On the shrinking list of sport-utes with true off-road chops, the Grand Vitara is at or near the top. It does pretty well on-road too, with decent handling and excellent visibility. It also has a relatively low step-in height for a vehicle that can tackle pretty much anything you throw at it and an acceptable 3000-pound tow rating. It certainly lacks the on-road refinement of road-biased crossovers and comes up short in terms of interior quality and design when compared to those same vehicles, but when looked at next to the Jeep Wrangler and Patriot it stacks up well, with a roomier front seat and less bouncy ride than the Patriot and a much lower price of entry than the Wrangler.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
Suzuki is clearly struggling in the U.S. market and the drama surrounding the brand's partnership with Volkswagen isn't helping. The only Suzuki worth considering on its own merit is the Kizashi, a remarkably well-done sedan that's relegated to also-ran status because the Suzuki brand is more frequently associated with motorcycles than cars. Every other Suzuki product is more likely to find a buyer because of a low price than because it's an inherently good vehicle.
There aren't many positive things to say about the Suzuki Grand Vitara. None of the interior materials are worth noting, though the removable Garmin navigation unit works much better than Chrysler's integrated Garmin navigation system. Fuel economy is appalling for a vehicle of this size, and the engine and transmission feel and sound ancient. Noise, vibration, and harshness are all in attendance. With a mere 7000 miles on our test vehicle's odometer, the center console latch rattled badly.
Perhaps a Suzuki dealer will cut you an amazing deal on a Grand Vitara, but first you have to find a Suzuki dealer. If you do make it to a Suzuki dealership, you'd be better off with an AWD Kizashi than this Grand Vitara. Those shopping for an SUV would be much happier looking at a Subaru Forester, which pulls off the bare-bones transportation theme even better, or a Kia Sportage, which offers good looks and lots of equipment at a very competitive price.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
I grew up in an era where Suzuki - and by proxy, Geo and Chevrolet - was a major player in the compact SUV market here in the United States. Now, the automaker can barely sell them. The 4980 Grand Vitaras sold in 2011 reportedly represents an 11-percent year-to-year increase, but it's still a drop in the bucket compared to most, if not all, of its competition.
Today's Grand Vitara seems as if it's stuck in a different era. While most competitors have made their CUVs increasingly carlike, Suzuki elected to retain some of the off-road ethos that can be traced back for decades, beyond even the Sidekick and Samurai. A neat notion, I suppose, but it's a bit of a handicap when most buyers are looking for refinement. The ladder-frame structure integrated with the unibody lends considerable strength for towing or off-road pursuits, but it also saddles the Grand Vitara with a stiff, truck-like feel; its ride quality is harsh on good roads and unforgiving on bad. The interior, much like the exterior, is simple and somewhat handsome, but materials are basic and mostly hard plastic, even on higher trim levels. I was somewhat impressed with the thrust offered by the four-cylinder engine, although it gets fairly buzzy when pushed hard.
I had hoped the Ultimate Adventure Edition would be a vehicle specifically equipped for off-road hijinks; perhaps with a manual transmission and an advanced four-wheel-drive system. That's not the case -- in fact, the only way to get four-wheel-drive, a feature this particular tester lacked, is to add the four-speed automatic. Instead, the Ultimate Adventure edition merely gains new wheels, fog lamps, and leather-like waterproof seating surfaces in an unusual indigo-on-slate color scheme. That doesn't really seem all that adventurous to me.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
Suzuki's press materials for the Grand Vitara play up the fact that this is not a gentle crossover, touting the SUV's integral ladder frame and "surprising off-road performance." That speaks volumes about the driving experience. Because the Grand Vitara is a very old-school vehicle designed for real off-roading and towing, it's not particularly good on pavement.
Taking the Grand Vitara on the highway revealed a bouncy ride, very slow acceleration, and disappointing fuel economy (for a vehicle of this size with only 166 hp). I get the appeal of a robust SUV, but the Suzuki seems totally anachronistic in the context of today's refined and capable small crossovers. Competitors like the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4 offer much more polished driving dynamics, while still providing a modicum of towing and soft-roading capability -- and with significantly better fuel economy. No wonder Suzuki sold only 5000 Grand Vitaras here last year.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
On my way to the airport in the Grand Vitara, I listened to a radio program called "Time Warp," which is very consistent with the feeling one gets when driving this Suzuki. Credit the cheap plastics, antiquated powertrain (four-speed automatic, noisy engine), rough ride quality, and shoddy-feeling HVAC controls. The Grand Vitara was class-competitive -- but not class-leading -- when it debuted in 2005, but it's now very dated and has received minimal updates since then.
The new-for-2012 Ultimate Adventure package is the biggest news for this nameplate since it got new engines for the 2009 model year, and that's pretty sad. The gray wheels look quite nice, though, in my opinion. Like Evan, I was disappointed to learn that a proper four-wheel-drive system with low range is available only on top-of-the-line Limited models. Where's the adventure in that?
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
It doesn't take more than a few minutes in the Grand Vitara to realize that this is a vehicle that hasn't quite been able to keep up with the times. The four-speed automatic transmission is your first clue -- this has to be one of the last vehicles on the U.S. market with an automatic with few than five forward speeds. On the way through the parking garage, the Grand Vitara's rear end hops over the speed bumps, which gives you early notice of the jouncy ride you'll feel when you drive at higher speeds. Even the blinker sounds old-fashioned, with a metronomic click-click that harks back to cars of the '70s and '80s.
On the plus said, there's a full-size spare available, although it's carried on the rear door underneath a hard wheel cover (another throwback). The rear door itself swings open sideways and opens up to a decent size cargo area. The interior itself isn't stellar, but the leather feels OK and has a nice three-tone design to it. The center stack is not very stylized but is functional, and there's decent room in the rear seat.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor