal engages high in its travel, but the effort is light, so it works well in stop-and-go traffic.
The four-speed automatic transmission features a separate Sport mode. Frankly, we couldn't see a need for a Sport program in a tall truck whose strength was clearly not its cornering ability. Even in the Normal mode, full-throttle upshifts arrive at a nice and smooth 6000 rpm, comfortably short of the 6800-rpm redline. All that the Sport mode does is sharpen the upshifts and bring on the downshifts earlier, so what could be wrong with that? But floor the Grand Vitara at 55 in either mode, and the engine screams as the transmission kicks down from its overdrive fourth to its much-shorter third gear. The closer ratios of the five-speed manual make a big difference here.
The Grand Vitara's body-on-frame construction is made plenty strong to take serious off-road punishment. The extra-stiff structure also contributes to a quiet ride on the highway, with little rolling noise from the drivetrain or suspension. The manual transmission whines with increasing speed, but barely enough to make the driver speak up. We detected a light buzz in our leather-lined Limited, possibly from an air leak around the sunroof.
Yet while the Grand Vitara's highway ride is quiet, it is far from smooth. The stiff, truck-like suspension doesn't so much jar you as toss you. Even the Chevy Tracker swallows bumps better, although it is in most ways the Vitara's mechanical twin. So does the more car-like Honda CR-V. Vitara drivers will learn to avoid sharp, slow bumps entirely, to steer around potholes, and to be prepared for a jolt when turning into city gas stations from the street. We may have been torturing the Grand Vitara when we charged up a bumpy road littered with switchbacks. The tires certainly screamed about it, as the rear end tried to swing wide (a condition auto engineers call oversteer).
But if we could change one thing about the Grand Vitara, it would be its
steering gear. Off-roaders need some on-center play to absorb kickback from large bumps, but we think perhaps that in this case the Suzuki engineers overdid it a bit. The steering slack is noticeable on the road, where the Grand Vitara floats and wanders, demanding close attention just to keep it pointed straight. Crosswinds push the little Suzuki around considerably. Worse still, the power steering tends to bind near full lock. The steering doesn't want to let you out of a slow donut, or even a tight turn into a parking space. Again, both the Tracker and the CR-V offer sharper handling.
On a dirt road, however, the same Grand Vitara put a surprised smile on our face. The suspension handles washboard gravel in four-wheel drive a whole lot better than ripply pavement with only the rear wheels engaged. Good traction, good anti-lock braking action, and not too much understeer (less than in the Tracker) add up to a satisfying off-r
Suzuki's Grand Vitara is a very solid effort. Sophisticated for a small truck, the Grand Vitara offers comfortable cabin room for four adults, a simple four-wheel-drive system, and a snappy V6 engine.
Weekend thrill seekers ferrying kayaks to remote places will groove on the Grand Vitara. But the Suzuki also serves well as an all-purpose vehicle with a strong SUV flair.
The Grand Vitara works best as an economy commuter for active outdoor people. Monday through Friday it can squirt between bigger SUVs with the nimble responses of a compact sedan. On the weekends, it can be stuffed with camping gear.