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We have to admit we’ve always had a bit of soft spot for the Suzuki Grand Vitara.
When it launched way back in 1988 the Suzuki Grand Vitara pretty much had a free run when it came to small 4WDs that also doubled as a daily drive for budget-conscious buyers.
But a lot has changed in the ensuing years and the small-SUV segment has grown into one of the most crowded and competitive in the automotive world, with no less than 21 makes and more than 170 model variants on offer in Australia alone - all vying for market share.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara is only in its third generation in 24 years, and the current model is already seven years old but with a facelift in 2008.
(Another update is due later in 2012, though Suzuki is yet to provide details.)
The Grand Vitara is also one of the rare compact SUVs – or ‘soft-roaders’ – that incorporates off-road-aiding stiff ladder frames into its monocoque construction.
Most other vehicles in this class also have on-demand, all-wheel drive systems that primarily drive the front wheels and only send a portion of drive to the rear when the system senses wheel slip - such as when climbing a muddy trail or loose gravel surfaces.
In stark contrast, the Suzuki Grand Vitara drives all four wheels at the same time, split 50:50 front to rear. It also has a low range setting, another off-road-biased feature that enables better control at slow speeds. That off-road ability is further aided by the addition of ‘Hill decent control’ which regulates the speed of the vehicle on decent.
While Suzuki still makes a three-door version of the Grand Vitara, our test car is a Suzuki Grand Vitara Sport – a five-door limited edition model launched in Australia in October 2011.
The only major change is to the front grille, which adds freshness to the front end with two chrome strips as opposed to the open-face style of the standard model range.
There’s also a set of 18-inch alloy wheels, silver roof rails and silver side fins to round off the Suzuki Grand Vitara Sport styling.
Inside, the only difference is the distinct ‘Bombora Aqua’ upholstery, which is water repellent but, as we discovered on our week-long test, is not so good at repelling stains.
As with the entry-level Urban and mid-spec Prestige, the Sport is powered by a 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that makes 122kW and 225Nm and is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission.
There’s no shortage of punch off the line from this engine. Even with the auto the Grand Vitara is surprisingly perky.
In-gear acceleration isn’t bad, either, but there are a couple of significant drawbacks.
At 1605kg, the Suzuki Grand Vitara is no class lightweight. It’s 110kg heavier than a Subaru Forester, for example.
So the engine needs to work harder under moderate to heavy acceleration and the result is harsh engine noise – and lots of it.
The problem is compounded with the four-speed transmission that continuously wants to kick down from fourth to second gear, in the hunt for higher revs.
It doesn’t help that peak torque doesn’t arrive until 4000rpm, though the Suzuki Grand Vitara is also available with a four-cylinder turbo diesel (for a premium, of course) that produces more torque (300Nm) and at half those revs.
There is a Power button that holds shift points higher up the rev range.
That shortage of ratios and that higher-than-average mass doesn’t help fuel efficiency, either. The Vitara’s official consumption of 9.9 litres per 100km is not great to start with, and the best average we could achieve on test was an appalling 12.9L/100km.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara uses struts up front and a multi-link rear suspension set-up at the rear, and body roll is minimal during cornering despite its ladder frame and high-riding stance.
The hydraulic power steering system provides good accuracy and response, and there’s a level of communication transmitted through the steering wheel that electric power steering systems often struggle to do.
Braking is sure-footed, too, with ventilated front and rear discs providing solid stopping power, along with a nicely progressive brake pedal.
However, the same cannot be said of the ride. Unless the roads are billiard-table smooth, there is little in the way of comfort on board the Grand Vitara. The ride is generally fidgety, even over mildly blemished asphalt.
While the front and rear seats are comfortable enough, there’s not a lot to get excited about inside the cockpit of the Suzuki Grand Vitara except for what is an excellent driving position, together with an excellent sports leather steering wheel.
While Suzuki has done its best to provide a contemporary interior with the Grand Vitara, it feels dated when compared with most of its Japanese and Korean rivals.
There are precious few soft-touch plastics inside, although those used have a quality look and feel about them.
On the plus side, all the instrumentation and switchgear is well laid out, including the oversize heating and ventilation controls, which are easy to manage.
While climate control air-conditioning is part of the standard features inventory, disappointingly Bluetooth is a retrofit unit that sits on the top right-hand corner of your windscreen and is a dealer-fit item. Music streaming isn’t one of its features, either.
There’s a good deal of leg and headroom throughout the cabin, as well as stacks of cargo space, particularly with the rear seats lowered and rolled forward – creating 1386 litres of volume.
There’s also a complete suite of safety features on-board the Grand Vitara including six airbags, electronic stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA).
While the Suzuki Grand Vitara may have been first to market with the first 4x4 compact SUV, the majority of its competitors have largely left it behind.
Of course if you’re looking for a compact SUV with best in class 4X4 ability and room enough for the family, then the Grand Vitara stands on its own.