The Right Stuff
- Ulysses Ang () - December 22, 2010 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Close your eyes for a minute and imagine these in an automobile: a longitudinally-mounted four-cylinder engine, rear wheel drive, 17-inch alloys and vented disc brakes all around. These ingredients can certainly pass as the prerequisites for a sports car, but believe it or not, this is the same stuff found in the Suzuki Grand Vitara. But before you start thinking of doing drift moves with the Grand Vitara, it’s not meant to be pummeled on the race track. It’s designed and engineered to be comfortable and competent for the everyday drive; traits which are much more important than lap times.

The Suzuki Grand Vitara has gone through numerous nips and tucks since its 2005 introduction. When compact SUVs with six-cylinder engines were the “in-thing”, Suzuki plopped in a 2.7-liter V6 and then a 3.2-liter unit under the hood. Cool as these engines maybe, with the gasoline prices at astronomical levels, Suzuki dropped these gasoline hungry engines for something that can deliver more km/Ls: a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. What’s more, they shunned the all-wheel drive configuration and went for the really basic stuff: two-wheel drive. In short, the Grand Vitara has successfully transformed itself from something quirky to something much more mainstream.

I’ve always wanted to try the 6-cylinder Grand Vitara, so forgive me for my lack of enthusiasm with the 4-cylinder model. I understand that the move was needed in these fuel conscious times, but 166 horsepower certainly pales in comparison to 230 horsepower. Still, I have to admit, I was quite satisfied at how the 2.4-liter unit performed. It does a good job of hauling the Grand Vitara’s 1,620-kilogram frame. It’s responsive from the get-go, plus it’s quick witted enough for those overtaking maneuvers. That said, the engine is somewhat vocal and throaty as the revs build up and the automatic gearbox can get confused if you’re switching from “docile” to “aggressive” driving. And the lack of a fifth gear (the Grand Vitara’s gearbox is only a 4-speed unit) means it starts to lose steam once it reaches triple digit speeds. Fortunately, the Grand Vitara comes with a “Power” mode which keeps the revs higher and dents its fuel economy figures. During my drive in the city, the Grand Vitara averaged about 6.7 km/L with the “Power” mode on, 7.3 km/L with it off. Those figures are comparable to the likes of the Ford Escape (6.9 km/L), Toyota RAV4 (7.2 km/L), but are paltry compared to the Honda CR-V (12.07 km/L) and Hyundai Tucson (8.3 km/L).

The merely competent drivetrain is mated perhaps to one of the Grand Vitara’s bright spots: the chassis. Despite the chiseled appearance, the Grand Vitara actually uses technology similar to those found in Land Rovers. The old ladder-on-frame layout is gone, and in its place is a unique uni-body with a built-in frame chassis. Theoretically, this set-up reduces weight while maintaining the toughness of a ladder-on-frame set-up. Though I had no way to test chassis flex, it had the excellent ability to absorb the sharpest of road ruts. It can ride through the deepest of Manila’s potholes with the poise and comfort for a mid-sized or full-sized SUV. Almost nothing can unsettle this car and its occupants. The overall ride’s on the stiff side and passengers may complain of some jitteriness at low speeds, but it’s not discontenting.

Wrapped around the chassis is a clean and timeless body that’s still as fresh as it first came out in 2005. From the outside, no one can complain about the angular lines. Throughout the car, it’s filled with the nice design touches, some of which have become the norm in modern crossovers like the chunky lamps and strong upright profile. Perhaps the only thing that dates the Grand Vitara’s styling is the rear door-mounted spare tire cover emblazoned with the word, “Suzuki”.

Inside, the Grand Vitara’s cabin is stylish without being over the top. It’s sporty all around without being too dreary. In terms of space, the Grand Vitara’s just right – not too small, but not too big. It reminds me of compact SUVs from a generation ago, with enough space for your wife and maybe two kids. However, if you need to fit the yaya you may want to consider something bigger. The cargo bay opens up traditionally, via a sideways opening door as opposed to a vertical hatch. Again, this betrays the Grand Vitara’s age, but it’s a joy for those with garages with low ceilings. The deeply recessed gauges are lovely too – easy to read and a perfect fit to the Grand Vitara’s cabin. Suzuki even managed to fit a multi-information display panel in there as well. The careful placement of the metallic accents is a nice touch too.

The excellent gauges and metallic accents are still not enough to distract you from the rest of the Grand Vitara’s cabin which is rather plain, especially given the P 1.27-million price tag. It’s solid and all, but there are no hints of luxury in here – the steering wheel and gear lever are finished in urethane and not leather; and the audio system itself lacks any external audio interface. Plus, the speakers themselves aren’t up to par as well – Sting sounds like he’s singing from a well. These shortcomings are a shame since the ergonomics are good and the driving position is comfortable. The overall visibility can’t be faulted too.

In the realm of compact crossovers, we have to remember that the competition’s fierce. Some have gone towards the value-for-money route; others, performance; and others still, comfort and refinement. The Suzuki Grand Vitara lies somewhere in the middle of these traits – ultimately ending up as a jack of all trades, but a master of none. The Grand Vitara certainly has the right stuff going for it, but Suzuki needs to inject something different to make it stand out of the crowd. Perhaps the return of the V6 would help?

The Good

Clean and chiseled good looks.

Built like a Land Rover.

Manageable exterior size.

The Bad

Throaty engine and easily confused transmission.

In this day and age, no iPod jack.

Not a spot of luxury inside.

The Verdict

The right ingredients in a compact crossover, if only they would give it more luxury amenities.

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