Tuesday, July 31, 2012

2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara Ultimate Adventure: Despite the name, not the most exciting journey

2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara Ultimate Adventure

The term “SUV” used to refer to truck-based 4x4s with low-range four-wheel-drive systems, generally dismal fuel economy, not-so-great on-road handling, and body-on-frame construction. Within the last several years, most traditional SUVs as described above have all but vanished, especially off-road-capable compact SUVs. They’ve been replaced with generally more practical car-based unibody-constructed vehicles. But, let’s face it: The vast majority of the buying public doesn’t need a low-range gear set, body-on-frame construction, and would rather have the instant all-wheel-drive versus the need to manually change into 4WD. There are capable "traditional" SUVs left on the market, such as the Jeep Wrangler, Nissan Xterra, and Toyota FJ Cruiser or 4Runner.

Suzuki has offered a body-on-frame SUV with a low-range transfer case since the early 1980s. From the Spartan yet capable Samurai, to the agile Sidekick and Vitara/Grand Vitara (and Geo/Chevrolet Tracker cousin) that were sold up the early 2000s. For 2006, Suzuki came out with a redesigned Grand Vitara, which was available with a V6 or four-cylinder engine option, rear or four-wheel drive, and with or without a low-range transfer case. The vehicle had a fully independent suspension and a unibody chassis reinforced with a truck-like ladder frame. While it wasn’t quite the Suzuki Samurai or Sidekick in terms of off-road capability, it was quite a bit more civilized on road, while still maintaining a bit of trail cred. That was seven model years ago.

Fast forward to 2012, and Suzuki still offers the Grand Vitara, and it’s mostly unchanged from the 2006 model. It still has the independent suspension all around; it still looks nearly the same. We reviewed the 2010 Grand Vitara V6 with 4WD and the low-range gear set. At the time, the 230 horsepower V6 was a new addition to the vehicle. It was mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, and we felt it was a mixed bag both on and off road, albeit a good value since it had ample power, leather, and a host of other luxury accoutrements. So what has changed for 2012? The answer is: Not much, except that the ’12 is now only available with a four-cylinder engine and an old four-speed automatic.

Our test model had the new-for-2012 “Ultimate Adventure” package. While this sounds impressive, and you might think this makes it a trail-capable beast, alas, this package packs features such as water-resistant seat material, and 18” wheels and tires. Oddly, I couldn’t find the Ultimate Adventure package on Suzuki’s website.

I maintain that even though the latest Grand Vitara body style was introduced in 2006, it’s still one of the more attractive SUV-like vehicles out there. I think it looks like a miniature Range Rover, and from an aesthetic perspective, the wheels/tires give the smallish SUV a sporting appearance. Like some of the older SUVs from the 1990s and prior, the Grand Vitara still utilizes a side-opening tailgate with a spare tire mounted on it. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of room to open up. Once that door is open, there is a healthy amount of storage in the cargo area.The rear seat does fold down, but not flat. It also tumbles forward for more cargo. In fact, we were able to get a bunch of parts, including a new tailgate, for my '95 Suzuki Sidekick while I had the vehicle.

This Ultimate Adventure package came with a bluish-purple leather-like seat material that is water resistant. However, most found it unattractive rather than sporty. The ’12 Grand Vitara’s interior (other than the upholstery) seems basic and somewhat dated; it’s nearly identical to the 2010 and not far off from models that were around in 2006. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but there’s also nothing special about it, especially compared to interiors on vehicles such as the new Honda CR-V, the Hyundai Tucson, and the new Ford Escape. While I’m a fan of simplistic interiors, this one is dated. Build quality feels average, but nothing felt junky.

Like the Suzuki SX4, the Grand Vitara comes with a Garmin navigation unit with Bluetooth capability. I could get the unit to pair with my Samsung smart phone, but I could not get the phone to answer calls. Regardless of Bluetooth functionality, I still think the pop-up Garmin is a great idea, as it’s easy to use, and you can remove it. However, Suzuki is the only company doing it, and it hasn’t caught on with other companies. (Suzuki has announced Garmin will provide in-car infotainment/navigation for 2013 models.)

