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2008 Suzuki Grand Vitara First Steer
- by Alborz Fallah
It's not very often that I am willing to get up at 6:00am to go for a drive, in fact it's not often that I am willing to get up at 6:00am for anything. But Suzuki's invitation to central and northern Australia to drive the new Grand Vitara was an offer worth waking up early for.
Our journey took three days and involved everything from private jets at a cost of $4000 an hour to helicopters, a camel (more on the dromedary later) and of course, driving Suzuki's flagship model across hundreds of kilometres of desert and four-wheel drive tracks in the Northern Territory.
Whoever invented the snooze button on alarms was obviously an extreme optimist, 'another 10 minutes won't kill ...'
Sure enough as I arrived at Suzuki headquarters near Brisbane airport, my fellow motoring journalists (all three of them) and Suzuki staff were all ready to roll.
Ten minutes later a taxicab arrived and rushed us to a private hanger on the outskirts of Brisbane airport. Secretly, I was hoping what ever plane Suzuki had acquired for the trip had at least two engines and that they weren't the BMW emblem kind.
Thankfully Suzuki had full intentions of getting us to Ayers Rock/Ularu in one piece, which meant we had a Cessna Citation Bravo, the world's most popular midsize business jet.
Despite the two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW530 engines strapped on for good measure, a headwind plagued us, which meant a two-and-a-half hour flight to Charleton, stop and refuel and then another two hour flight to Ayers Rock.
At a cost of $4000 an hour flying time plus $600 a day for each crew member, this wasn't a cheap flight by any means. Eventually though, we arrived at Ayers Rock airstrip and headed for the Desert Gardens hotel.
Here we were greeted by a few other journalists from Australia and New Zealand, plus a large team of Suzuki engineers and designers and to our surprise, Mr Toshihiro (Ted) Suzuki, the son of the current Suzuki boss and a descendent of company founder Michio Suzuki.
Having met the local wildlife - everything from small lizards to big lizards and even a few Dingos - it was time to get serious.
Suzuki may be a relatively small brand in Australia, with only about two per cent market share, but in total, the Japanese manufacturer sold 2,405,000 units globally last year and in terms of volume, sits fourth in the Japanese rankings, behind Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Putting it ahead of the likes of Mitsubishi and Subaru.
The release of the third generation Grand Vitara marks 20 years of production for the popular SUV. Suzuki lays claim to the Vitara having invented the compact SUV segment, as it had no direct rivals back in 1988.
The biggest changes to the new model are by no means visible from the outside, design-wise, a new grille and wider fog lamps are about the most noticeable upgrades, as well as LED turn signal lamps.
Suzuki says the decision to not change the styling all that much was due to its popularity in Europe. However both petrol engines have been replaced, with a new 2.4-litre four-cylinder and a 3.2-litre V6 now available in the range. Both engines were developed from scratch by Suzuki.
The 2.4-litre (122kW and 225Nm of torque) replaces the superseded 1.6-litre (three-door) and 2.0-litre (five-door) engines. Fuel economy has improved to just 8.8-litres per 100km for the five-speed manual (three-door).
Unfortunately the aging four-speed automatic still remains in the five-door 2.4-litre, but surprisingly delivers excellent fuel economy figures of just 9.6L/100km. Suzuki engineers confirmed a five/six-speed automatic will not be available for the four-cylinder for at least three to four years.
The new 3.2-litre, 165kW, V6 tops the range, replacing the outgoing 2.7-litre V6. Although delivering more power and torque (284Nm), VVT technology ensures better fuel efficiency, down to just 10.5L/100km.
The Renault built diesel engine remains relatively unchanged for the Grand Vitara and Suzuki staff confirmed there are currently no plans for an automatic gearbox diesel variant, despite conceding there is sufficient demand.
Another notable upgrade has been the improvement of interior noise and vibration. Suzuki brought out their NVH specialist who confirmed that the car is about 2dB quieter inside than the previous generation. This is a result of better seals as well as thicker window glass (4.0mm - up from 3.5mm).
