Car reviews - Suzuki - Grand Vitara - V6 Sports 5-dr wagon
Engine performance, off-road prowess
Room for improvement
On-road behaviour, rear accommodation
12 Apr 2001
By TERRY MARTIN
WHEN it comes to Grand Vitara, even one as appealing as the new Sports range, the sad fact for Suzuki is that no amount of variation to the champion off-roader is going to make the recreational four-wheel driver put down the popular fiction other manufacturers have been writing for the past few years in favour of a reference book on rock-hopping.
Most people want a talking point, a commanding view, not a serious threat to their suburban sensibilities. And that means passenger-car imperatives such as on-road surety, refinement and fuel economy take precedence over talent in the bush.
The Sports and Sports Limited models, both of which are powered by the higher-grade 2.5-litre V6 engine, are an attempt to win back buyers with an extension of the already long features list created for the Grand Vitara five-door wagon package when launched here in April 1998.
Externally, there is little difference between the stock-standard Grand Vitara and the Sports, save for alloy wheels on the Limited and minor bumper and grille modifications.
Where it really improves is in the detail.
In addition to standard items such as dual-range part-time four-wheel drive, air-conditioning, single-slot CD radio, power steering, electric windows and mirror adjustment, the Sports adds dual front airbags, remote central locking with a two-stage engine immobiliser, a hard cover for the rear-mounted spare wheel, new cloth trim and a cargo security blind.
The Limited goes a step further with anti-lock brakes (optional on Grand Vitara as a package with twin airbags) and leather upholstery.
In Limited form in particular, it is now a formidable amount of equipment packed into a small, versatile, powerful wagon.
Indeed, those looking for a packhorse rather than a pony will be hard-pressed to find anything better.
The V6 is strong, smooth and tractable, a little noisy at high revs but potent enough to overcome a kerb weight of 1405kg and a set of tall gears with the standard five-speed manual transmission.
It has a more of a thirst for petrol than its smaller-capacity rivals, however the driver will appreciate the ease in which the vehicle manages the prevailing conditions, from city and highway traffic to steep inclines on a mountain trail.
And it is here, deep in the bush, where the Grand Vitara comes into its own.
Most other recreational four-wheel drives are unable to travel far off the beaten track for a number of reasons including the absence of low-range gears, insufficient ground clearance or wheel travel/articulation, restrictive front and rear overhangs and poor provision of underbody protection.
Not so the baby Grand, which throughout its design has features that allow for serious off-road work.
We have mentioned the grunty engine, but consider also its tough, protective ladder frame chassis, a dual-range transfer case with an extra set of ultra-low crawling gears, good clearance (195mm) and approach (34 degrees) and departure (31) angles, a high-mounted alternator and air cleaner to allow activities like creek crossings, and a live-axle rear suspension that really comes into its own when the going gets tough.
Though unsuitable for normal road conditions, the four-wheel drive system provides excellent traction on slippery or loose surfaces once the driver shifts into full-time four-wheel drive from the standard rear-drive operation.
The inclusion of anti-lock brakes as standard also improves the vehicle?s outlook on tarmac and dirt roads alike, though it took longer than we might have expected to pull up from an emergency stop on a stretch of gravel.
Indeed, it is at higher speeds where the Grand Vitara's deficiencies in ride and handling become apparent.
While the ultra-soft suspension is fine just above walking pace, its "pogo stick" properties are not appreciated at speed when bumps and ripples are encountered on the road.
There is also a fair degree of lean encountered during directional changes, not to mention a distinct lack of composure if a bump is hit mid-corner.
The Vitara's handling characteristics are not anywhere near as good as its car-based competitors, the steering in particular noteworthy for its lack of response to input.
General refinement is not a strongpoint, either.
In terms of interior design, the vehicle similarly adopts an interesting mix of excellence and compromise.
As the grandest of all Grand Vitara wagons, the Sports Limited does little to pamper the driver and passengers. No less than 11 unused switch locations serve as a constant reminder that other markets get a lot more creature comforts the leather seats offer lumbar adjustment and a limited amount of height adjustment for the driver but lack all-important support the stereo is functional but extremely basic and the antiquated temperature controls might have passed for the old Vitara, but the new generation Grand? At the rear, either or both portions of the 50/50 split-fold can quickly liberate plenty of extra cargo space by tumbling forward against the front seats, but the seats themselves lack size, support and comfort - leather or no leather.
Rear headroom is excellent, legroom poor and shoulder room laughable if the centre-rear position, which has no headrest or three-point belt, is occupied.
Useful cubbies, bins and pockets are littered throughout the cabin, yet when it comes to the most important storage space of all - the cargo bay - there is a disappointing lack of room when the rear seats are upright.
And, really, the security blind brought by the Sports series should have already been there.
No matter what Suzuki throws onto the Grand Vitara or the Sports series, it probably won't be enough to tempt the suburban mountaineer away from a show pony based on the passenger car - or the quickest, easiest way to Alice Springs. Via the Stuart Highway.
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