Driving the 2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara Ultimate Adventure

Driving the Grand Vitara isn't exactly the ultimate adventure, either. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder is wheezy and uninspiring compared to the gusty V6 in the 2010. There isn’t much power, and the vehicle feels like it lumbers along both in a straight line and in the corners. This thing needs the V6 again, or at least a more powerful four banger. The 2.4-liter mill makes 166 horsepower and 162 ft./lbs. of torque. If you could get the 4WD with a manual transmission, it’d likely be better, but that's reserved for RWD variants. Although the Grand Vitara weighs about as much as a 2012 Honda CR-V, it has 19 less horsepower and one less gear.

Despite possessing a four-wheel independent suspension, the Grand Vitara still rides too stiffly both around town and on the highway. My passengers, especially those sitting in the back seat, felt the shock damping was overly hard, and I agree. It also delivers rubbery kickbacks on everything but perfect pavement. Cornering is accompanied by a lot of body roll. The four-wheel disc brakes are adequate, but there is a lot of nose dive upon hard braking. This would all be fine and dandy if this were an SUV that had a good amount of ground clearance and great off-road capability, such as Jeep Wrangler. It's off-road ability gives it a hall pass on the highway. Instead, the Grand Vitara has less ground clearance than our 2012 Subaru Forester and a single-mode AWD system, too. But off-road purists take note: The truck is available with a dual-range transfer case if you opt for a different package. The ground clearance, however, is no different.

Back inside, the Grand Vitara’s front seats were comfortable, and outward visibility is good; there’s a very upright and commanding view of the road. The rear seats were fine for my 5’ 7” frame, but taller friends all complained about the rear legroom.

To get down to brass tacks, the 2012 Grand Vitara is an aged vehicle and it feels like it, especially when compared to the latest breed of crossovers. But it also doesn't have the ground clearance that a bona-fide off-road vehicle should have. Allegedly, 2013 is to bring a change to this Suzuki SUV, but it’s reported to be more of a re-freshening than an all-new model. For that, we may have to wait until 2014 or later. But Suzuki is notoriously tight lipped about its future models, so we’ll have to wait and see if any of that is true.

The Grand Vitara goes almost unnoticed on the U.S. market. With the plethora of car-based crossovers, such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4, and more capable SUVs, such as the Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Xterra, the Grand Vitara rides the edge of mediocrity in a market full of good choices. I still love my ’95 Sidekick, with its solid rear axle and 95 horsepower. It’s unapologetically slow, rough around the edges, built like a miniature brick shithouse, and is quite capable off road. The Grand Vitara seems to compromise in too many ways to be a solid choice for either the crossover buyer or the off-road adventurer. Add to this the fact this four-banger gets 19 city and 23 highway for fuel economy, and there isn’t much appeal for the mass market.

2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara Ultimate Adventure rear shot

This test model retailed at nearly $24,569 and that includes the optional floor mats, first-aid kit and cargo mat, premium metallic paint, and Bluetooth. It does come with a good powertrain warranty of 100,000 miles/7 years, though.

I realize this review isn’t full of glowing praise, unicorns, glitter, and rainbows. Maybe it’s because I care about Suzuki too much and want to see the company succeed, much like the tough loving parent who knows their child can do well, but doesn't put forth their full effort. But the Grand Vitara is an aged beast that needs a shot of adrenalin, and no amount of water-resistant seat covers, 18” wheels, or long-term powertrain warranties can do that. You can do better Suzuki, and I hope you do.


Anonymous said...

Sucks that Suzuki no longer makes anything that is truly offroad worthy. This Vitara blows. You can only get the low gears with an automatic. No manual. They had some incredibly awesome & dirt cheap offroading machines that would run forever in the late 80's & early 90's like the Samurai & Sidekick. People are still charging an arm & a leg for a Samurai that's in really good condition. Whatever happened to "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"? They seriously need to bring the Jimny to the USA. I'd buy one in a heartbeat.

Mike Furst said...

As an American living in China, I get to drive a Nissan X-Trail: about the same general size as the Suzuki (altho more rear hauling space), a somewhat more pwerful motor, more refinement on the road without giving up modest off-road ability, a 4X4 system that flips from front 2X to All Wheel Drive to a traditional 4X4 locking differential altho, alas, no low range (I have to drop the CVT into "manual" and keep it in fake 1st gear. Oh, well. Overall, tho, a nice ride that outdoes the Suzuki in most ways.