Sitting inside the new Grand Vitara the changes become obvious rather more quickly. There is an entirely new instrument cluster, multi-info display providing more information, a centre speaker in the dash, new air-conditioning controls, plus a revised sun visor and arm rest.
The V6 Prestige models also get, for the first time, hill descent control (HDC) and hill hold control (HHC), plus automatic headlights.
Suzuki Australia General Manager Tony Devers said that the new Grand Vitara is the best compact SUV of any manufacturer - a big claim - however it's now certainly the cheapest and best value-for-money SUV compared to its direct competitors.
After the presentation it was time for dinner. Although most of us would have been happy with a nice warm indoors meal at the hotel, Suzuki had other ideas. Given the Grand Vitara is meant for the outdoors, what better way to get the point across than dinner out in the freezing cold?
Not that I am complaining, Sounds of Silence, as the locals call it, is a well prepared full-course meal with a view of Ayers Rock. Followed by a quick lesson in constellations and a bumpy bus ride back to the hotel for a quick five hour sleep before day two.
Suzuki staff encouraged us to set our alarms for 5.30am so we can be ready and on the bus to the airport at 6.30am sharp. What they didn't tell us, was the wake up call they had secretly organised, so the snooze button was redundant on this occasion.
After a quick breakfast we boarded a bus to the airport, the plan was simple, numerous helicopters were hired to fly us over Ayers Rock and on towards Kings Creek Station a good hour away.
Thankfully Suzuki Australia had the diligence to put the New Zealand journalists on those buzzing little Robinson R44s while the Aussies, rightfully, flew the much safer Bell 206B-3 Jet Rangers.
After standing around in the freezing cold for 20 minutes while the choppers refuelled and a problem with one of the Robinsons was fixed. Our pilot, a pale 30-something year-old, gave us a brief safety demonstration and we were off.
"Those pedals in front of you, they are live, so if you can avoid stepping on them while we are in the air, that would be good"- Okay!
Ayers Rock, either the biggest or the second biggest piece of rock in the world is a truly spectacular sight from the air. Locals say it goes down underneath the surface for five kilometres.
We flew over a few dried lakes and on towards Kings Creek Station a good hour away.
During our flight we encountered some local camels, which our chopper pilot decided were worthy of some fun.
As the dust on the runway at Kings Creek began to settle, the 25 Grand Vitaras stood out in a straight line. Finally, it was time for some serious outback driving.
The plan was to drive though Kings Canyon and head straight for Gosse Bluff and then towards Alice Springs the next day.
The first car we drove was the 2.4-litre, four-cylinder Prestige, which we initially mistook for the V6.
The first and most obvious improvement is the interior, which you can actually say has been designed for use and practicality, as oppose to put together from bits and pieces.
The four-speed automatic is smooth and adapts quickly to one's driving style. Steering response is also impressive with literally no play at any speed. The new 2.4-litre engine no longer struggles to overtake or under hard acceleration and as a result fuel economy for the first leg of the journey (mostly dirt roads) was only 9.8L/100km, a very slight two-tenths above the official figure.
The second car was the new 3.2-litre V6 Prestige, a big improvement over the old 2.7-litre V6. Using a five-speed auto the V6 manages strong acceleration and provides excellent off-road dynamics.
The vehicle in question was optioned out with 18-inch wheels, not exactly the suitable choice for off-roading but even so, ride and comfort levels were a significant improvement over the old model.
However my pick of the bunch is the three-door 2.4-litre, with the five-speed manual gearbox. Not only is it the best looking, but also the most sporty. Having gone from a measly 1.6-litre to a 2.4-litre, power has increased dramatically and driven via the easy to use five-speed the three-door is in a realm of its own.
Toyota long ago put an end to its three-door RAV4 and the three-door Mitsubishi Pajero is in a different league altogether, which leaves this Grand Vitara without real competition in the segment. Whether or not it's a space worth being in will be realised within the next year or two.
