Suzuki Grand Vitara – The “Soft Roader” Gets Serious

The cheeky little Suzuki Vitara was once very popular and especially appealed to younger drivers. I remember college kids who had a bit of money used to buy them and then “pimp” them up to the required standard which usually consisted of enormously oversized wheels and tyres accompanied by some kind of amusing spare wheel cover on the back. Then there was the obligatory sound system which emitted a blue incandescent glow and of course needed to be pumping out the latest hip-hop tune.

I’m not sure what the Suzuki executives back in Japan would have made of all this. I guess they would have just been glad of the sales but for whatever reason the plug was pulled on the Vitara and Suzuki concentrated its efforts on the higher spec Grand Vitara instead. Suzuki must have been aware that along with other baby off-roaders such as the Toyota Rav 4 for example, their cars were rarely used off-road (the cheaper Jimny was always the more favoured mud-plugger) popular with farmers and safari parks alike. I remember when my car broke down in the lion enclosure at Longleat safari park and I was saved from becoming an appetiser by a man in a zebra striped Jimny.

The motoring expression “soft roader” was born out of a desire by people to drive vehicles that were designed for off-road conditions but ended up in our towns and cities. It still provokes a heated debate amongst those in favour and those who are opposed to such behaviour.

Unperturbed though by the anti- 4×4 lobby Suzuki introduced an all new Grand Vitara in 2005 and I recently decided to have a closer inspection of one at a cheap Suzuki dealer.

This third generation model is quite a step up from the model it replaced. It is stylish, better to drive, and compares well on price and specification to models offered by Kia, Hyundai and Nissan.

There are two petrol engines a 1.6 VVT with 105bhp and a 140bhp 2.0-litre petrol. Both offer adequate performance and cruise well at speed, but can suffer from a lack of pulling power between 30-60mph, which can make overtaking a drawn-out affair. A 1.9 DDiS diesel, supplied by Renault, with 130bhp became available from late-2005.

The steering is sharp and body roll is much more under control when cornering, even at speed. The brakes are positive and responsive. As with most off-road vehicles the gear change can be a little notchy at times, but otherwise there’s a precise feel to the changes and the ride is much better than the old Grand Vitara which was rather unsophisticated and a little uncomfortable.

The Grand Vitara is longer and wider than before and the interior styling is good. There is plenty of headroom and rear legroom on the five-door, the space in the rear of the three-door is a bit tight though. Road and wind noise are kept to reasonable levels, but engine noise can get intrusive under heavy acceleration.

The wide opening tailgate and high roof means that large and awkwardly-shaped objects are easily accommodated, although loading can be quite tricky as it’s quite high off the ground. The load area on the five-door is good, while the boot space offered by the three-door is acceptable for a couple, rather than a family. The seats tumble and fold, which gives even the three-door near van-like practicality. Both have a hidden storage bin under the boot floor which is useful for hiding your valuables. Inside there’s a large glove box, centre storage bin and bottle holders in the door pockets.

The Grand Vitara gained an impressive four star rating from Euro NCAP for occupant safety and standard safety equipment is good. You’ll find ABS and electronic brake force distribution, dual front, side, and front and rear curtain airbags. All cars have remote central locking and an immobiliser so it should still be there when you return to it.

Like many Japanese manufacturers, Suzuki has a reputation for mechanical durability and like the successful Swift supermini, the Grand Vitara has been designed and engineered for European buyers who now expect a quality interior with a high-grade finish. There are no reports of any reliability problems so you should not encounter anything untoward.

The Grand Vitara has proved to be a worthy adversary against its counterparts from the other 4×4 stables.