2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara. Click image to enlarge

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Suzuki Canada

Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara

Huntsville, Ontario – What with gas prices being what they are, compact SUVs are rapidly gaining in popularity as buyers move away from their larger cousins. It has become a very crowded segment, with offerings from all of the major automakers. There’s also one from a smaller company, and it’s one that you’ve probably overlooked and shouldn’t: the Suzuki Grand Vitara, which for 2009 augments its V6 version with a new four-cylinder that’s a very good performer and offered at a realistic price.

Although I didn’t get a chance to drive it at the 2009’s launch, there’s also a new V6 offering: the 2.7-litre of 2008 is replaced with a new 3.2-litre, with a resulting rise from 185 horsepower to 230, and a rise in torque from 184 lb-ft to 213.

2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara. Click image to enlarge

The introduction of the inline four is fortuitous timing for Suzuki; it also gives the model line a base price of $25,995, which rises to $29,995 for the fully-loaded four-cylinder JLX-L; the V6 comes in two models, at $31,695 and $32,695. While a minor player on the Canadian scene, with only 12,000 units sold in 2007, Suzuki is a major force in many other markets: it commands 50 per cent of market share in India, and this year moved into the top ten list worldwide for the first time, with sales of 1.28 million vehicles from January to June of 2008. The company is also on a mission to expand its dealer network in Canada, which should make it easier for buyers to locate products.

In order to broaden the four-cylinder’s appeal, Suzuki has put it into four trim lines: the JA, where it’s mated to a five-speed manual transmission (the only way you can get a stick shift), and the four-speed-equipped JX, JLX and JLX-L. The V6 comes only with a five-speed automatic and in JLX or JLX-L trim. The use of a four-speed may seem behind the times in an increasingly five-speed world; Suzuki’s engineers said engine mapping and drivability were their primary concerns, and that they were able to achieve this with one less cog in the four-cylinder models. In overall performance, it works just fine.

The JA also uses a full-time four-wheel drive system, the only model so equipped. All others come with a driver-selectable four-wheel drive system: 4High that can be driven on any surface, and for off-roading, 4High Lock that locks the front and rear axles together, and 4Low Lock that gets the Grand Vitara through even more rugged terrain. The Neutral setting also allows the vehicle to be flat-towed. Opting for the V6 model also includes hill hold and hill descent control.

2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara; photos courtesy Suzuki. Click image to enlarge

Following a day of driving on all manner of roads, from highway to winding asphalt to gravel, I took my four-cylinder JLX-L tester on an off-road course, used by a northern Ontario resort to bounce guests out of their seats in a Hummer H1. The Suzuki pulled through it very well, without any slipping or missteps, and while it wasn’t the worse trail I’ve ever driven, I would expect that most conventional full-time all-wheel competitors, especially those that only engage the second set of wheels during slippage, would have had considerable trouble getting through. This model isn’t going to double as a rock-crawler, but then, that’s the domain of purpose-built and rougher-riding vehicles such as the Jeep Wrangler, whose loyal fan base will no more look at this vehicle (or, for that matter, any other) than the leather-and-tattoo fellows will get off their Harleys in favour of Suzuki motorcycles. Instead, I can see one of Grand Vitara’s markets being cottage or camp owners who want a more comfortable daily companion to take to the office, and on weekends, it’ll do double duty for a few fun loops of the off-road track that’s been cut out of the woods behind the cottage.

Part of the Grand Vitara’s ability has to do with its construction: it’s a unibody, but with an integrated ladder frame. This increases rigidity and also the model’s towing capacity: whether with the four- or six-cylinder, the Grand Vitara can pull up to 1,361 kg (3,000 lbs). Among four-cylinder competitors, the closest to that is the 2.5-litre Subaru Forester, which can tow 1,089 kg (2,400 lbs), while the Toyota RAV4, Mitsubishi Outlander, Ford Escape and Hyundai Tucson weigh in at 680 kg (1,500 lbs).

The company has also spent a great deal of time on soundproofing, and said that it has achieved a 30 per cent noise reduction over the 2008 model. I’m going to assume their figure is correct, because it certainly sounds like they’re right. The cabin is exceptionally quiet and the on-road ride is very smooth; I think part of my surprise at its prowess on the tough stuff was because, on asphalt or even gravel, it feels more car- or crossover- than truck-like. Suzuki is often plagued with noisy engines as well, but this one is well-modulated. Punch it really hard and there’s a roar from under the hood, of course, but no worse than any other four-cylinder I’ve driven.

