Eleven years on the current-generation Suzuki Grand Vitara still claims to be the king of small-budget, mid-sized SUV practicality with big off-roading capabilities. But has it evolved enough to keep pace with the times?
Familiarity can sometimes offer warmer comfort than those fresh-faced things embracing reinvention. That may well be an underlying feeling for those who’ve bought any Suzuki Grand Vitara in the past decade and who’ve just climbed into the 2016 version. Essentially, it’s the same car – the 4x4-savvy SUV that’s Grand in name but no longer quite so grand in size is still planted in the generation that launched back in 2005.
In fact, one of the first cars a fledgling CarAdvice reviewed back in our formative 2006 was a Grand Vitara of what still remains, essentially, the current generation. That’s a good innings – five different prime ministers have been through The Big Chair in this Grand Vitara’s lifecycle. And with no planned replacement for “the only true 4x4 in the medium SUV segment,” as its importer describes it, in lieu of Australia’s recent political track record, you’d be inclined to suspect the mid-sized Suzuki may still be around once PM Turnbull moves his personals out of The Lodge.
That’s some staying power, though it’s not as if the Grand Vitara mould has been perpetually set in stone. There’s been some newness and freshness introduced in the past 11 years: some modernisation to the styling, equipment updates, a bit of ‘range consolidation’ to trim the line-up and ageing engines lost to the march of progression, all in efforts to keep up with the times. All the while the Grand Vitara has traded off its tough old cloth – proper multi-mode 4x4 running gear strapped to a monocoque-integrated ladder frame backbone – as a counter to rivalling newcomers of a more soft-roader persuasion.
So how does the old dog with new-ish tricks fare in 2016? Importantly, how does it fare in times where buyer tastes are increasingly tending towards more urban-friendly, Tarmac-favouring ‘soft road’ pretensions?
Our tester, the flagship Grand Vitara Sport, is the freshest face in the three-variant stable, introduced in 2011 to sit above the three-door 4x4 GV3 Navigator ($25,990 plus on-roads) and the five-door 4x2 Urban Navigator ($27,490 plus on-roads) versions as the one to get if you need both full-size space and proper off-roadability.
And there’s not a whole lot in medium-SUV land that can rival the Sport for such credentials for its $30,990 list price in manual form (the auto adds $2000). In fact, when you consider a top-spec petrol all-wheel-driven Kia Sportage or Hyundai Tucson lists for $43,490, or a five-door Range Rover Evoque Si4 HSE Dynamic asks for a lofty $81,410, a tenner less than $31k for the manual Sport looks absolute bargain basement.
However, given the properly opulent, leather-trimmed, $38,990 Prestige version got axed during the last facelift in 2014, today’s top-rung Sport’s spec and equipment levels perhaps aren’t quite as brimming as some range-topping SUVs. So you get cool-for-school grey finish 18-inch wheels, but the headlights are halogen. There are fog lights but no DRLs. There’s a rear-view parking camera but no front or rear parking sensors. There are six airbags and electronic chassis aids aplenty – including hill-hold and hill descent controls – though not much to write home about with active assist systems. Half of the seat trim is leather, half is cloth. Even down to the body finishes, there’s a nice quartet of whites/greys/blacks but forget it if want a splash of colour in your driveway.
The point is that, on gear and niceties as a measure of value, the Grand Vitara Sport is glass half full or half empty affair depending on the buyer’s particular wants and whims.
The same goes for the interior design and packaging. Frankly, Blind Freddy could see the ‘air of Nougties’ that anchors the cabin styling back in last decade, though what it lacks in contemporary flash it makes up for in honest simplicity and unfussy ease of use. The surfaces in most areas are plasticky yet hardy enough to cop collateral damage from dirty weekend activities.
The 6.1-inch touchscreen system, its Suna-based navigation, the various infotainment support systems (hands-free Bluetooth, iPod connectivity, MP3 player) and simple driver’s display screen – none of it cutting edge in form or functionality though everything does what it says on the box in workmanlike fashion without foible or fuss.
You don’t sink down into the seats with the sort of sporting pretension as, say, Mazda's CX-5, but that’s half of the charm. The glasshouse is generous, the A-pillars are thin, and outward visibility forward and rearward is clear and superb. For sheer shoulder width, it’s not the widest cabin in its segment by some measure, but that’ll mainly concern those space-chasers wanting as much interior volume their money can buy. In fact, the five-door Grand Vitara seems slim-hipped enough to slip more easily into tight perpendicular car spaces than many of its broader-framed rivals might.
