What: One of the last remaining bona fide compact SUVs

How Much: $22,349

What's Hot: Stylish exterior, well-built interior, smartly set-up suspension

What's Not: Uncomfortable seats, dysfunctional backlighting, poor gas mileage

On the Road: At first glance, the 2008 Suzuki Grand Vitara seems like yet another player in the burgeoning compact crossover segment, but a closer look reveals the Grand Vitara is actually one of the few remaining examples of the endangered species SUV Compactus. Ladder-frame reinforced unibody? Check. Base model with a manual transmission? Check. Available 4WD system with a transfer case and locking center differential? Check. Bad gas mileage? Check.

Suzuki offers three trims of the stylish Grand Vitara (arguably the best looking car in its class) -- base, XSport, and Luxury -- and keeps things simple with copious standard features and a minimal option list. The only box available to check on the option list for the XSport is the 4WD system, a $1400 option that our $22,349 test car didn't have. From a price-to-features standpoint, it's a better value than the Jeep Liberty and Ford Escape and comparable to the Kia Sportage and Hyundai Tucson. It's also the only one of the bunch that's rear-drive with a four-wheel independent suspension. The Liberty is rear-drive, too, but has a solid axle in the back.

Steering responsiveness is not bad by SUV standards. Handling is good, due in part to the short wheelbase and stiff suspension, though it makes for a bumpy ride. The Vitara also exhibits a surprisingly small amount of body roll for a vehicle of its type. While lots of road noise makes it to the cabin, wind noise is minimal. The 184-horsepower, 2.7-liter V-6 emits a harsh note and feels underpowered once the speedometer crosses 45 mph, but the five-speed automatic does its job well and elicits no complaints. As for the aforementioned gas mileage, the EPA rates the Grand Vitara at 17/22 mpg city/highway, real world will be somewhere between 18-19 on average, lower if it spends most of its time in the city.

The Grand Vitara's interior is hit and miss. Fit and finish is solid, with no squeaks, rattles, or untoward panel gaps. But the seats feel like airliner surplus in comfort and material quality. On top of that, the audio system isn't good, with low frequencies distorting far too easily (the subwoofer may have been blown), and the interior backlighting on the gauge cluster seems to have been designed totally independent of the center stack. The former is primarily white, while the latter is red, which doesn't make one iota of sense. Rear passengers get ample leg room, but there will likely be complaints about the uncomfortable seats on long rides. Cargo space is a reasonable 23.4 cubic feet with the rear seats up, expanding to 67.3 cubic feet with them folded down. In real world terms, the Grand Vitara will happily consume a bicycle or two.

Like this? Try These: Jeep Liberty, Ford Escape, Kia Sportage

Bottom line: A stylish, well-packaged, and smartly priced SUV hampered by a lack of refinement. A crossover is a better choice if off-road capability is not necessary.



2008 SUZUKI GRAND VITARA XSPORT 2WD
Base Price $22,349
Vehicle layout Front engine, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.7-liter/185-horsepower/184 lb-ft DOHC V-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight (dist f/r) 3527 lb
Wheelbase 103.9 in
Length x width x height 176.0 x 71.3 x 66.3 in
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 17/22 mpg
CO2 emissions 1.02 lb/mile