2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara. Click image to enlarge

The 2.4-litre, which features variable valve timing on the intake side, proved well-suited to the engine and to its transmission; even at 130 km/h it doesn’t feel like it’s straining to maintain the pace. If there’s a weak spot, it’s with fuel consumption. With the automatic, it’s rated at 11.2 L/100 in the city and 8.6 on the highway, not quite as good as the Toyota RAV4 (10.1/7.7), Honda CR-V (10.7/7.8 for all-wheel), Ford Escape (10.9/8.5) and Hyundai Tucson (10.7/8.0) that Suzuki has in its sights.

The handling is light and feels more car-like than SUV-like, and surprisingly, while it feels very rigid, it doesn’t seem heavy. The brakes are good, and most importantly, the seats stayed comfortable even after five hours of sitting in them.

Part of Suzuki’s marketing strategy, according to company representatives, is to equip all models with a high level of standard features, so even the base model isn’t all that basic: the JA comes with automatic climate control, power locks and windows, floor mats, automatic headlamps, and variable intermittent wipers. Safety is also across-the-board, with all models receiving anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution and brake assist, side and curtain airbags, and electronic stability program with traction control. Features move up the trim lines, with the JLX – which will probably be the volume seller – adding keyless start, six-CD, heated seats, garage door opener, fog lamps, roof rails and a full hard spare tire cover at the rear; the JLX-L trades the fabric upholstery for heated leather seats. The V6 comes only as the JLX and JLX-L, with similar features, save for 17-inch alloy wheels on the four-cylinders (the JA uses 16-inch steel wheels) and 18-inch rims on the six-cylinder models.

2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara. Click image to enlarge

Overall, the Grand Vitara’s interior is well-done. My ride had a beige interior, and no matter who makes it, beige plastic looks cheap; the vehicles with a black interior scheme looked much better. There are also a couple of hard, plain plastic panels that could use some texture to make them seem a little more upscale, and the cupholder cover looks and feels cut-rate. The redesigned centre stack contains big, simple buttons (although the “ESP-Off” looks rather strange, since it’s sized to match the four-wheel selector button on the opposite side and so takes on an odd prominence), the vents are easy to operate, and the door trim panels look very smart, with perforated inserts that match the JLX-L seats. The electroluminescent cluster also looks great, and the instrument dials are easy to read. The centre armrest cover slides forward for extra support; the enclosed storage box is smaller than some, but will hold CD cases. Fit-and-finish is good, with even gaps where the panels meet.

The stereo is also easy to use, but for some reason, Suzuki persists in offering iPod and music player connectivity as an add-on unit, available at the dealer, that goes into the glovebox. It’s dead-simple to install, but that’s not the point: today’s buyers want to be able to plug in their tunes right out of the showroom (and preferably directly into the stereo or at least into the centre console cubby box, where it’s much easier for the driver to access it). All stereos are ready for XM satellite radio, but you have to add an optional receiver and antenna.

2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara
2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara. Click image to enlarge

The rear gate, which opens as a single unit without flip-up glass, remains hinged on the right-hand side; this, of course, is the wrong side for a country that drives and predominantly parks on that side. I prefer a liftgate that goes up, but it wouldn’t be feasible given the weight of the spare tire that rides out back. Cargo room is about mid-pack among the competition, at 691 litres (24.4 cu.ft.); the rear seats fold and then tumble forward, without removing the head-restraints, to increase capacity and provide a flat load floor. Four grocery-bag hooks and a cargo cover are standard, and there’s a 12-volt power outlet in the cargo area.

The front seats are roomy and legroom is good; the rear seats recline, but legroom is about average for the compact footprint, which means that short hauls are fine but longer rides may leave full-size rear-seat passengers feeling a bit cramped.

The Grand Vitara is quite a balancing act, with on-road manners that disguise its surprisingly capable off-road ability. It’s priced to be competitive, it’s comfortable, and it offers a high level of standard equipment and safety features. The company does have an uphill climb, with a relatively small dealer network and, unfortunately, a recent string of weird and (to my mind, anyway) ineffective television ads that don’t do much to promote its products. If you’re in the market for a compact SUV, though, put this one on the test-drive list. If you’ve overlooked it before, now is the time to check it out.

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