2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L. Click image to enlarge

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2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara

Ottawa, Ontario – Today’s compact crossover/SUV segment is very different to what it was in the 1980s, mainly because it didn’t exist before Suzuki began selling its tiny Samurai here in the middle of that decade.

By today’s standards, the Samurai was more of an all-terrain vehicle with a roof, but the company kept adding refinement and power to subsequent models (Sidekick, Vitara and Grand Vitara), and eventually, it brought its first V6-powered Grand Vitara to market in 1999. By 2004, the Grand Vitara was a V6-only model (though the GM-badged Tracker clones still used the Suzuki’s old 2.0-litre four-cylinder), and that was how it stayed through a 2006 redesign that turned it into the vehicle you see here.

For 2009, changes are mostly limited to things you can’t see. After a five-year hiatus, Suzuki returns to its four-cylinder roots, creating a new base model Grand Vitara powered by an equally-new 2.4-litre engine that makes 166 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. (A new 3.2-litre V6 is an option; it replaces the old 2.7-litre six.)

2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L. Click image to enlarge

The four-banger can only be mated to a five-speed manual transmission in the base JA model; all other four-cylinder models, like my JLX-L tester, are optioned up to the available four-speed automatic (a five-speed auto is the only transmission choice in V6 trucks). As much as four-speed automatics will soon be a rarity as manufacturers move to more advanced five- and six-speed units, this is a good one: it shifts beautifully, and its gear ratios seem well-chosen to take advantage of the engine’s powerband.

The powertrain’s only weak point is a motor that’s a little weak on low-end torque. Floor it off the line, and not a whole lot happens until about 3,000 rpm. At that point, the engine wakes up and provides respectable pull. It’s also a smooth runner, willingly revving to its 6,500 rpm redline when asked for maximum-go. The throttle is nicely mapped too, with a perfect tip-in, that initial inch or so of pedal travel that determines how easy it is to drive a vehicle away smoothly from a stop.

The four-cylinder Grand Vitara earns fuel consumption ratings of 11.2/8.6 L/100 km (city/highway) in Natural Resources Canada’s EnerGuide testing. Those test numbers are a little high compared with much of the Suzuki’s four-cylinder competition, but the real-world figures are more telling. My results were 12.3 L/100 km in the city, which isn’t terrible for a truck riding a four-wheel drive platform, but my highway numbers of 11 L/100 km on a drive from Ottawa to Vermont and a little more than 12 L/100 on the drive back were less impressive. Windy weather on both drives didn’t help, and the Grand Vitara’s boxy shape doesn’t exactly cheat the wind, but Suzuki’s vehicles have long suffered from higher-than-average fuel consumption. The new four-cylinder engine doesn’t appear to do much to address this, unfortunately. Still, it’s better than the Grand Vitara V6’s fuel consumption.

The steering is light but never too much so, and the truck tracks nicely on the highway. The brake pedal is a bit soft at the top of its travel, but it firms up nicely as more stopping power is requested.

2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L. Click image to enlarge

Sitting at the Grand Vitara’s controls, you’re greeted by a simple, tasteful dash. The instruments are easy to read, and the centre stack is uncluttered and easy to figure out. Interior fit-and-finish is terrific, and the materials are generally high quality; the mostly black interior is a little dour (the liberal use of silver trim helps), but I prefer the tan interior scheme that’s available.

My gripes are the too-small radio controls – the volume is too small to easily use with gloves on, as are some of the buttons – and the lack of a standard auxiliary input for the stereo (an easy-to-install connector goes in the glovebox, but it’s optional). The stereo is otherwise without fault: the seven-speaker set-up (including subwoofer) is standard in the top four (of six) trim levels, and it sounds great.

For 2009, the basic Grand Vitara JA comes with a starting price of $25,995. All versions are quite well-equipped (air conditioning, automatic climate controls and steering wheel-mounted audio controls, for example, are all standard), but my JLX-L tester is the poshest you can get with the new four-cylinder engine. For its $29,995 price, you get niceties like leather seating (shared only by the top-line JLX-L V6 model), heated front seats, a keyless-drive system, automatic climate controls and a power sunroof.

The Grand Vitara’s firm ride isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but combined with a tall ride height, it can make for some head-tossing over rough pavement. That said, this is a truck whose car-like handling belies its body-on-frame construction; save for the tall seating position, this Suzuki drives more like a firm-riding sedan than a small truck.

2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L. Click image to enlarge

Noise is nicely controlled, too. Suzuki says the 2009 Grand Vitara lets 30 per cent less noise into the cabin, and it’s a believable claim. (CarTalkCanada Editor, James Bergeron, who drove a 2008 model a few months before he drove the same 2009 I tested, said he noticed the improvement almost right away.)

Sightlines from the inside out are good, especially to the front and sides, with a commanding view of what’s ahead. The wide D-pillars (at the rear corners) can restrict visibility during lane changes, but the view out the rear window is good, even with the spare tire hanging off of the tailgate.

Interior comfort is a strong point, with nice front seats, and plenty of leg- and headroom for the driver and front passenger. Rear seat space is good, though the seats themselves are rather flat and getting in and out can be tough for taller passengers, thanks to the narrow rear door openings.

The cargo hold is taller than it is long (front-to-back), but there’s good, useful space to be had. The rear seats fold, but doing so creates an uneven load surface; better to go one further and flip the folder seats up against the front seatbacks. Each part of the 60/40 split seat can be tethered to the front seats with a strap to keep it from flopping back down as you drive; I’d prefer it if the seats clicked into place when flipped up so, and released with the squeeze of a handle, rather than forcing you to fiddle with the strap.

It’s tough to peg down why Suzuki still plays a bit part in the marketplace, given how long they’ve been pumping out decently-made vehicles. This 2009 Grand Vitara’s added refinement brings this little truck closer to the mainstream, leaving its lackluster fuel consumption as the only thing standing between it and showroom success.

Pricing: 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L

Base price: $29,995
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,550

Price as tested: $31,645
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara

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