Suzuki used to be among the few manufacturers of small sport-utilities. It's now a crowded field, with the recently introduced Hyundai Santa Fe, Ford Escape, and Mazda Tribute, along with the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Today, consumers have a lot of choices.
Suzuki's Grand Vitara still shines when it comes to serious off-road driving as it's equipped with a two-speed transfer case, body-on-frame construction, and a suspension designed to go off road. The Santa Fe, Escape, Tribute, and the redesigned Toyota RAV4 do not offer the type of equipment for real off-pavement adventures.
Together, Suzuki's Vitara and Grand Vitara are available with four- and six-cylinder engines. There are two-door convertible and four-door wagon body styles, with either two- or part-time four-wheel drive. Changes for 2001 are minimal, and include redesigned front and rear bumpers, a new stereo system with larger, easier to manipulate controls, and a few more standard interior features.
The Grand Vitara sits high off the ground. This stance, along with its body cladding, gives it a more rugged appearance than the other small utilities. The Grand Vitara appears fairly large, but it's slightly smaller than the wagon-like Honda CR-V.
Getting into the Grand Vitara is easier than climbing into the bigger utilities. Once there, the driver has a commanding view of the road. From the driver's seat, that great view is clouded only by a couple of minor quirks. The steering wheel offers a good range of tilt adjustment, but it is angled slightly upward from the bottom. The front seats offer good support, but are a bit on the narrow side. Last year's tiny stereo controls are replaced this year with a larger unit that's much easier to use.
Grand Vitara offers plenty of passenger and cargo space. There's enough headroom for a cowboy hat. Rear-seat legroom is good, considering the Suzuki's smaller proportions, and the seats seem to work better than those in front do.
There's a sizable cargo area behind the rear seats; flipping them forward reveals a huge cargo capacity. The Grand Vitara's rear door swings out to the right, like a Toyota RAV4, which is not ideal for curbside loading. We would have appreciated a cargo cover to hide packages from roving eyes.
Warm gray plastics and tweedy seat covers in the Grand Vitara look durable and pleasing. Suzuki has a reputation for vehicles that come tightly screwed together, and our Grand Vitara gave us no reason to doubt its quality. The paint was lustrous, and the body-on-frame chassis produced no squeaks and rattles.
The V6 engine is responsive; a small tip of the throttle and the Grand Vitara lunges forward. The Escape and Tribute offer more power with their 200-horsepower V6, but the CR-V (146 horsepower), and the RAV4 (148 horsepower) have less. While bricklike aerodynamics and a hefty curb weight take the edge off as speeds rise, the Grand Vitara's 160 pound-feet of torque makes for responsive performance in city driving. With four valves per cylinder, the V6 revs smoothly and builds power quickly. Peak torque arrives at 4000 rpm, peak horsepower at 6000 rpm. Yet the Grand Vitara JLX+ can get 19 mpg in the city, 21 on the highway.
The five-speed manual gearbox shifts smoothly with a light and direct feel. The tall shift lever with its rubber accordion boot is one of the few reminders that you're driving a truck. The clutch pedal engages a little high in its travel, but the pedal effort is light, so it works well in stop-and-go traffic.
Suzuki has done a great job of making the Grand Vitara's body structure strong and rattle-free. It seems sturdy enough to take serious on- and off-road punishment. Yet the Grand Vitara is fairly quiet, without a lot of rolling noise from the drivetrain or suspension. The engine and transmission have a slight whine that grows as speeds increase, but it barely requires the driver to speak up.
Given our druthers, the Grand Vitara's steering is the first thing we'd change. Off-roaders need some play on center to absorb kickback from large bumps. But perhaps the Grand Vitara has a bit too much of that play. On the road, its steering slack is noticeable, and takes some attention to keep on the straight and narrow.
Suzuki's available four-wheel-drive system comes with a low range for extremely heavy muck. The full-time all-wheel drive systems from Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, and Subaru do not offer a low range. The Grand Vitara is surprisingly capable off road, thanks to nearly eight inches of ground clearance and a short wheelbase.
Suzuki's Grand Vitara is a very solid effort. Sophisticated for a small truck, the Grand Vitara offers cabin room for four adults in comfort, a simple four-wheel-drive system, and a snappy V6 engine.
Weekend thrill seekers who need a tall wagon to ferry kayaks to remote places will groove on the Grand Vitara. But it also serves well for those who simply want an all-purpose vehicle with a strong dose of SUV flair.
Grand Vitara works best as an economy commuter for active outdoors people. Monday through Friday it can squirt between bigger SUVs with the nimble responses of a compact sedan. On the weekends, it can be stuffed with outdoor gear.
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