Shoehorning three adults into the second is more ambitious than attempting a similar feat in, say, a Tucson, though it’s comfortable enough four-up despite fairly tight knee room. Another key consideration is that the 398-litre boot space might struggle under the expectations of prams, bags and associated addenda that go along with young parenthood encumbered by babies or toddlers. Stowing the 60:40 split-fold rear seats swells cargo space to 758L below the window line (or a total of 1386L to the cabin ceiling) but the high-set rear seat does present a staggered floor that makes loading baulky objects awkward.
Gone are the anaemic 2.0-litre four and the lusty if thirsty 2.7-litre V6 petrol engines as well as the 1.9-litre diesel and any Grand Vitara you like gets a common 2.4-litre naturally aspirated petrol four. The engine does have variable valve timing to help liberate a little extra low-end energy and top-end breathing, though its 122kW/225Nm is hardly a heroic set of output figures.
It’s the peak torque’s entry point way up at 3800rpm that feels to stymie the engine on the move, as there’s little in the way of useable energy below it. Nor is there much pulling power near the 6000rpm power peak. Around town, you really need to work the unit hard in stop-start traffic or when getting a hustle on, the engine’s narrow speed spot demanding continuous rowing through the gearbox’s five forward speeds to keep the whole procession on the boil.
The gearbox isn’t the slickest operator, but it’s the clutch pedal that frustrates more, as the pedal throw is long with a vague take-up point that makes smooth driving around town a bit of a concentrated chore. Claimed average fuel consumption is 8.7L/100kms for the manual – the four-speed auto is a whole litre-per-hundred thirstier – though even treating the throttle with moderation it’s tough to get fuel reading to drop out of the mid-10s.
Of the manual and automatic options, the former has a 150kg-higher and reasonably decent 1850kg braked towing capacity, while examples with either transmission type is rated at 750kg unbraked.
The Sport sits fractionally higher (up 12mm, 200mm total) than the front-drive Navigator variant though this hasn’t tamed what is, by today’s soft-roading standards at least, a fairly taut and fidgety ride from the fully independent suspension. It’s far from terrible though, on patchy sealed roads, it’s not nearly as cosseting and isolating as its segment's leading lights with their pliant tuned-for-Oz damping. In everything from cornering grip to ease of use of the hydraulically-assisted steering, the Suzuki is capable and satisfactory rather than outstanding or noteworthy.
Given its much touted 4x4 capabilities, there’s no surprise that the Sport is a little more convincing when you lock the four-wheel-drive system into high or low range and give it the berries on the loose and slippery stuff. Locked in low range in particular, the engine torque is robust and its response to throttle input is more immediate, which is handy for its 1605kg (kerb) heft up steep inclines and over large rocks, where the ride height and descent approach (29deg), departure (27deg) and ramp breakover (19deg) angles provide surprisingly good clearance.
There's generous amount of articulation provided by the multilink rear end also helps to maximize traction on the loose stuff, which is handy given that the Sport sits on road-type rubber. The independent suspension also helps the chassis track true through ruts at low speed, and set to High Lock the handling is confident and predictable at a brisk clip across marble-like gravel.
So the Grand Vitara Sport delivers most confidently in the area in which it promises the most. As a low-outlay off-roader for the adventurous types and the young at heart, it’s a pretty compelling toy with a huge slice of real-world sensibility and practicality built in for good measure. Its specialty isn’t really what a great many medium SUV buyers are shopping for – comfy conveyance for the school or supermarket run – but so be it. It’s a big segment with plenty of room for variety.
However, the old-school charm the Grand Vitara serves up makes it feel increasingly old hat and agricultural with each passing year of its release, perhaps not to the point of irrelevance but time's march is making this ageing generation's relevancy tougher to qualify.
"The majority of its competitors have largely left it behind, " we wrote back in June 2012 at the debut of this current facelift. And it's not looking likely to close the gap any time soon without a major revamp or replacement.
Thus, it's an uphill crawl for this Grand Battler to rise above its ratings from performances past. In critiquing its holistic SUV goodness, the Grand Vitara has long been a perennial low scorer in CarAdvice ratings past: in the last three reviews it rated one six and a pair of fives out of tens.
That said, none were petrol four-wheel drives wearing a Sport badge. As perhaps the best all-rounder variant of its crop, and at a seductive price point at that, a bump up to 6.5 out of ten is a deserving one.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos