Greg Anderson, Contributor
"Sidekick" was what Suzuki called their top-of-the-line vehicle last year. The diminutive name did not instill passion or awe into the truck's intended audience - those who wanted an entry-level recreational sport-utility vehicle for weekend treks to the closest trailhead. So upon the Sidekick's recent redesign, Suzuki gave their sport-ute an even more peculiar appellation: Grand Vitara.
Name changes do not always signify a change in personality, but in this case the alteration was not merely linguistic. The Grand Vitara is a new truck in several ways. To understand the differences, let's take a look back at the real reason for the Grand Vitara's identity crisis.
The Sidekick was tragically trendy before its time. In the late '80s the sport-utility boom had not yet hit America, so few buyers noticed that a smallish Japanese car and motorcycle manufacturer was busy building even smaller recreational vehicles. That is, the company went about its business unnoticed, until Consumer Reports decided to use its creative ingenuity to get the Suzuki Samarai to roll over. Suddenly, Suzuki realized the need to diversify its products. In 1989, Suzuki added to its stable a slightly larger and more upstanding vehicle called the Sidekick.
But even unwanted attention is still attention, and Suzuki soon managed to make a better name for itself by selling several miniature cars of insufficient power. Actually, the reason the company was able to survive through the last 14 years is due in whole to the fact that their vehicles' prices roughly correlated to their vehicles' sizes. This year, Suzuki claims that it has a six-vehicle lineup made of the Swift, the Esteem sedan, the Esteem wagon, the two-door Vitara convertible, the four-door Vitara, and the Grand Vitara. Each is a successively larger vehicle and thus higher up the price ladder; MSRP's start at just over $9,000 for the Swift and top out at less than $22,000 for a fully loaded Grand Vitara.
Styling remains Sidekick-esque; the Grand Vitara is squat in appearance with lots of lower-body cladding. While not exactly beautiful, the Grand Vitara does possess a quantity of indefinable character. But looks were never an issue; the only real complaints about the old Sidekick revolved around the camshaft, or vice versa. The four-cylinder motor made only 120 horsepower (in "Sport" trim), a glaring fault for a 3,000-pound vehicle. So the Grand Vitara was bestowed with an all-new all-aluminum all-better powerplant.
Recent Grand Vitara television commercials and print ads feature the statement, "Outside: 155 horses running wild. Inside: The only sound is the padded steering wheel sliding through your fingertips." That may be true, but who sits in a car with the ignition off, yanking the wheel back and forth? The motor is pretty loud when ignited. Not nearly as annoying as the gasping mill of the Sidekick, but the V6 must be revved up high to reach its full potential.
Suzuki boasts the first V6 engine in the mini-SUV segment, indeed the first V6-powered vehicle the company has ever sold in America, but the motor is not as gutsy as it sounds. The 24-valve 2.5-liter DOHC V6 puts up relatively (for a V6) low figures: 155 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 160 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. That's respectable, but moving the Grand Vitara up to speed still takes time. To be sure, the new motor is head and shoulders above past Suzuki offerings, and is the most powerful engine in its class. The V6 makes use of a timing chain, always a risk for extra noise. For a chain-driven unit, this motor is relatively quiet, and no-maintenance engine timing will be a long-term benefit of the Grand Vitara.
After taking a look under the hood, let's step inside. Step-in height is perfectly comfortable, not forcing passengers to climb up or stoop down. The fabric seats grip passengers, a problem in dry climates where static causes painful zaps every time you exit the car. But unlike the Sidekick, the Grand Vitara's upholstery isn't eye-poppingly ugly.
The Grand Vitara's most astonishing feature is its vaulted ceiling. The headroom stretches into the stratosphere, making for a high windshield and an illusory, towering presence on the road. Visibility is excellent to the front and sides, thanks to a low front cowl and expansive side windows, but the rear view is impeded by two rear headrests and a rear-mounted spare tire. Cooling or heating the interior takes time and energy because of the sheer volume of unused interior space.
