I’ll start with an admission: For over three years I was employed by American Suzuki’s automotive division, with responsibility for product public relations. Long before that I was a fan of Suzuki vehicles, beginning with the early Samurai, Swift and Sidekick while continuing to enjoy the much more recent SX4 Crossover, Kizashi and (subject of this test) Grand Vitara. Some two years after leaving the company I refreshed my automotive memory with a week behind the wheel of a 2012 Grand Vitara, decked out in the company’s ‘Ultimate Adventure’ livery. And while a week of day-in, day-out commutes and errand running isn’t anyone’s idea of the ultimate adventure, it comes close to what the Suzuki product team envisioned for this more-than-capable compact SUV.
This iteration of the Grand Vitara was introduced to North America for the 2006 model year. Equipped with a 2.7 liter V6 of modest means, a unitized body with integrated ladder frame, and both rear-wheel drive and 4WD powertrains (the latter with an available low range), this new Grand Vitara was among the last compact SUV intros before the genre took a decidedly car-based turn. And relative to its immediate predecessors, Suzuki’s body-on-frame Vitara and XL-7, this new GV was remarkably upmarket in spec, with all-independent suspension, attractive sheetmetal and upscale interior appointments.
In 2012 the GV is in its seventh model year, and while the basic vehicle has aged agreeably (think Jane Fonda…), you can’t deny that it has aged. The body, sitting back on its chassis as a proper rear-driver will do, still looks reasonably athletic within the context of car-based CR-Vs and carb-based Jeep Libertys. Its generous greenhouse remains airy, the roof rack will still carry gear and its rear seats, when folded forward, still swallow cubic yards of your stuff. Our negative ledger noted the so-last-century gauge and dash layout (which – to a retro-oriented old fart – can be rather satisfying) and the swing-out rear door, which is far less convenient in tight parking spaces than a conventional hatch. Thankfully, the door-mounted spare is (gradually) disappearing from the Suzuki’s rear door (our Ultimate Adventure edition still had one), which means the cacophony typically emanating from its mounting should be disappearing, also.
Under the Grand Vitara’s hood, the V6 – which had grown to 3.2 liters – has been displaced by a 2.4 liter DOHC four. This is a nice powerplant, offering 166 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque, but the preceding V6 was a great powerplant. The change was made as Suzuki was cutting the umbilical cord with General Motors (while GM went thru its government-mandated bankruptcy), and the V6 was a GM-sourced powertrain. Suzuki’s inline four provides adequate responsiveness, but the improvement in miles-per-gallon (modest) doesn’t seem to offset the loss of responsiveness. Even old farts need – occasionally – to go fast…
Its efficiency, with an EPA estimate of 19 city and 23 highway with 4WD, is also hampered by the GV’s 4-speed automatic; there simply aren’t enough ratios to ensure decent off-the-line responsiveness and relaxed highway cruising. And while a manual trans might go a long way in ameliorating that, Suzuki’s 5-speed manual is only available on the base RWD GV. For our money, an ‘Ultimate Adventure’ should include the availability of a manual trans.
Behind the wheel, we’re pleasantly surprised by the steering’s (relative) connectivity and the GV’s composed ride. The Grand Vitara’s platform certainly isn’t nimble, but neither is it unduly clumsy. Instead, it gives you a sense of assurance that the package’s newness might last past the payment period. Anecdotal evidence – we have an ’07 in the family – would suggest it should, but then, most car companies are building cars you can enjoy (if properly serviced) for a decade.
The Ultimate Adventure (which won’t be available in 2013) kit included water-resistant two-tone seating, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 18-inch smoked alloys, fog lamps and side view mirror turn signals. Were it ours, we’d have left the two-tone seating on the shelf and added a modest ARB-sourced lift kit, 16-inch rims with a real sidewall and – of course – a 4WD package with low range. Back-in-the-day, off-road vendor ARB assisted in the build of just such a GV, and it proved way compelling to the editorial staff of 4Wheel & Offroad magazine. This serving of ‘ultimate adventure’ would probably play better in the pages of Scuba Magazine, given its water-resistant interior.
For the 2013 model year the Grand Vitara receives a new front fascia; standard nav with improved dashboard integration and voice activation; and new 18-inch alloy wheels. Depending on where you live finding a convenient Suzuki dealer might be a challenge, but then, in some parts of the country so is finding a Mini dealer. Suzuki’s lineup, while small, remains distinctive. If the Grand Vitara’s menu (one of the very few in the compact segment offering real off-road capability) appeals to you, it’s worth a short drive to take a demo drive.