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by Greg Wilson
A good value in a small SUV
First introduced in 1999, the Suzuki Grand Vitara was the first small SUV to get a V6 engine (if you don’t count the inline sixes in the Jeep TJ and Cherokee). The Grand Vitara was, and is, a surprisingly refined, comfortable yet capable 4X4, and remains one of the best values in the marketplace at a base price under $24,000.
Unlike a lot of other small SUV’s which offer all-wheel-drive systems and a car-like unit body design, the Grand Vitara has a part-time 4WD system which must be engaged manually, a Low Range, and a truck-like body-on-frame design. Yet, as previous road tests have demonstrated, the Grand Vitara is not ‘truck-like’ in its ride and handling – it offers a good combination of ride, handling, comfort, durability and off-road ability. More on this in a minute..
For the 2003 model year, the major changes to the Grand Vitara are in the interior: it now has a more attractive, brushed aluminum-like instrument panel and console design, and a few new features such as an an-dash 6-disc CD player, automatic climate control, and overhead storage console.
As well, the Grand Vitara comes with Suzuki’s new, improved warranty coverage. A new five year/100,000 kilometre powertrain warranty is now standard. However, the base 3 years/80,000 kilometre warranty has been scaled back to 3 years/60,000 kilometres.
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For 2003, the base Grand Vitara JX model has an MSRP of $23,995, the same price as last year. Standard equipment includes a 5-speed manual transmission, 16 inch tires and wheels, body-coloured bumpers, a part-time four-wheel-drive system with Low Range, and a full-size spare tire with a tire cover.
Inside, there’s a standard AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers, power windows, door locks, and mirrors; split folding rear seatbacks, remote keyless entry, tilt steering wheel, two-speed variable intermittent wipers, rear wiper and washer, clock and outside temperature gauge, and a rear cargo privacy cover. Equipped with an optional 4 speed automatic transmission, the JX jumps to $25,195.
Top of the line JLX models, for $27,795, add automatic climate control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake differential, alloy wheels, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, heated mirrors, cruise control, and a hard cover for the spare tire. The price of the 2003 JLX has actually decreased since the 2002 model year when it was $28,995.
The Grand Vitara’s styling has held up well over the past four years – it’s generally well-proportioned if not particularly distinctive. My one beef is the extensive body cladding on the sides and around the wheelwells. I suppose it’s intended to make the Grand Vitara look tougher than the four cylinder Vitara, but it looks excessive to me.
The Grand Vitara’s step-in height is relatively low (for a ‘truck’) 431 mm (17 inches), and the door openings are large. There’s plenty of headroom and legroom in the driver’s seat, and the driver sits up tall with a good view out of the tall windshield and the big side and rear windows. A full-size spare tire, which is mounted on the right rear side of the rear door, obscures rear vision slightly, but not significantly. Note to Suzuki: why not put the tire on the left side?
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The Grand Vitara’s 2.5 litre V6 engine with four valves per cylinder and twin overhead camshafts is smooth, quiet and refined – somewhat unexpected in a ‘4X4’. The engine’s refinement may have something to do with its liquid-filled engine mounts, but regardless, I give the Grand Vitara top marks for this engine’s refinement in this price range.
With its reasonable curb weight of 1405 kg (3097 kg) and an engine output of 165 horsepower @ 6500 rpm and 162 lb-ft of torque @ 4000 rpm, the Grand Vitara’s acceleration is responsive from a standing start, while highway passing could be described as adequate if not impressive. 0 to 100 km/h takes 11.1 seconds according to statistics provided by Roadcompanion.ca – that’s one or two seconds slower than some of its V6 competitors.
On the freeway, the engine revs at 2,700 rpm at 100 km/h, and 3,300 rpm at 120 km/h – a bit high for a six cylinder powerplant – yet the engine is very smooth and quiet. There is a some wind noise, but not much for such a tall vehicle. I did notice some transmission whine under light throttle load at freeway speeds, but that may be because the engine was so quiet.
The Grand Vitara has a maximum towing capacity of 680 kg (1500 lb.), enough for a tent trailer, but nothing too big and heavy.
