While most compact SUVs and crossovers in the market today are considered as comfortable grocery getters, the 2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara is touted as a go-anywhere 4x4. But we have to wonder, is it as capable as other 4x4s offered by Suzuki in the past?
Gen Xers might recall the Suzuki Samurai, the cheap, small, and scrappy 4x4 that still enjoys a cult following. It's not uncommon to spot hardcore off-road enthusiasts piloting Samurais heavily modified with engine swaps, suspension lifts, and bigger tires keeping pace with Wranglers and Land Cruisers. Today, the niche automaker's lone SUV offering is the Grand Vitara, Suzuki's attempt to combine "real" SUV elements from the Samurai with carlike qualities found in today's top-selling small crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. For example, the Grand Vitara is constructed with a truck-like frame, yet rides on a carlike, fully independent suspension. And like a real SUV, its engine is mounted longitudinally, sending power to the rear or all four wheels.
We last tested a two-wheel drive Grand Vitara back in December 2009, but this time around we had a full-time four-wheel-drive model in for evaluation. Our tester was an Ultimate Adventure Edition, which sits right in the middle of a three-tiered ladder in terms of content and price. The package includes 18-inch, smoked alloy wheels that complement the simple exterior styling. And while the current body style debuted about five years ago, many staffers think the Grand Vitara still is a handsome hauler.
The aptly named Ultimate Adventure package features an interior just begging for mud, with synthetic, water-resistant seats that are easy to clean and look good, too. Overall, the cabin isn't a bad place. Passengers are treated to automatic climate control, soft-touch plastics where it counts (upper door trims and center armrest), and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise control buttons. Also included is a portable Garmin navigation system with Bluetooth, which did a fine job giving directions, but failed to pair with my Blackberry. The no-frills audio system has an auxiliary jack and available satellite radio, but it also wasn't a fan of my smartphone. The two were constantly interfering with each other, transmitting incessant, high-pitched buzzes through the speaker.
Electronic buzzing aside, the cabin was fairly quiet at low highway speeds and the independent suspension kept the ride smooth. At speeds over 70 mph, however, the Grand Vitara did its best impression of someone with two left feet, struggling to travel in a straight line while exhibiting some strange lateral movements. We're not sure if this is endemic with all Grand Vitaras or specific to our tester, but it required the driver's full attention. Grand tourer it is not. Like the rear drive tester we drove a few years ago, this one is powered by the same 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 166 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque mated to a four-speed automatic. The powertrain is tolerable during leisurely jaunts around town or on the highway, but it's a different story if you're in a hurry. Upshifts are slow, but downshifts seem to take an eternity, and magnify its deficient and outdated powertrain. Among its competitors, the 2012 Honda CR-V has a 19-hp advantage with a five-speed auto, while the 2012 Ford Escape four-banger produces 5 more horses but sends power to an efficient six-speed gearbox. The Grand Vitara's four-banger was introduced during the 2009 refresh alongside a 3.2-liter, 230-hp V-6 mated to a five-speed auto. Unfortunately, that engine has since been discontinued. Not surprisingly, fuel economy is also below average, with an EPA rating of 19 mpg city and 23 highway. During its weeklong stay, we averaged about 20 mpg which, again, is likely due to the archaic gearbox.
We decided against taking this tester on the trails, since it didn't have the center-locking differential found on the range-topping Limited model. The locking diff isn't available on the Ultimate Adventure, which is a shame since its interior is more suited for treks on the trail than the Limited model's. The Limited costs about $1300 more, but nets you real leather seats and a moonroof, a bargain if you want a more luxurious SUV. However, the 4WD Limited's base price just north of $26,000 puts it within a grand or two of more capable, V-6-powered rock crawlers like the Nissan Xterra and Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.
As it stands, the Grand Vitara is in limbo between comfy crossover and tough truck. It has the potential to excel being at either one, but it's not quite there. While this second-gen Grand Vitara is a definitely improvement over the first, Suzuki has an opportunity to make the third-gen Grand Vitara even better. With the market already crowded with car-based cute utes, why not channel the scrappy Samurai and offer a bargain basement off-roader for the masses?