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.

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.

Our other big complaint about the 2008 Grand Vitara was its less-than-stellar fuel economy. The old V-6 is rated at just 17 city/22 mpg highway, not great by 2008 standards. The new V-6 is EPA rated at 18 city/24 mpg highway in the 2WD form and slightly worse with 4WD, a small improvement over our last tester. The new four-cylinder is rated by the EPA at 19 city/25 mpg highway, and the rating appears accurate. Over the course of my trip, I covered 806.4 miles, spent $80.57 on regular-grade gas, and got an average of 23.92 mpg in 90% highway driving, achieving a personal best of 24.56 mpg. Given the long distances between gas stations on the 101, I typically filled up at around a quarter tank, so each tank got me an average of roughly 268 miles.

The Grand Vitara doesn't make any promises about being a top-tier luxury SUV. There is no Bluetooth here, nor is there a navigation system. Without optional adapters, the XM Satellite Radio and iPod interface don't work. HomeLink is available only on the most expensive model, and you can forget about adjusting the ride height or suspension. The keyless entry and ignition system is a nice feature, however. You have no idea how convenient one of these systems is until you're in a hurry and can walk up, unlock the doors, get in, and drive away without ever touching key fob.

One piece of technology the Grand Vitara does have that isn't quite up to par is its range calculator. While fairly accurate, it's incredibly slow to react to changing road conditions. Equally unnerving at first is the gas gauge, which begins to drop almost immediately after you fill up. It slows down drastically after about the two-thirds mark, but it creates the impression you're burning gas like it's going out of style. Both take some getting used to.

Before climbing into the Grand Vitara, another staff member had joked that it is "the definition of unrefined." After spending a weekend behind the wheel, I don't think that's fair. No, it's not an Escalade, but it doesn't cost an arm and a leg, either. This is an SUV for purists who want real 4WD and no frills. Ten years ago, it would've been near the top of the SUV pack. By 2009 standards, though, it's rough around the edges. It's easy to live with on a daily basis, but if you don't need the off-road capability, a crossover would probably provide a nicer ride for the same price. On the other hand, given the breadth of the improvements Suzuki has made in one model year, there's hope that the Grand Vitara will quickly catch up with its refined, high-tech brethren -- and remain a true SUV option in the process.


2009 SUZUKI GRAND VITARA LUXURY 2WD
Base price $19,249
Price as tested $24,113
Vehicle layout Front engine, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 2.4L/166-hp/162-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Curb weight 3479 lb
Wheelbase 103.9 in
Length x width x height 177.1 x 71.3 x 66.7 (w/roof rails) in
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 19/25 mpg
CO2 emissions LEV 2/BIN 5 Compliant

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