The Grand Vitara faces the same challenge as all Suzuki models: It competes against popular models from better-known brands. But this compact SUV has plenty of standard features at a reasonable price — especially the base model, which starts at less than $20,000.
Appearance: The Grand Vitara has a traditional compact SUV design; there's even an enclosed spare-tire holder on the tailgate. Some might say the look is dated in this age of stylish crossovers, but it evokes a certain sturdiness — hey, it works for Toyota's RAV4. (Peter parked next to an older-generation Grand Vitara — now that's dated.)
Performance: The 3.2-liter, 230-horsepower V-6 has plenty of power, giving it the extra oomph that a lot of four-cylinder SUVs lack. But the transmission is a five-speed in a six-speed world. The Grand Vitara's best feature may be its four-mode, full-time all-wheel-drive (standard in all but the base model), as well as electronic stability and traction control. That all makes for a controlled ride. Lyra liked the way it stayed planted on turns in the rain, but the ride around town felt a bit rough. You can even do some light off-roading: The Grand Vitara has low-range gearing, plus hill hold and decent controls. But the ground clearance isn't much (7.9 inches). The mileage is only okay — blame the V-6 — at 17 city and 23 mpg.
Interior: Our tester's standard features include keyless entry/start, power heated mirrors, fog lamps, intermittent wipers and a power sunroof. The five-passenger cabin has some uneven materials: The faux wood trim, for instance, looks like a laminate countertop. The front seats are heated and low-end leather, but we found them and the headrests stiff. Still, Peter didn't want for headroom. The Garmin touchscreen GPS is not built into the dash, but sits on top of it in a holder like in some other Suzukis and can be a reach. The plus: It's removable. The minus: It's a small screen, and the unit can distract your view out the windshield. (The GPS does have MSN Direct services: real-time traffic, low-price gas finder, news, weather, stocks.) We also found a significant blind spot in the rear. The side-opening rear door is great, particularly for short people who can't reach the lift-up hatch. But like on some other Japanese cars, the hinge is on the right, meaning the door blocks access to the curb. The gauges are simple, large and set in faux aluminum trim. Lyra found the red digital readouts on the console display hard to read. There are rear cup holders on the floor, which are okay for adults who can reach them, but not practical for little kids.
Our 3 favorites
Gauges: Large, simple and easy to read.
Rear space: There is below-deck storage for small items in the roomy cargo area.
4WD: In rainy Florida, it can come in handy.
Quick entry: It's nice not having to fumble with keys in the rain.
Spare-tire cover: Nice finish with a hard case for spare.
V-6: Merging onto highway is easy.
The bottom line: Our tester was the top-line Grand Vitara Limited, but it still comes in at about $27,000. The 2WD 4-cylinder base model goes for less than $20,000. The standard features and price make it worth a look.