Thumbs Up: A lot of content for the price.
Thumbs Down: Plastic upholstery, marginal fuel economy
Buy This Car If: You need a small SUV on a tight budget
If you’re shopping for a compact SUV or crossover, chances are good you’re looking at the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV 4. While both start at a reasonable price, by the time you add in options like a navigation system, they can quickly jump beyond the reach of a family on a tight budget. What if we told you there was another Japanese SUV alternative, with a modest sticker price and a seven-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty?
That alternative would be the Suzuki Grand Vitara, a compact SUV that comes in both rear-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive, and gives you amenities like power windows and door locks, fog lamps, steering wheel audio controls, keyless entry and a voice-activated navigation system, all for a price that comes in around $23,000 for the RWD Ultimate Adventure model. Base models, which still come reasonably equipped and include the same warranty coverage, start at just under $20,000. It’s a good looking SUV, too, and Suzuki has done an admirable job of making a box-on-box crossover stand out from the crowd.
Up front, there’s a black chrome grille and integrated fog lamps, which aren’t usually included in this price point. From the side, the Suzuki gets mirror-integrated turn signals, 18-inch “smoked alloy” wheels (on Ultimate Adventure models, at least), a blacked-out B-pillar and dark tinted glass for rear seat passengers. Out back, buyers get a full-size spare with a hard cover, a low floor height for easy cargo loading and a limo-tinted rear window to keep valuables out of sight. Overall, the Grand Vitara looks a lot nicer from the outside than you’d expect for the price tag.
Inside, Ultimate Adventure models come with “water resistant, 2-tone” seats, which are one of my few complaints about the Grand Vitara. While the front seats are comfortable enough for even reasonably long trips, the vinyl material isn’t pleasing to the touch, and smells like, well, vinyl. Cloth seats would be much preferred, even if they added a few dollars to the Grand Vitara’s price tag.
Rear seat passengers get a reasonable amount of leg room and copious amounts of head room, which you’d expect in a box-on-box SUV. Rear seats are relatively flat, but feature reclining backs and are comfortable enough for carpooling or day-to-day errands. Like the front seats, the rears are covered in the same heavy-duty vinyl material; on the plus side, it’s very easy to clean, even if you have young children with perpetually sticky hands.
The dash does use a lot of hard plastic, but the design is still pleasing to the eye thanks to a blend of shapes and materials. Aluminum colored plastic is used to trim the center stack, and it integrates well with the aluminum colored trim used on vents and doors. Despite the use of hard plastic, the Grand Vitara didn’t emit a single squeak or rattle during my time behind the wheel, which leads me to believe it’s screwed together with more care than most low-cost cars get.
Instruments are designed with a bit of stylish flair, and feature a center mounted speedometer flanked by a tachometer and gas / temperature gauge. All three are contained in round pods, trimmed in the same aluminum as the rest of the Grand Vitara’s interior.
Suzuki takes a novel and functional approach to navigation. Rather than building in a permanent nav system, the Grand Vitara includes a voice-controlled, portable Garmin navigation system that resides in a dedicated hatch atop the dash. On the down side, it isn’t as large as nav systems in competitive vehicles, but good luck trying to use those to navigate city streets on foot after you park the car.
Although Suzuki used to offer a V-6 option for the Grand Vitara, that was discontinued for the 2011 model year. The sole engine choice for rear-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive cars is a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder, which produces 166 horsepower and 162 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s mated to a four speed automatic (although a six-speed manual is available, but only on base models), which doesn’t help the Grand Vitara’s acceleration or fuel economy. Not that 0 to 60 performance is important in this segment, but the automatic-equipped Grand Vitara will take over ten seconds to reach the mile-per-minute mark, which is slower than most rivals. Worse, the four-speed automatic only returns 19 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. That’s V-6 fuel economy, but with four-cylinder power.
On the road, the Grand Vitara is quieter and more comfortable than you’d expect. You won’t confuse it for a luxury crossover, but you can easily carry on a conversation at normal volumes at 70 miles per hour. There’s some wind noise, but I’d call it on par with what you’d get from other vehicles in this segment.
If you occasionally go off the beaten track, the Grand Vitara will likely prove more capable that cute-utes from competitive brands. Suzuki has opted to give the Grand Vitara a generous amount of ground clearance, and narrow front and rear overhangs mean the Suzuki can pick its way over or around most (reasonably sized) obstacles. When equipped with four-wheel-drive (which includes both a high and low range), the Grand Vitara should prove remarkably adept at getting you from place to place, regardless of road conditions. In fact, the Suzuki Samurai, the Grand Vitara’s great-grandfather, has amassed something of a cult following as a go-anywhere, cheap-to-run off-road rig. With genes like that, you can bet the Grand Vitara will be capable, too.
My Suzuki-provided 2012 Grand Vitara Ultimate Adventure edition had a base price of $23,094, including destination charge. Options on my press-fleet tester included all-weather floor mats ($125), first aid kit and cargo mat ($115), premium metallic paint ($130) and Bluetooth phone integration ($250) for an as-tested price of $23,714. For comparison, a similarly equipped Toyota RAV4 Sport FWD would sticker at $26,888, while a comparable Honda CR-V EX would list at $25,005 (and doesn’t include a nav system).