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The Suzuki Grand Vitara used to put off-road ability before on-road manners, but does it now deliver?

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Since its introduction in 1988, Suzuki’s Vitara has become a highly successful car. That's despite the fact that neither the first-generation car, nor its replacement introduced in 1998, was a particularly competitive on-road performer. Against that they were attractive, well-priced and fairly good off-road.

That’s not good enough these days. The current Grand Vitara has to hold its head above water in a busy sector of the market, and while it offers more in the way of traditional off-roading hardware than its more modern rivals, the trade-off could be a lack of the sophistication now normal in the compact SUV class.

The Grand Vitara is cheap, but the success of the sector shows that people are prepared to pay

Granted, most more recent opposition is also more expensive, but the success of the sector shows that people are prepared to pay. This road test features the 2.0-litre petrol version with 138bhp, an engine now supplanted by a 166bhp 2.4. A 127bhp, 1.9-litre, Renault-sourced turbodiesel is also offered.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Suzuki Grand Vitara air vents

Launched in 2005, this Suzuki Grand Vitara is some way from the current state of SUV visual art although it's a great deal crisper-looking than the frumpy device which preceded it (and arguably rather more characterful than Toyota's woeful facelift of the rival RAV4).

It's a clean, slightly muscular, almost handsome design which draws few gasps of excitement but equally little derision. We like it. It’s a recognisable and confident update of the vehicle it replaces, which had been on sale since 1998 and was in dire need of pensioning off.

Suzuki has set out to lose the farm-machinery air and create a more complete vehicle

That car’s engineering was of the off-road old-school. It had a separate ladder chassis and body, a low-ratio transfer ’box and an agricultural feel.

With this new model, Suzuki has set out to lose the farm-machinery air and create a more complete vehicle, with more car-like on-road composure and refinement, while retaining the old car’s off-road credibility. That's why, in line with all its rivals, it has been given a monococque construction.

INTERIOR

Suzuki Grand Vitara dashboard

The cabin of the Grand Vitara is neatly designed with consistent colours and textures and red backlighting for the instruments and switches. Unfortunately, the textures used by Suzuki are a little brittle – there are too few soft-feel plastics, but at this price perhaps we shouldn’t be too critical. Actual quality of build is without question, the action of the switchgear is good and the dials are neatly presented.

Ergonomically it's mainly fine, too, with nice touches including reclining rear seats that also split and fold 50:50. It’s a good job that they do recline, though: rear headroom is perilously limited in the most upright position, although legroom is adequate. Like those in the front, the rear seats have quite firm cushions and stay comfy over long distances. Three adults can sit comfortably across the rear, while larger drivers will find that the front seats are wide enough, if lacking in lateral support.

Standard equipment is just about class competitive

The seats cannot be adjusted quite low enough for some drivers and, because the steering wheel adjusts for tilt only, many will have to set the wheel low so they can comfortably reach the top of it. Which would be fine if it didn’t then obscure the tops of the dials. At least the pedals are well spaced: they're far enough apart for driving in wellies, but not so much as to make driving clumsy.

Standard equipment is just about class competitive, but this is an area where Suzuki has not really moved with the times. Granted, you get electric windows, air conditioning and a CD player, but there are niceties on more recent designs cars that the Grand Vitara does not even offer as an option.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Suzuki Grand Vitara side profile

As an example of that diminishing breed, a 'proper' 4x4, the Suzuki Grand Vitara gets a low-ratio transfer ’box and locking differentials for its permanent four-wheel drive. But the 2.0-litre petrol engine that feeds them, and is tested here, is not the Grand Vitara’s strongest point. It’s reasonably brisk, posting a 0-60mph time of 10.8sec, and quiet enough at idle, but over 3500rpm it becomes vocal and is increasingly intrusive towards the 6600rpm red line.

Fortunately, it’s at lower revs that it seems to do its best work, as our in-gear figures show: it covers 20-40mph in third just as quickly as it covers 40-60mph. And despite developing peak power at 6000rpm, there’s actually very little point in taking it past 5000rpm unless you’re a noise fetishist. At a motorway cruise of 70mph or so noise levels are respectable, but up the speed and the engine becomes intrusive. Engine aside, and remember here that current versions have grown to 2.4 litres and 166bhp, the Grand Vitara’s mechanical refinement is reasonable.