Neither of the front passengers get armrests. The steering wheel is heavy, requiring muscle to maneuver, though it is adjustable to seven tilt positions. The rear seats are not uncomfortable, with 35.9 inches of legroom (front passengers get 41.4 inches), but we didn't test them out for any extended period of time.
Standard is a five-speed manual transmission, though our test car came with a four-speed automatic with overdrive. The automatic has an EPA mileage rating of 18/20 city/highway - not bad for a truck, but fuel economy is a tradeoff for power. In Suzuki's nomenclature, JS signifies the two-wheel drive model and JLX signifies four-wheel drive. The "+" tacked on to the end means that our 4WD JLX+ model also came with antilock brakes and alloy wheels, items that are otherwise optional on the base model.
The Grand Vitara comes with a host of standard equipment. Even the base JS model gets cruise control, tilt steering column, tripmeter, air conditioning, keyless entry, halogen headlamps and roof rails. To enjoy the full utility, however, buyers should opt for the Select-Shift 4WD system, which can be activated by a lever just south of the shifter.
Off-road driving capability makes the Grand Vitara shine among small sport-utes. Eight inches of ground clearance and respectable 32-degree approach and 29-degree departure angles mean that Suzuki has taken geometry into account: the Grand Vitara can clear more than bite-sized rocks and debris. The body itself was improved by strengthening the ladderbox frame.
Road noise has been quelled by putting asphalt between the wheels and the passenger compartment. Yes, a five millimeter-thick asphalt sheet is located strategically in the dash, over the transmission tunnel, and over the wheel wells. The 235/60R16 tires behaved themselves wonderfully, though we did not challenge them with anything more difficult than a few off-road bumps. Rocks hitting the undercarriage were pleasantly muted, however, by the asphalt layer of protection. The same rack-and-pinion steering that feels heavy on the pavement feels strong off the pavement. Feedback is damped, begging the driver to seek out more challenging terrain.
The Sidekick, er, Grand Vitara, is a contender. It gives Honda, Toyota, Subaru and other copycats something to reckon with in terms of available power and off-road dynamics. Even General Motors, partner and seller of the Vitara-twin Chevrolet Tracker cannot compete for the Suzuki power title. The V6 is offered only on the Grand Vitara, thus making the prefix more than an aspiration.
Where the Grand Vitara fails is with its interior ergonomics. The slider controlled heating system is hard to use, and the itsy-bitsy stereo faceplate is still impossibly out of reach and unfriendly to operate. It's too easy to change the station when adjusting the volume; the area surrounding the volume knob is the radio tuner. Oversights like these mean that the Grand Vitara is not as well thought-out as it should be, and American buyers notice such oversights. Suzuki wants to sell 100,000 Grand Vitaras per year in the U.S., but in order to do it they'll first need to make the vehicle irreproachable. There is still a lot of work to be done.
One of the Suzuki's most treacherous stumbling blocks on its quest to sell a significant number Grand Vitaras is the existence of competitors like the Honda CR-V. The CR-V offers similar interior space and similar performance from a marque that already has a loyal owner following. The CR-V gets 146 horsepower and 133 foot-pounds of torque from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Not bad, compared to the Grand Vitara's 155-horsepower V6. The CR-V last year captured a dominating 25 percent of the small SUV market, and doesn't look like it will lose ground any time soon.
Buyers looking for dirtbike-like performance in a car will already know about Suzuki's competence, but anyone more interested in civilized comfort and convenience will find more value in the Honda CR-V. Edmund's voted the Grand Vitara the Most Wanted SUV for this model year, but at the time of the vote we had not yet driven the more powerful CR-V. While the Grand Vitara may be the best mini off-roader (unless you consider a Jeep Wrangler), the CR-V and Toyota RAV4 offer more user-friendly interiors. Which trait is more important? That remains to be seen (read: a comparison test is in the planning, so stay tuned).>
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