Car reviews - Suzuki - Grand Vitara - V6 Sports 5-dr wagon
Value for money, excellent packaging equals a spacious and comfy cabin, handsome styling, adequate on and off the road, eager V6, stupendously easy to live with
Room for improvement
No Tiptronic-style auto shift, no cruise control, V6 thirst, no diesel engine option, ride quality, lacks driver involvement, wide turning circle
7 Apr 2006
AFTER the phoenix-like rise of the once-dowdy Swift, maybe it's up to Suzuki to finally build an exciting compact SUV.
And here's its chance. The new Grand Vitara - the third to wear the badge that sired the SUV craze back in 1988 - is a significantly better vehicle than its predecessor.
It ticks all the right boxes if you are after a compact yet surprisingly spacious station wagon with refined road manners and impressive off-road capabilities.
Think of it as a smaller, wieldier Toyota Prado (albeit one with only five seats and no diesel option for now) and you're on the ball with a Suzuki that's pretty much right on the money.
It certainly looks like a (slightly) shrunken mid-sized SUV, with its Range Rover-style clamshell bonnet, blunt nose, big headlights, bigger tail-lights, enormous wheelarches and (heavy on inclines) swing-out rear door that houses the de rigueur spare wheel.
Suzuki deserves credit for getting the proportions pleasantly spot-on, if not for originality - some see original Vitara, others the superseded Toyota RAV4.
The interior too is a success - most obviously at just how spacious and comfortable the Grand Vitara is, accommodating five average-sized adults with consummate ease.
Never mind the broad and supportive front bucket seats and perfect driving position.
It's the rear quarters' ample leg, shoulder and headroom offerings that will clinch the deal for many family buyers. Suzuki says it's roomier out back than the visibly longer Nissan X-Trail. Only very tall folk will find cause for complaint.
Plus the rear backrest reclines, while the whole split-fold ensemble tumbles forward quickly and easily to reveal a vast empty cargo space. Too bad the back seats don't fully remove like the RAV4's.
A solid and secure parcel shelf shows the world how it should be done though, while storage slots are plentiful throughout the cabin. And access via all doors couldn't be less impeded.
Beautifully clear instrumentation with Lexus-style illumination, strong ventilation via simple and obvious console controls, and a lovely-to-hold steering wheel, complete with a remote-audio facility (but no cruise control unfortunately), are further Grand Vitara features likely to reel prospective buyers in.
It's also a cinch to see out of - aided by huge Mickey Mouse-like external mirrors, deep side windows and rear headrests that fall flush with the backrest when not in use - that make it a piece of pizza to park.
Now remembering that this is a post-Swift Suzuki, the cabin ambience and detailing is very New Japan, with smart black and matt metallic-like trim mostly finished in hard yet hard-wearing plastics.
It appears well-made, squeak-free, pretty kiddie-proof and ably cocooned from the outside world.
But don't expect Volvo XC90 or VW Touareg-like luxury, style or ambience. They wouldn't have big ugly switch blanks bang in the middle of the centre console to remind you every day that there are better equipped Grand Vitaras out there.
Another gripe is a useless 'kilometre-per-litre' readout high up on the console where it is almost impossible to read safely on the fly. It could at least be in 'litres per 100km.'
Regardless, clearly Suzuki spent much time figuring out how to make the interior as family-friendly as possible. And this is all achieved with the usually room-robbing 4WD gear lurking underneath.
As an all rounder then, you'd happily invest in a Grand Vitara over any of its rivals on accommodation grounds alone.
But it's not much fun to drive.
Beginning with a clean sheet of paper, the quiet Japanese giant decided to focus on improving the on-road driveability of its venerable SUV, so injected plenty of resources into the engineering department.
And despite retaining a semblance of the old model's ladder-frame chassis for improved off-road abilities, Suzuki has implemented a new construction method that integrates this into a monocoque body design.
If you drive an old Grand Vitara, the differences on-road will delight.
Now the body, chassis, steering and suspension work as one, to make you feel as if you are cornering a well-sorted car and not a wobbly Black Forest cake.
The powered steering system - though no paragon of communication - now feels better connected to the front wheels, offering fairly sharp handling, linear control through corners and a heightened sense of roadholding and security.
And it doesn't fall into a heap if you drive the Suzuki hard or enthusiastically through bends either, thanks to a nice feeling of weightiness to all the controls.
A tight U-turn will reveal a sudden heavy build-up and clunkiness in the steering - an inevitability of the separate chassis treatment - but it's still well within reason.
So you'd pick this over a Nissan X-Trail or Honda CR-V here, if not the distinctly more-car like Mitsubishi Outlander or (especially) RAV4.
However, there is a downside to the Grand Vitara's newfound dynamic aptitude.
In attempting to merge the usually mutually exclusive good handling with go-anywhere abilities, it seems Suzuki has set the suspension too hard for the ride to be satisfactory on anything other than ultra-smooth bitumen.
Uneven roads transmit shocks and thumping noises far too regularly for comfort, meaning that passengers are too aware of the racket going on below.
It's a surprising oversight in a category where you're at least cosseted as well as stupefied by the dynamic experience. Suzuki definitely needs to spend more time figuring this dilemma out.
Australia was especially targeted with the 2.7-litre V6-engine five-door wagon tested here in five-speed automatic guise.
And they make quite a decently powerful pair - although on paper the 135kW of power at 6000rpm and 250Nm of torque at 4500rpm output isn't any great shakes.
Perhaps it's a combination of the GV's relative lightness (1640kg), revvy V6 (which really comes alive above 3000rpm and will happily haul right up to the red line with no fuss) and smart, swift gearing.
But... of course this will adversely affect fuel economy. Just how much depends on how heavy your right foot is.
Spirited urban, and some country driving (the Suzuki feels quite at home cruising quickly and quietly on our roads) depleted the 66-litre tank sooner than expected. Barely 400km could be eked out of it.
What this vehicle deserves is a Tiptronic-style sequential-shift automatic, which may better engage the bored driver and perhaps even improve fuel economy as a result.
Yet even without it there's a level of mechanical refinement missing from most other rivals simply because of the peachy V6 - even if the ride is too hard and turning circle too large.
Despite its tough construction, the latest Grand Vitara goes, steers and stops as a modern 4WD wagon should, feeling neither cumbersome nor heavy.
When you factor in the fact that the Suzuki has a reputation for off-road ability (not tested here), it offers an extra facet of 4WD motoring that most of its car-based compact SUV rivals can't compete with, especially for the price.
But the Grand Vitara is the first of a flurry of new offerings in this segment, and within the next 24 months most of today's competition will be consigned to SUV history.
Its dull driving experience may see the Suzuki fall behind more than the rest of what is an otherwise well-rounded family wagon deserves.
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