Fuel consumption of 12.9 l/100 km (22 mpg) in the city and 10.6 l/100 km (27 mpg) is below average – the Ford Escape and Hyundai Santa Fe both get better mileage even though they have larger V6 engines.
My test truck was equipped with the four-speed automatic transmission – it shifted smoothly under moderate acceleration, and crisply under hard acceleration – nothing really to complain about. The transmission features an on/off fourth gear lockout button on the floor shifter, and a driver-selectable ‘Power’ mode: by pushing a button on the console, the transmission will shift sooner when prompted with the throttle, and hold in gear longer to enhance acceleration. I left my transmission in ‘Power’ mode most of the time because it improved performance around town where there is typically a lot of stopping and starting.
Despite its truck-like body-on-frame chassis, solid rear axle, and a short wheelbase, the Grand Vitara rides very smoothly on pavement and feels solid and stable. The comfortable ride will surprise you.
The power-assisted rack and pinion steering doesn’t have a lot of ‘road feel’, but it requires minimal steering effort and the turning diameter is really tight (10.8 metres/35.4 ft.) which makes parking and U-turn much easier. The Grand Vitara’s short length and narrow width also help when parking.
At freeway speeds, I noticed the Grand Vitara wanders a little requiring minor steering corrections, most likely due to its short (2480 mm/97.6 in.) wheelbase.
All Grand Vitaras have front disc and rear drum brakes, but only top-of-the-line JLX models come with anti-lock brakes. Why JX models aren’t available with optional ABS is a mystery. Is it possible that Suzuki wants to move customers up to the more expensive JLX model?
Traditional 4WD system
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Unlike a lot of small SUV’s which come with all-wheel-drive systems which cannot be engaged or disengaged, the Grand Vitara offers a traditional part-time 4WD system which gives the driver a choice of rear-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive (50/50 front/rear torque split), and four-wheel-drive low range which makes available four lower gears for ascending or descending steep inclines. The driver can switch from 2WD to 4WD High range on the fly by pulling on a separate gear lever behind the main transmission lever. Low Range must be engaged after putting the transmission in Neutral and stopping the vehicle.
In a previous off-road test of the Grand Vitara on steep, slippery slopes, I found it to be very competent. The Grand Vitara’s short wheelbase and short front and rear overhangs help it to negotiate sharp dips and small hills without catching the undercarriage or bodywork. Its low range gears provide engine braking on steep descents so that the brakes don’t have to be used and potentially cause the vehicle to slide sideways. And its unobstructed outward visibility aids in avoiding obstacles like rocks and tree branches.
Most of the time though, owners will run their Grand Vitaras in 2WD mode which saves wear on the transfer case and drivetrain, and also saves gas. The downside to the Grand Vitara’s part-time 4WD system is that 4WD mode can only be used on slippery surfaces like snow or gravel, but not on dry roads which may be intermittently icy or wet.
The Grand Vitara’s new-style instruments, which include a tachometer, speedometer and transmission gear indicator, have a classier look with metallic trim and larger numerals which are illuminated all the time. Its new three-spoke steering wheel is meatier and more attractive, and includes remote radio and cruise controls.
The centre control panel is covered with an attractive, nicely-fitting metallic trim. At the top of the central instrument panel is the stereo – AM/FM/CD in the JX model and an AM/FM/6-disc CD changer with six speakers in the JLX model. I found the latter offered good but not outstanding sound quality. Extra stereo controls on the steering wheel rotate with the wheel so you can keep your hands on the wheel – as do the cruise controls.
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In the centre stack below the stereo is a digital clock and a large ‘Grand Vitara’ logo – just to remind you what vehicle you’re driving.
The automatic climate control system in the uplevel JLX model consists of three extra large dials with rotating perimeters and push-button centres – a clever, dual purpose design. The left-hand dial controls the temperature setting for the automatic climate control – but it’s not a dual-zone system with separate temperature settings for driver and passenger.
On the lower console is a hidden storage bin and two hidden cupholders, and beside the shifter is a handy 12 volt powerpoint for charging cell phones and the like. As well, there’s another cupholder and powerpoint near the rear of the console. A new overhead console features reading lamps and two storage compartments.
