Monday, May 24, 2010

A bit bigger: 2010 Suzuki Grand Vitara V6 4WD—A good value with a mixed bag of on- and off-road performance

Suzuki started its auto business in the U.S. by selling small, affordable SUVs, namely the Samurai. The Spartan Samurai was very capable off road and quite affordable. Since then, Suzuki has offered SUVs including the ubiquitous Sidekick, the large XL7, the quirky X-90, the four-cylinder Vitara, and V-6-powered Grand Vitara. The only remaining SUV in the lineup is the Grand Vitara, which was restyled in 2007, and received a 230 hp 3.2-liter V-6 in 2009. New for 2010 is the standard Garmin navigation.

Pros: Handsome, upscale looks; comfortable cabin; off-road capable 4wD system; lots of bang-for-the buck; 7/100,000 powertrain warranty
Cons: Somewhat jittery ride; low ground clearance/fully independent suspension doesn't match the rugged 4WD system; fussy cupholders
Overall: Another bargain from Suzuki. However, it provides a mixed bag of performance both on and off the asphalt. Still worth a look on value alone.
EXTERIOR STYLING: Classy and sophisticated
I really like the Grand Vitara's styling, especially in black. From certain angles it looks like a smaller Land Rover; its attractive 18” wheels and tires give it an upscale look. The SUV has minimal front and rear overhangs which not only make the vehicle look sportier, but also help with approach and departure angles if the vehicle ever sees any off-road action.

Unlike most SUVs (sans the Toyota RAV4), the GV has a sideways-opening rear door instead of a hatchback. A love-it-or-hate-it feature, it does swing open wide, but also takes a lot of room to open—something to be careful of when parallel parked. The door also wears a hard-covered spare tire. Which, thankfully, does not obstruct outward vision.

INTERIOR: Comfortable and simple with few gripes
My test vehicle was a Grand Vitara V6 Limited, which included leather upholstery, a large power moonroof, automatic climate control, and wood trim applique. The overall look is good and it feels well made. A few things here and there feel a bit flimsy, but overall it's good. The dashboard is easy to read and bright. There is a multi-function computer that displays a variety of info, and also provides information with regards to engaging/disengaging the 4WD system.

I put a decent amount of miles on the SUV while I had it, and the heated driver's/passenger's seats were always comfortable, especially on long trips. Ergonomics were good, and everything, including the automatic climate control, was intuitive to operate. The GV had Suzuki's pop-up Garmin navigation unit, which also doubles as the truck's Bluetooth system.

My mom was in down during the week I had the GV, and she spent a decent amount of time in the backseat (love ya, mom!), as did my wife. Both of them said the back seat was comfortable and roomy. However, both complained that exiting was a bit challenging due to the doors not opening up terribly far.

Suzuki seems to have a problem making cupholders that do a good job holding cups (my Suzuki SX4, is an offender, too), and this goes for the Grand Vitara, also. Both the front and rear cupholders were sub par. Minor detail, but worth mentioning.

The rear cargo area is deep and spacious for a smaller SUV, yielding good carrying ability. It also included a handy multi-section tonneau cover. For those looking for more space, the rear seats fold down and tumble forward for more space.

TECHNOLOGY: Functional and easy to use
As mentioned, this SUV included a Garmin GPS, automatic climate control, heated seats, a seven-speaker stereo with subwoofer and aux jack, power moonroof, and automatic headlights. Also included is Suzuki's HomeLink system as well as a keyless entry and start system called SmartPass. The technology is easy to use and straight forward. The stereo wasn't the best on the market, but was adequate. I am, however, a big fan of the Garmin GPS. It's compact, removable, and can be updated via your computer. The steering wheel has cruise control and audio controls, as well.

The GV has all of the safety tech you'd expect including four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, skid control, traction control, and front/side air bags. It also has a push-button hill hold control (HHC) which will hold the vehicle on inclines for a couple of seconds as you go from brake to accelerator.

An interesting combination (and contradiction) of features
The 230 horsepower 3.2-liter V-6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. Shifts are very smooth, although the engine does tend to get a bit thrashy in the upper ends of the revs.

One of the Grand Vitara's most noteworthy aspects, however, its its true 4WD system with a two-speed transfer case. Operated using a simple dial on the dashboard (at left: the dial at the lower left), the system is usually in automatic 4WD High. However, it can be shifted to 4WD Lock mode on the fly, which splits the power 50/50 to the front and rear wheels in foul driving conditions. If things get really bad, or you're doing some off-road driving, you can stop, put the transmission in neutral, and switch to 4WD Low. This lower gear ratio allows maximum torque and power to the wheels, and reduces the vehicle's speed limits—something off-road enthusiasts want. The GV also has a unibody chassis with a built-in ladder frame for rigidity and durability.

There is some contradiction, though. Although Suzuki equips the GV with an off-road-capable 4WD system and built-in ladder frame, it rides on a fully independent suspension system—not the choice of most who venture off the pavement, although it provides improved ride quality versus a solid axle. Also, the GV has only 7.9 inches of ground clearance, and it's approach/ breakover/departure angles are somewhat lower than its "soft-roader" competition. For comparison's sake:

SUV Ground Clearance Approach Angle Breakover Angle Departure Angle
Nissan Xterra9.5"33.2°24.6°29.4°
Subaru Forester8.9"25°21°25°
Suzuki Grand Vitara V67.9"29°19°27°
Toyota RAV47.4"29°N/A25°

Other than the Grand Vitara, the Xterra is the only SUV above that has a two-speed transfer case. However, it also offers the preferred solid rear axle, and better off-road specs.

One thing that should be noted is the Grand Vitara's towing capacity: 3,000 lbs. Of the above-mentioned SUVs, only the Xterra can pull more (5,000 lbs.).

DRIVING: A mixed bag of dynamics
Although the Grand Vitara's all-aluminum 3.2-liter V-6 has 230 horsepower, it doesn't feel terribly powerful. Don't get me wrong: The SUV has plenty of passing power and accelerates fine. But when compared to the Toyota RAV4's 269 hp. 3.5 liter V-6 or Subaru's 224 hp 2.5-turbo four cylinder, it feels heavy and somewhat lumbering.

The suspension is firm and bumps can yield rubbery kickback on broken pavement. On the highway things mellow a bit, but the ride is noticeably stiff. Handling feels confident, albeit the steering is slow.

I didn't have a chance to do any hard-core off-roading with the GV, but I did take it on a mild trail outside of Hood River, OR where I tried out the four-wheel low setting. Over some inclines, light mud, and rocky surfaces, the Grand Vitara felt very solid and secure, and was confidence inspiring.

The GV is rated at 17 city, 23 highway—towards the lower end of the spectrum for its class. My week with the Grand Vitara returned 20 MPG with 60% highway driving.

OVERALL: Low entry price, good capability, mixed feelings
Suzuki is known for packing in the value. My 2010 Grand Vitara Limited V-6 4WD stickered at $28,318 including destination—a fairly low price compared to equally equipped competitors. I couldn't help but love the SUV's appearance, especially with the great-looking 18” wheels/tires—I think it's the best-looking smaller SUV out there. I equally enjoyed the interior's good combo of luxury and practicality.

The true 4WD system is attractive to the small amount of people that may want to actually venture off the pavement, and the fact it is in 4WD all the time means it's on par with all of the other mid-size SUVs and crossovers out there. However, if you actually plan to take it off road, be weary of its low ground clearance (there are aftermarket lift kits available).

Although the GV doesn't have the best ride or power in its class, it is stable and confident, but there are more comfortable cruisers. But for the price of admission you get a lot of truck for the buck. And with the outstanding 7 year, 100,000 powertrain warranty, shoppers may want to take a look at the Grand Vitara on the sheer value aspect.


Anonymous said...

Great review!

If Suzuki at least offered the Grand Vitara with a solid rear axle, I would've considered buying one. If they offered it with solid axles front and rear, I would've already bought TWO. But with independent suspension front and rear, it's just not an SUV, and it absolutely will not meet my needs.

With that the case, I bought an SX4 instead. The purchase price was lower, the fuel economy is higher, and my ground clearance is significantly greater since I added an inexpensive aftermarket suspension lift kit. Suzuki already makes a "crossover" so the Grand Vitara in its current configuration is pretty redundant.

Hopefully its upcoming redesign will revert back to the superior solid axle suspension. Or better yet, Suzuki could bring back the Jimny/Samurai so they have something that can beat the Jeep Wrangler at everything it does!

nlpnt said...

IMO since Suzuki is a niche player anyway, leaving this category to Jeep and Nissan and replacing the GV with BOTH the Jimny and a Kizashi wagon seems like it wouldn't be a bad idea...

Andy Lilienthal said...

I'd buy a Jimny. I think they're so sweet. I would love to see Suzuki take some interesting niches here, but since most companies rely on volume, I don't see the niche thing happening any time soon.

With regards to the Grand Vitara: It will be interesting to see what happens. I can't imaging Suzuki going back to a solid axle, since the vast majority of SUVs in the U.S. (especially of this size) have car-based chassis. If anything, I see the GV going farther away from its true SUV roots, and getting an AWD system without a transfer case. I think most Americans are looking for a AWD vs. 4WD. Jeep and Nissan are the only currently available smaller SUVs with a t-case. That leaves scads of other SUVs (e.g. crossovers) that are simply cars with a bit more ground clearance (e.g. Forester).

Some of the other more off-road suited new SUVs would include the Xterra, the Jeep Wrangler, the Toyota FJ Cruiser and 4Runner, and that's about it in the non-full-size category. Throw a SRA on the GV and you could add it (again). But, why? So few people buy a $30,000+ vehicle and go wheeling with it. From a money-making standpoint, I can see the shift to IFS and IRS on SUVs. But, it begs the question why Suzuki would put a t-case on such a vehicle.

Andy Lilienthal said...

oops ... Toyota offers a true t-case on the FJ and 4Runner, too. (Forget them)

Anonymous said...

If volume is the concern, I'd venture to say that Suzuki would sell far more Jimnys in the first year offered than they have sold Kizashis to date. I like my Kizashi, but I love my Samurai. I'm not alone.

Anonymous said...

So I have a 2010 grand vitara and I can say I absolutely love it. Its just as good off-road as on-road. Needless to say I put on some 30'' tires and that improved the off road capability substantially. I can go anywhere any jeep grand cherokee will go and the ground clearance is almost the same as the jeep. I've had some guys say my GV is a girls car until I pulled their heavy duty chevy's, dodges, and fords out of the mud and snow. All they did was drop their jaws, eyes wide open and sking me what type of V6 I have. And i tell them its a 4 banger. Long story short- if your looking for an suv with off-road capability and great fuel economy there is NO BETTER 4 cylinder suv on the market that can tow, pull, mud, and make pompus big truck owners embarrassed; than the Grand Vitara is for you.