After four legs of the journey we arrived at our designated 4WD test track, set up to test the Grand Vitara's off-road ability. Not that it was necessarily required as we'd spent the last three hours driving over dirt roads without an issue.
The car's new Hill Descent Control works as you would think, available only on the Grand Vitara Prestige V6, the HDC regulates the speed at which the vehicle travels downhill, notably in steep off-road conditions.
Similar to other HDCs the computer-controlled system individually brakes each wheel to maintain a slow, steady descent down a slope.
Asked why the HDC system is not available on the four-cylinder variants, Suzuki's Tony Devers admitted that although the four-cylinder is just as capable off-road, the company believes the V6 is more likely to be used for this purpose.
The second new technology, Hill Hold Control, is similar to Subaru's brake assist, helping the driver in starting to move up a steep incline. However unlike the Subaru's, this is designed for automatics only.
Additions to the new Grand Vitara range include ESP, six airbags and rear ventilated disc brakes, a move up from drums, while the five-door also receives cruise control as standard.
Interestingly, the ESP system can't be switched off in Four-High mode. From what I gathered from the Japanese engineer who answered my question, the ESP module now controls the car's differential in 4H Unlocked and if the system is disengaged not much would happen. Of course if its in 4H or 4L Lock, ESP can be switched off for better off-roading.
Going though the 4WD track we saw a Nissan Patrol stuck in soft sand, but kept on driving. Perhaps the biggest selling point for the Grand Vitara over its competitors is its four-wheel driving ability.
Not only is it the most capable off-road compact SUV, beating the likes of the Subaru Forester, Nissan X-Trail and Toyota RAV4, but the Grand Vitara does it with ease, never showing any sign of stress.
Our drive program for day two had come to an end and we retired to our camp site, some 140km out of Alice Springs. Temperatures during the day were getting near the 30 degree mark, so we expected freezing conditions at night, and we weren't disappointed.
Dinner was served once again under the night sky with many stories being shared. Emu, crocodile, kangaroo, camel, it was all on the menu.
Minus four degrees is what it read on the thermostat and three layers of clothes and a sleeping which read "suitable for down to minus five degrees" kept me alive through the night. Day three was our final leg to Alice Springs.
Breakfast was served and a quick drive to a nearby resort meant we could have a brief shower before we headed out for our final leg of the journey.
The last leg was a 140km drive out to Alice Springs on normal highway roads, providing a great opportunity to test the car's on-road usability.
The problem Suzuki will have in convincing new buyers to the brand isn't the car itself, as it is a great package but many may feel comfortable to part with their cash for a new RAV4 or X-Trail given the Toyota and Nissan brand establishment instead of going with Suzuki.
My Advice? Take the Grand Vitara for a drive and remember, Suzuki is by no means a small company and has had a great deal of experience in building some of the world's best 4WDs for more than 50 years.
What it comes down to is, be it on the highway, around town or out in the middle of nowhere climbing a hill, the Grand Vitara is definitely worth a look if you're after a compact SUV. The new Grand Vitara will be available for sale starting in September.
We arrived in Alice Springs, boarded our Cessna and headed back to Brisbane. The flight home was accompanied with hefty tailwind, cutting the journey down to just 2 hours, without a need to refuel.
A full review of the new Grand Vitara range will follow soon.
Pricing details for the new 2009 Suzuki Grand Vitara:
- GV3 3-Door 5-speed manual $24,990
- GV3 3-Door 4-speed automatic $26,990
- 5-Door 5-speed manual $29,990
- 5-Door 4-speed automatic $31,990
- 5-Door 5-speed manual (17-inch alloys) $30,990
- 5-Door 4-speed automatic (17-inch alloys) $32,990
- 5-Door DDiS turbo-diesel 5-speed manual $34,990
- 5-Door Prestige 4-speed automatic $36,990
- 5-Door Prestige 4-speed automatic (18-inch alloys) $37,490
- 5-Door Prestige V6 5-speed automatic $39,990
- 5-Door Prestige V6 5-speed automatic (18-inch alloys) $40,490