I found the Grand Vitara’s front cloth seats comfortable and wide but perhaps a little firm in the backrests. Between the front seats is an armrest which slides forwards to rest your right arm. There’s some CD storage inside the armrest, and if you flip it over backwards, it contains two cupholders which can be used by the rear passengers. A unique feature is a sliding storage tray under the front passenger seat.
For safety, all Grant Vitara’s include dual front airbags, four outboard 3 point safety belts and centre rear lap belt, childproof rear door locks, upper and lower rear child seat tether anchors, and side impact beams in the doors.
Comfortable rear seats
The rear seats in the Grand Vitara are surprisingly comfortable – at least for two passengers – the Grand Vitara is not really wide enough for three passengers. Rear legroom and headroom are generous, and the rear seats recline.
The 50/50 split folding rear seats are designed so that they fold flat: the rear seat cushions pull up against the front seatbacks and the rear seatbacks fold down flat. However, the rear head restraints must be removed first.
Behind the rear seats, the load floor is just two feet in length, but with the rear seats folded down, the load floor increases to four feet in length. Cargo volume of 663 litres (23.4 cu. ft.) with the rear seats up, and 1266 litres (44.7 cu. ft.) with the rear seats down is less than most of its compact competitors.
The rear cargo door, on which is mounted a full-size spare tire, pulls out sideways towards the passenger side of the vehicle revealing a rubber-covered step bumper and a large opening that measures 1092 mm (43 inches) wide. Inside the cargo area are six tie-down hooks, two open storage bins, and a 12 volt powerpoint – but while the floor is carpeted, the walls are made of a soft plastic which could be scratched with sharper objects when loading. A sliding privacy cover (standard equipment) hides valuables from sight.
The rear window has an intermittent wiper and a washer for clearing road grime in summer and ice and slush in winter.
V6-powered competitors for the Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX ($27,795) include the Jeep Liberty Limited Edition ($29,790), Ford Escape XLT 4X4 ($30,300), Mazda Tribute LX V6 4X4 ($30,400), Nissan Xterra SE-SC ($34,298), Hyundai Santa Fe GLS AWD ($29,850), Saturn Vue 3.0 V6 ($29,695), and Kia Sportage EX 4X4 ($25,595). You might also include the 160 horsepower four cylinder Honda CR-V EX AWD ($28,900).
In terms of exterior dimensions, the Grand Vitara is the smallest of its competitors, which means that it has less passenger and cargo room inside, but is more manoeuverable and easier to park.
Many of the Grand Vitara’s competitors have significantly more horsepower – the Escape and Tribute for example have 200 horsepower – and better acceleration. Many offer better fuel economy too. In terms of features, the Grand Vitara JLX is well-equipped, but some of its competitors have available leather seats.
A comfortable, easy to drive, well-priced compact SUV with great off-road driving abilities, the Grand Vitara has a smooth V6 engine and a well-equipped interior. But its acceleration and fuel economy aren’t class-leading.
The Grand Vitara is built in Japan.
Technical Data: 2003 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX
|Base price (JX)||$23,995|
|Price (JLX)||$27,795 plus Freight|
|Type||4-door, 5 passenger compact SUV|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/RWD/P.T. 4WD w/Low Range|
|Engine||2.5 litre V6, 24 valves, DOHC|
|Horsepower||165 @ 6500 rpm|
|Torque||162 @ 4000 rpm|
|Curb weight||1405 kg (3097 kg)|
|Towing capacity||680 kg (1500 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2480 mm (97.6 in.)|
|Length||4178 mm (164.5 in.)|
|Width||1780 mm (70.1 in.)|
|Height||1722 mm (67.8 in.)|
|Min. Ground clearance||190 mm (7.5 in.)|
|Cargo area||663 litres (23.4 cu. ft.) rear seats up|
|1266 litres (44.7 cu. ft.) rear seats down|
|Fuel consumption||City: 12.9 l/100 km (22 mpg)|
|Hwy: 10.6 l/100 km (27 mpg)|
|Fuel type||Regular unleaded|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain Warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|