2003 Suzuki Grand Vitara
2003 Suzuki Grand Vitara. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

There was a day when building trucks was the domain of a few manufacturers. The Big Three domestic car companies – General Motors, Ford and (Daimler)Chrysler have been at it for a long time. Land Rover’s been building capable and expensive off-roaders since who knows when and fitting them with electrical components only a Briton could love.

But what’s not as well known – at least not in North America – is that the Japanese have been building trucks for quite some time as well. Toyota’s pickup trucks and its 4Runner SUV predate the truck craze, and Nissan’s Hardbody and Pathfinder nameplates have a bit of history too. And then there’s Suzuki.

Remember the Samurai? If you do, Suzuki probably wishes you didn’t. The tiny Samurai was one of the first Suzuki vehicles to gain a reputation here, mainly thanks to a Consumer Reports magazine story that alleged the Samurai was prone to tipping over in accident avoidance manoeuvres. The result was a storm of controversy that likely didn’t help win Suzuki many fans in North America. So when Suzuki’s next generation SUV, the Sidekick came along, the company had high hopes that the redesigned truck’s new name would help consumers forget about the Samurai.

While the Sidekick was a significant step up from the Samurai, it wasn’t until a subsequent redesign and renaming in 1999 that consumers’ perceptions of Suzuki’s small trucks began to change. Renamed the Vitara and Grand Vitara, this latest Suzuki SUV was the first available with V6 power, its 2.5-litre, 155-horsepower engine offering far more refinement and performance than the 1.6- and 2.0-litre four-cylinders (97 and 127 horsepower, respectively) that were carried over from the Sidekick to power lesser Vitara models. In 2001, the XL-7 was added to the line-up.

1999 Suzuki Vitara
1999 Suzuki Vitara. Click image to enlarge

While it was never officially badged as a Grand Vitara, the XL-7 was little more than a stretched-wheelbase, seven-seat version of the smaller truck with a more powerful 2.7-litre version of the V6 engine. In 2004, the four-cylinder engines were dropped, along with the 2-door hardtop and convertible models of the Vitara. The Chevrolet Tracker, a mechanical clone of the Vitara wearing a domestic badge, got the V6 for the first time in that year.

According to Consumer Reports magazine, the Vitara and Tracker haven’t enjoyed the same reputation for reliability that other Japanese automakers have. The magazine doesn’t note any major trouble spots, but only 2002 models earn CR’s recommended rating. Suzuki’s low sales volume means there aren’t a lot of other scientific reliability data out there, anecdotal evidence on the web and among car enthusiasts suggests that Suzuki’s trucks are actually quite durable thanks to their relative simplicity.

Even if the Vitara, Grand Vitara and XL-7 aren’t the cushiest on-road cruisers, they shine off-road thanks to their short front and rear overhangs, relatively short wheelbase and body-on-frame construction. That last characteristic was a rarity in the small SUV class, where most models were car-based.

2001 Suzuki XL-7
2001 Suzuki XL-7. Click image to enlarge

As with the reliability issue, there seems to be some disagreement as to how well the Vitara line-up fares in collisions. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives four-door versions of the Vitara models four stars each for driver and front-seat passenger protection in frontal impacts and four stars for front seat occupant protection and five stars for rear seat occupant protection in side impacts. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has a much different opinion, however, giving the Vitara an “acceptable” rating in frontal offset impacts and a “poor” rating in side impacts. The IIHS is the only organization that has tested the XL-7, and then it only subjected the larger truck to its frontal offset test, in which it earned a “good” rating.

2000 Chevrolet Tracker
2000 Chevrolet Tracker. Click image to enlarge

The Vitara is relatively easy on gas, with Natural Resources Canada fuel consumption ratings of 9.4 L/100 km city and 7.7 L/100 km highway for the little 1.6-litre engine and 10.4 L/100 km city and 8.5 L/100 km for the 2.0-litre. Naturally, V6 models are thirstier: the 2.5-litre is rated at about 12.5 L/100 km city and 10 L/100 km highway and the 2.7-litre uses 13.7 L/100 km city and a little more than 10 L/100 km highway. While those numbers aren’t bad for an SUV, many of the Vitara and XL-7’s competitors over the years have offered better similar fuel economy despite their more powerful engines. There are reports on www.SuzukiForums.com by owners who claim their trucks are using more fuel than they should: http://www.suzuki-forums.com/t2495-gas-mileage.htm

One of the most attractive aspects of used Vitaras, Grand Vitaras and XL-7s are the prices they command, which are significantly lower than those of other compact import SUVs. Canadian Red Book values range from a low of $5,900 for a 1999 Vitara two-door with the 1.6-litre engine to a high of $26,100 for a 2005 XL-7 – steep depreciation for a seven-seat SUV that’s barely a year old. A 2002 or 2003 Grand Vitara JLX, valued at $13,700 or $16,425 respectively, looks like a good deal for a capable off-roader small enough to be convenient for everyday driving. A similarly-equipped Chevrolet Tracker will sell at a similar price to a Vitara or Grand Vitara, so don’t limit your search to just the Suzuki versions. Do keep in mind, though, that the Tracker wasn’t available with the V6 offered in the Grand Vitara until 2004, and there was no Chevrolet version of the bigger XL-7.

