Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
It seems not a lot of Americans go looking to buy a Suzuki Grand Vitara. For the 2008 model year, it outsold only three other compact SUVs in a field of nearly 20 ? two are rebadged Fords and the other is a newish VW. That means Suzuki sold fewer than 13,000 Grand Vitaras in a year where Honda sold nearly 200,000 copies of its recently redesigned CR-V.
But one thing that boosts the Grand Vitara in four-wheel-drive trim is that it's one of the few compact SUVs you can actually take off-road, thanks to the dual-range transfer case and a rigid ladder frame that's integrated into the vehicle's one-piece body. In this regard, the Grand Vitara is bit more truckish than your typical car-based crossover. The Suzuki also has a stellar warranty and the base model costs a few thousand dollars less than base versions of the CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
We tested a two-wheel-drive Luxury version of the 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara and found it to be more than adequate when it comes to comfort. For commuters, this version is the one to get. The Luxury trim level includes such features as heated leather seats, keyless entry and start, XM radio and a sunroof. Notable by its absence is any navigation system option, and the seats are manually adjustable only. Plus, there's no factory-installed auxiliary jack or Bluetooth.
The 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara presents no glaring faults, but competitors from Honda and Toyota feel more refined and buttoned-down on the road. Still, it's easy to overlook the GV's minor shortcomings if you plan on using the capable little SUV as a true 4x4 or you just want to drive something different from what everyone else has. Combine these traits with an excellent warranty and reasonable price and the GV should be able to win a few more customers.
For 2009, a four-cylinder version of the Grand Vitara is once again available. This time around, it's a 2.4-liter engine that makes 166 horsepower. Getting from zero to 60 mph takes 10.2 seconds, slightly slower than the last all-wheel-drive Honda CR-V we tested. Sporty handing is not in the GV's playbook. Grip limits are low and gentle inputs are always the swiftest way through corners. The brakes are firm and responsive; however, a little fade creeps in after several high-speed panic stops.
Five- and six-speed automatic transmissions are becoming the norm, making the GV's standard four-speed automatic gearbox feel a little dated. On a crowded freeway where traffic is moving at a moderate pace, downshifts are smooth, but even if you gently roll on the accelerator, the transmission gets confused and jumps down to 3rd then up to 4th each time you tap the gas.
Unlike other compact SUVs, the two-wheel-drive version of the 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara drives the rear wheels. Combined with beefier underpinnings, this gives the GV a higher towing capacity without opting for a 4x4. A front-wheel-drive Honda CR-V has a towing capacity of 1,500 pounds; the Suzuki with a four-cylinder engine is rated at 3,000 pounds. For those who need to tow, that could be the difference between two Jet Skis and a small sport boat.
The Grand Vitara isn't ideal for extended road trips, as the ride isn't terribly refined and the firm seats can start to take their toll on your backside after a few hours in the saddle. When taken in smaller doses, however, the GV is perfectly capable and even comfortable. Most buyers are likely to use this Suzuki for commuting and shuttling kids, and in these conditions it comes across as a credible alternative to mainstream compact SUVs from Honda and Toyota.
Wind noise is nicely suppressed but a little road noise creeps in at speed, not uncommon with compact SUVs. Engine noise is especially pronounced at full throttle ? there's a level of refinement and civility that's missing here. By comparison, the Honda CR-V's inline four-cylinder engine exudes precision, as if it's been engineered to closer tolerances.
On our Luxury version, leather seating is standard and the front seats are also heated. The Luxury trim level also nets you a keyless entry and start feature, plus a stereo system with two extra speakers and a six-CD changer. The GV's rear seats offer adequate legroom for an average-size adult.
One thing the 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara does well is capitalize on the high seating position typical of most compact SUVs. Outward visibility is excellent, and the driving position provides a commanding view of the road ? height-adjustable seats help here and are an unexpected feature at the Suzuki's price point.
The various controls for the radio, headlights and wipers have a nice tactile feel that reinforces the Suzuki's modern look. We're not crazy about the thin, red readout for the radio that is functional if not attractive ? it stands out as cheap in a cabin that otherwise looks classier than the GV's sub-$20,000 starting price would suggest. Bright gauges and a multifunction steering wheel add substance to the nicely trimmed interior, but both Bluetooth and an iPod connection are missing from the options list. An auxiliary jack should be standard at a minimum. Both can be installed by the dealer at an extra cost.
On the utility front, the Grand Vitara offers a low load floor and a class-competitive maximum cargo capacity of 67 cubic feet. The only problem is the GV's rear door opens toward the curb (like the RAV4), making street-side loading and unloading a hassle. Up front, the cupholders are useful but certainly not oversized ? if you frequently lug a large Gatorade bottle to the practice field, you'll have to hold it in your lap. A small storage box is provided, too ? again, it's useful but could be a little bigger, as it fills up quickly with just the basics. Decent legroom in the rear seat translates into enough space for a forward-facing child seat, but a rear-facing seat is a tighter fit.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara's interior remained squeak- and rattle-free with no gross panel gaps or ragged edges, though we noticed some rattling coming from under the hood and the undercarriage on rough pavement and mild dirt roads.
There's little inside the GV that would win any design awards, but there is a simplicity that is both pleasing to look at and functional. Lighted red display screens on the center console convey information well but the look is low-budget ? especially given the bright, clear and sharp-looking gauges that reside just behind the steering wheel. Overall, the Suzuki has a high-quality look and feel thanks to the combination of matte finish black panels and silver trim.
Who should consider this vehicle
In rear-wheel-drive trim, compact SUV shoppers who value a low price ? or anyone who just can't bring themselves to buy a Honda or Toyota for fear of getting lost in the crowd.
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