Given the amount of time I'd be spending behind the wheel, I made sure to bring along my iPod, as our tester came with an XM-ready stereo but no service subscription. Unfortunately, it didn't come with the iPod adapter either. Not only that, but a thorough search of the vehicle failed to uncover any kind of auxiliary input, despite the presence of an "AUX" button on the stereo and specific mention of the ability to connect auxiliary devices in the owner's manual. I'd have to settle for the in-dash six-CD changer and the premium eight-speaker stereo with subwoofer instead -- not a terrible compromise. Unfortunately, the sound quality wasn't anything to write home about.
In all, the Grand Vitara's interior proved adequate. The fit and finish are good and there were no squeaks or rattles to report, even with the stereo cranked up. Suzuki apparently also listened to our gripes about the 2008 model's seats and came back with a set of nicely bolstered leather-wrapped captain's chairs that are comfortable if a bit firm. The seat heater only had one setting, though, which started out almost too hot, then ended up hardly noticeable.
Many people buy SUVs for the commanding view of the road afforded by the vehicle's height and upright seating position. Here, the Grand Vitara does not disappoint. Visibility is exceptional in all directions, even with the fully covered spare tire hanging on the back. There are some blind spot issues, however. With a little experimenting, I was able to completely lose a late-model Ford F-150 in my field of vision.
Being an SUV, the Grand Vitara does little to absorb bumps and imperfections in the roadal, though it offers decent sound insulation. Despite the relatively rough ride, the Grand Vitara actually handles fairly well for an SUV, without excessive body roll. In the hills above Santa Barbara, on Highway 154, the Suzuki proves moderately fun to drive thanks to its firm suspension and sticky tires. In our review of the 2008 Grand Vitara, we found its responsiveness was "not bad," and Suzuki seems to have overcompensated with this model. At freeway speeds, the steering feels a bit too touchy, as the slightest input sends you drifting into the next lane, so you have to be very deliberate.
Although down 18 hp from our V-6 tester, the vehicle's four-cylinder engine actually feels quite peppy. Merging on the freeway and climbing hills requires only modest throttle input, as does passing on the freeway. Picking up my brother and his luggage did little to slow it down. What hampers the Grand Vitara more than the engine, though, is the old-school four-speed transmission. In most situations it's not a problem, but if you hit an incline on the freeway, things get ugly. The transmission constantly hunts back and forth between third and fourth gear, with third too strong and fourth too weak to make the climb. Worse, the downshifts are anything but smooth. A gearbox with at least one more cog -- say like the one in V-6 Grand Vitara -- would help immensely.