Photos: Suzuki. Click image to enlarge
By Jil McIntosh
The “sport-cute” segment – small SUVs – has become a rather crowded one, with everybody and his brother throwing a model into the ring. But pare it down to real 4x4s (more about that later) and the field becomes considerably smaller.
Suzuki’s Vitara line fits here, with the base Vitara and the features-added Grand Vitara. It’s the compact version of the vehicle that’s stretched and given a bigger engine to become the XL-7. With trim changes, it also appears in Chevrolet’s lineup as the Tracker, but you’ll have to hurry if you want one: due to Equinox replacing Tracker for 2005, this year is Grand Vitara’s swan song.
Vitara starts at $21,995 and runs to $24,195. Grand Vitara starts at $24,995; my top-of-the-line JLX with automatic transmission was $28,595.
The Vitara and Tracker have a hardcore group of fans who love these little trucklets to death, but for strictly city use, I don’t see the appeal. For all the Grand Vitara’s good looks and handsome upscale interior, it has crude underpinnings – it’s a jock in a tuxedo.
The 2.5-litre, 165 horsepower V6 engine shared across the line (Vitara’s four-cylinder is gone, as well as the two-door model) is sluggish on acceleration, and the 4-speed automatic shifts harshly. Steering is unpleasantly vague at highway speeds and there’s a fair bit of road noise. This is, after all, an off-road vehicle dressed up as a family hauler.
For regular use, it’s a rear-wheel-drive vehicle (with body-on-frame construction).
But for going off-road, a secondary gearshift engages all four wheels, either in 4-high for most applications, or 4-low for the really tough terrain. They really do mean “off-road”, too – it isn’t just an advertising gimmick. Drive in 4-wheel mode on dry roads and you risk damaging the vehicle.
On the automatic, a button adjusts the shift points for extra power. A short turning radius makes it easy to navigate tight trails (and mall parking lots).
On the inside, Grand Vitara offers acres of headroom, easily accessible controls (including a great heater with big dials surrounding large pushbuttons), and folding rear seats that increase the 60 cm storage area to 114 cm. The jury’s out on the swing-out hatch (which really should hinge on the driver’s side, for easier curb loading). Some prefer a hatch that swings up, but I like Vitara’s setup, since some hatches lift too high for my low carport.
Interior cubbies have tricky latches (the console lid hits your hand when it opens) and the inside door handles are too small. But the seats are fairly comfortable, and Suzuki thoughtfully puts black floor mats into its grey interior – the idea is to get dirty in this thing, right?
Standard features on the Grand Vitara include air, AM/FM/CD with six speakers, cruise, rear wiper, power mirrors, windows and locks with keyless entry and variable intermittent wipers. The JLX package adds ABS, aluminum wheels, six-CD changer, fog lamps, heated mirrors, rear spoiler and sunroof.
In mostly 2-wheel mode, my tester returned 12.0 litres/100 km. I didn’t have much opportunity to take it off the asphalt, although it held its own on a venture into heavy mud and a rutted field. It shines as a relatively inexpensive hobby vehicle, or for those who tackle unplowed roads or remote cottages. But if your idea of off-road is running over the flowerbed when you miss the driveway, take it for a long test drive first. You’ll either end up a hardcore fan, or wonder what the fuss is all about.
Technical Data: 2004 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX
|Price as tested||$29,690|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger compact SUV|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/RWD/4WD/Low Range|
|Engine||2.5 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves|
|Horsepower||165 @ 6500 rpm|
|Torque||162 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm|
|Curb weight||1465 kg (3230 lb.)|
|Towing capacity||680 kg (1,500 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2480 mm (97.6 in.)|
|Length||4178 mm (164.5 in.)|
|Width||1780 mm (70.1 in.)|
|Height||1722 mm (67.8 in.)|
|Ground clearance||190 mm (7.5 in.)|
|Cargo area||1266 litres (44.7 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 12.7 l/100 km (22 m.p.g.)|
|Hwy: 9.8 l/100 km (29 m.p.g.)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain Warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|