A four-speed automatic gearbox is available but best avoided

The gearshift has a long but accurate throw, and if you change gears slowly and deliberately it is not unpleasant to use. However, there’s some driveline shunt at low speeds and, if you attempt swifter gearchanges, it can baulk. A four-speed automatic gearbox is available but best avoided: the shifts are slow and jerky, and the ratios are so far apart that the engine is frequently either out of its powerband or in a raucous kick-down. On both manual and auto versions there is some transmission whine at low speed. It recedes once you’ve moved through the gears, although engine noise (subsequently accompanied by wind noise and tyre roar) then takes over.

RIDE & HANDLING

Suzuki Grand Vitara rear cornering

Not only does the monocoque construction of the Grand Vitara remove a whole raft of joints that can transmit vibration to the body, it also allows better packaging. Doing away with a large steel chassis, while mounting the suspension (car-like MacPherson struts at the front, multi-link at the back) and engine directly to the body means Suzuki can make the Vitara lower and lighter.

Monocoques are often not as strong as separate chassis on tough off-road terrain, though, so pressed into the Grand Vitara’s underside are two tough, longitudinal rails which increase torsional rigidity and help this 4x4 retain its off-roading credentials.

The springs and dampers feel reasonably firm in an effort to keep body movements in check

The Grand Vitara’s low-speed ride is fair, probably more because the 65-profile tyres take the edge off ruts and surface imperfections than thanks to any particular suppleness in the suspension. The springs and dampers feel reasonably firm in an effort to keep body movements in check and give the Vitara a more controlled, car-like feel at speed. This has been partially successful: the Suzuki deals pretty well with crests, dips and camber changes.

It corners tidily, too. The hydraulically assisted steering is nicely weighted and linear and proves accurate and responsive, if short of feel; and as the Suzuki approaches the modest limits of grip it falls predictably and safely into understeer. Lift off the throttle and the nose gradually regains grip as the car slows.

The four-wheel drive system uses a Torsen centre differential and a conventional limited-slip rear one. Selectable via a rotary dial on the dashboard, the system is set as standard in high ratio with an unlocked centre diff, or you can lock that diff in either high or low range modes. The low range has a 1.97 ratio, almost halving the road speed in a given gear, so the Grand Vitara can crawl along at just 2mph at idle in first gear.

There's no diff-lock for the front and rear axles. Not that it matters much because the boundaries of the Suzuki's off-road ability are, as in most off-roaders, initially limited by its tyres. Our test car came on road-biased 225/65 R17 Bridgestone Dueler tyres, which proved fine on lightly muddy tracks. Ground clearance of 200mm and 29deg approach (front), 27deg departure (rear) and 19deg ramp (between the axle) angles are all competitive for a road-biased 4x4. While off-road, we cranked the axles onto full opposite articulation to test the chassis’ stiffness: with wheels opposed, all doors and the boot still opened with no noticeable deterioration in their operation.

As for the braking power, the 60-0mph time of 2.8sec is good but a few stops overheated the brakes fairly quickly. Would you find this a problem on the road? Probably not, but repeatedly using the brakes on steep off-road descents might tax them.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Suzuki Grand Vitara

On a motorway trip the Suzuki Vitara returns a class competitive 27.4mpg, and our test car’s overall figure was a reasonable (for a petrol SUV) 25.0mpg. The diesel is more expensive to buy than the petrol, so it’s debatable whether it will save you money unless you cover big distances.

It's a quieter cruiser than the petrol version tested, although now that the latter's capacity has grown by 400cc it doesn't have to work quite so hard.

The Grand Vitara looks good value against the opposition, but it's lacking in options availability

While the Grand Vitara does look like good value against the opposition, it is lacking in options availability. Want automatic headlights and wipers, high-intensity headlights or satellite navigation? Forget it. You can’t have heated windscreen washer nozzles, either, which is an oversight on a car which can be expected to be used in dirty conditions in all weathers.

VERDICT

3 star Suzuki Grand Vitara

The latest Suzuki Grand Vitara performs respectably on-road and off, and is adequately equipped, especially given the price tag. But engine refinement is poor (the later 2.4-litre engine is more relaxed in this regard) and more thought could have been given to its design, specification and equipment availability to make it more appealing.

It was a sensible choice at the time of its launch but more recent rivals have since given it a harder time. The Grand Vitara is a far better car than the one it replaced, but it has also been an opportunity missed.

It was a sensible choice at the time of its launch but more recent rivals have since given it a harder time

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Suzuki Grand Vitara 2005-2014 First drives