Even before this year's massive gas-price-spike hit, buyers had begun fleeing the traditional SUV segment in favor of more fashionable and fuel-efficient crossovers. Automakers have noticed, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a compact SUV that's still actually an SUV. The 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara we recently had in for a test spin is one of the few capable compact offerings left for the U.S. market.
The last time a Grand Vitara graced our garage -- a 2008 4WD model -- we were pleasantly surprised by its style, quality, and overall value. No FWD or AWD girly 'ute, it was the real SUV deal, complete with an actual transfer case and fully independent suspension. While we dug its taut styling and off-road chops, we were less than impressed with its weak, inefficient engine, bad audio, and uncomfortable seats.
It seems someone at Suzuki was listening. The Grand Vitara has been freshened for 2009, with the biggest difference being under the hood. Gone is the overburdened 184-hp 2.7L V-6 engine. In its place is the standard 2.5L four producing 166 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque and an optional 3.2L V-6 producing 230 hp and 213 lb-ft of torque.
As it just so happened, I was planning a road trip to Northern California for my mother's annual Christmas party -- the perfect opportunity to find out what a new Grand Vitara is like to live with for a few days. My trip would consist of mostly highway driving with a few twisty roads and some luggage thrown in for good measure. Oh, and in the course of 48 hours, I'd be spending close to 16 hours behind the wheel.
The two-row, five passenger 2009 Grand Vitara with just 1700 miles on the clock was fitted with the top-shelf Luxury trim package, the four-cylinder engine, and a four-speed automatic transmission. It was also 2WD, which meant I wouldn't be testing its off-road prowess. That's just fine, since most 'utes in the Grand Vitara's class spend most of their time on the pavement anyway.
The first thing you notice when you climb into the Grand Vitara is the simplicity of the interior. All the controls are within easy reach and easy to use, and there aren't too many of them -- enough buttons and dials to get the job done and no more. The black dash, carpet, doors and seats are set off by tasteful silver accents. Unfortunately, they're also offset by cheap-looking faux-marble trim around the gear selector and on the interior door handles. Marble works in kitchens, not cars, and cheap, plastic, fake marble really doesn't work. Still the trim is dark enough to overlook most of the time.