While many compact SUVs are nothing more than a truck-ish body draped over economy platforms, Suzuki’s little trucks offer real off-road prowess in a small, unpretentious package. They’re certainly not the fastest, most spacious or most refined SUVs on the road, but if a simple, affordable and dependable vehicle that can take a bit of off-road abuse is what you’re after, don’t overlook these little trucks.


Red Book Pricing (avg. retail) January 2005:

Year Model Price today Price new
2005 Grand Vitara JLX $22,450 $28,795
2004 Grand Vitara JLX $19,550 $28,595
2003 Grand Vitara JLX $16,425 $27,795
2002 Grand Vitara JLX $13,700 $28,995
2001 Grand Vitara JLX $11,775 $28,795
2000 Grand Vitara JLX $10,475 $26,995
1999 Grand Vitara JLX $8,625 $26,495

Online resources

www.suzuki-forums.com: This site has two sections dedicated to these little trucks. One is for four-door models powered by the 2.0-litre, 2.5-litre and 2.7-litre engines and the other for two-door models with the 1.6-litre engine. SuzukiForums.com caters to owners around the world too, covering trucks sold overseas with different names and powertrains than those available in North America. Much of the information is universal, though. There are just over 5,000 members here, which is low for a site designed to appeal to a worldwide audience, but not bad considering Suzuki’s relatively low sales volumes.


Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004313; Units affected: 20,322

1999-2003: On certain vehicles, under ambient temperatures below -25 degrees Celsius, moisture can freeze in the fuel pressure regulator. As a result, fuel system pressure may increase at the time of engine start up, causing fuel loss at the fuel pipe/fuel hose connection. Fuel loss in the presence of an ignition source could result in a fire. Correction: For 1999-2000 model year vehicles, dealers will (1) replace the fuel pressure regulator & vacuum hose and change the system routing to accommodate use of a higher surge tank attachment location that will prevent water from being sucked into the fuel pressure regulator, and (2) replace the fuel delivery hose and replace the hose clamp with an improved clamp. For 2001 and later model year vehicles, dealers will only replace the fuel pressure regulator & vacuum hose and change the system routing as described above. Note: This recall supersedes recall 01-032.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003320; Units affected: 20,676

1999-2004: On certain vehicles, the accelerator cable casing cap that is attached to the firewall can crack due to extended exposure to forces from the accelerator cable and insufficient long-term durability of the plastic casing cap. If the casing cap becomes cracked, movement of the inner accelerator cable through the cap can cause the inner accelerator cable to become frayed. If the inner accelerator cable becomes frayed, it can stick during vehicle operation. Correction: Dealer will replace the accelerator cable assembly.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000190; Units affected: 9,392

1999-2000: Certain vehicles do not comply with Regulation 6 – Statement of Compliance. The abbreviation “GAWR” on the Compliance Label was recorded in error as “GVWR”. Correction: No action will be taken since this poses no risk to motor vehicle safety. The front and rear axle ratings adjacent to these abbreviations are correct and conspicuous.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001066; Units affected: 1,678

2001: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 120 – Tire Selection and Rims for Vehicles other than Passenger Cars. The presentation of some of the information on the tire information label deviates from the format set forth in the standard and the label may not be permanently affixed as required. Correction: Tire information label will be replaced on affected vehicles.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003155; Units affected: 867

2002-2003: On certain vehicles, the windshield may not be properly secured to the vehicle body due to insufficient adhesion between paint applied during the second-stage painting process and paint applied during final-stage painting. If the windshield is not properly secured to the vehicle body, it may separate from the vehicle during a collision resulting in ejection of unbelted occupants and severe injury or death. Correction: Dealer will affect repairs.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002208; Units affected: 567

1999-2002: CMVSS 115 requires that certain information be uniquely identified in the vehicle identification number (VIN). One such item is the engine type. This particular vehicle configuration has two available engines, 1.6L and 2.0L. Both vehicle configurations have been labelled with the same VIN prefix that being “2S3TA52C”. This was the correct VIN prefix for the 2.0L model. All 1.6L models should have been encoded with the VIN prefix “2S3TA03C”. Correction: As this does not present a safety risk and there are no possibilities that a VIN could have been applied in duplicate, no corrective measures will be taken.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000007; Units affected: 2,350

1999: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 108 – Lighting System and Retroreflective Devices. Vehicles may have an inoperative brake lamp-actuating switch. If this switch does not function properly when the brake pedal is depressed, the brake lights may not come on. Correction: Brake lamp-actuating switch will be replaced on affected vehicles.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004421; Units affected: 2,772

2002-2003: Certain vehicles equipped with 2.0L engines may experience a condition where the accelerator may not return to idle. These vehicle, when operated in extremely low ambient temperature (-30 degrees Celsius) and at a fixed (constant) throttle position, may experience ice forming in the throttle valve that can prevent the throttle valve from closing when the drivers foot is removed from the accelerator pedal. Unwanted acceleration could result in a vehicle crash without prior warning. Correction: Dealers will add additional hardware between the intake manifold and the PCV valve to prevent the ice build-up condition.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003296; Units affected: 1,908

2003: On certain vehicles, the ignition system wiring harness could rub against the intake manifold during vehicle operation, possibly causing abrasion damage to the harness. Damage to the wiring harness may create a short in the ignition circuit, which can cause the ignition fuse to blow and the engine to stop running. Correction: Dealer will inspect the wiring harness and repair any damage. A protector plate will be installed to prevent future wiring harness damage.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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