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July 29, 2012

2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara

by Mark Savage

Suzuki finally earning some respect as quality improves

For years Suzuki’s cars and small utes didn’t garner much respect, but you have to earn respect, and NOW Suzuki is getting some.

That’s after its fine Kizashi sedan and SX4 small crossover raised awareness in the brand by being well designed and executed, with quality more on par with other entry-level and value brands. Another winner is its Grand Vitara, a small sport-ute that’s fun to drive, simple and delivers excellent value.

My silver tester was the mid-level Ultimate Adventure model with 4WD. And even with its impressive sounding name, it lists at $23,949, including delivery. This is where entry-level sport-utes used to be priced and what some, like Jeep’s Liberty started out to be.

But most cars and utes move upscale shortly after their introduction and end up averaging a lot closer to $30 grand than $20 grand, where younger buyers and the less affluent can possibly afford new wheels. Grand Vitara easily delivers on the affordability end.

First, if you need a lower price tag, the base model starts at $19,499. All the utes come with the same 2.4-liter I4 that produces an ample 166 horsepower. That compares quite favorably to others in the class and will get you up to highway speeds without any worries.

In fact, I was surprised at how easily this 3,610-lb. ute with just a 4-speed automatic gets up to speed. Many small cars and utes feature 5 and 6-speed automatics now, mainly to boost fuel efficiency. But this has the older tranny and it works just fine from a performance standpoint.

Note too that the four-wheel drive is full time, so you’ve got that helping with traction, should we ever get any rain in the Midwest again to lubricate the streets. Traction and stability control are standard, along with four-wheel ventilated disc brakes.

The Grand Vitara rides on a 103.9-inch wheelbase, which is long enough to give it a decent ride on crumbling roads and a fine ride on newer asphalt. MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link suspension in back, along with stout 18-inch Dunlop tires give it a well controlled ride, certainly as good as some pricier utes.

Handling is good too with only mild body lean in hard cornering and the ute’s steering is fairly responsive and light enough to give this a fun, youthful feel. Steering effort is moderate and a friend tells me he had gone off road with his, thanks to its 7.4-inch ground clearance.

My only disappointment from a functional standpoint is mediocre gas mileage. I got 21.5 mpg in about a 50-50 mix of city and highway. The EPA rates this at 19 mpg city and 23 highway. This is where a 5- or 6-speed automatic transmission might help boost mileage a bit, but also would likely push the ute’s price tag higher.

Inside the Suzuki’s interior is simple, but don’t mistake that for cheap. The dash and doors are black leather-like textured soft-touch material with the doors getting cloth inserts on the lower portion. Seats are black and gray leather with a dark purple to navy blue insert for the main portion of the seat. Wouldn’t be my color choice, but it looked youthful, not cheap.

The plastic trim has a pewter-like appearance on the doors, center stack and gauges, of which there are three round ones right in front of the driver. Again, these are easy to see and read, exactly what most of us prefer. The only slightly different look here is an MPG bar in the gauge, just below the speedometer. It tells you your current mpg, not your average.

Seating is all manually controlled, with a pump handle on the driver’s seat for height adjustment. Suzuki seats are on the firm side, but comfortable with moderate contouring. This model also has a tilt steering wheel with audio and cruise controls on the hub and there are one-speed seat heaters on the console.

Radio and climate controls are simple, with six actual buttons for radio channels, no touchscreen, and two medium-sized knobs for volume and tuning. Imagine that! Two knobs control the climate system with a red digital readout between them to show you what your settings are, simple and effective and yes, there’s an automatic setting.

Grand Vitara is comfortable for four with easy passenger access to the rear seats. Those are a 2/3-1/3 split and you can adjust the rear seat backs angle. You have a generous 28.4 cubic feet of space with the rear seats up and 70.8 cubic feet (a bit below average) when the seats are folded forward. The folding isn’t difficult, but you must tether the seats to the front seat headrests to keep the second row seats from folding back down. That seems a bit awkward.

Along that same line, there is no hatch in back, but a rear opening door to load cargo. That is less convenient than a hatch, especially in a crowded parking lot. I also like that a hatch protects you somewhat from the weather when loading.

The full-size spare tire is housed on that back door, which gives this a more utilitarian look than most utes today. This one did not obscure my vision out the back window, and did not rattle at all, as some similarly mounted wheels have in the past.

Other interior features include sun visors with extenders, a key start, but with remote fob for unlocking and a few optional items, best of which was the thick rubber all-weather floor mats for $125. The silver paint also costs $130 extra and a first aid kit & thick rubber rear cargo mat is $115 while Bluetooth with on-screen graphics costs $250. That pushes the final price to just $24,569, quite the value.

Standard is a portable Garmin navigation device that also includes active traffic and weather info. There’s a storage and plug-in area atop the dash. So you can fold it down if you don’t need to use the navigation, or even take it off its mount and carry it with you, if needed. Other pluses include automatic lights, fog lights, automatic locking wheel hubs and a limited slip differential, the later too being helpful if you head off road.

Note too that the Grand Vitara comes with a tire pressure monitoring system, side curtain airbags with a rollover sensor and, to help resale value, a 100,000-mile, 7-year transferable powertrain warranty.

This isn’t a fancy vehicle, just a fun, economical one with some practical features that make it a great first car for young buyers, or a more entertaining commuter for those needing a second vehicle in the family… and it’s not afraid to look like a classic small ute.

Fast Stats: 2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara Ultimate Adventure 4WD

Made in: Iwata, Japan

Engine: 2.4-liter I4, 166 hp

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Weight: 3,610 lbs.

Wheelbase: 103.9 in.

Cargo: 28.4 cu.ft. (70.8 cu.ft. 2nd row seats down)

MPG: 19/23

Base Price: $23,949

Dealer’s Price: $23,134

Major Options:

All-weather floor mats, $125

First aid kit & cargo mat, $115

Premium metallic paint, $130

Bluetooth w/screen graphics, $250

Delivery: Included in base price

Test Vehicle: $24,569

Sources: Suzuki, www.autos.yahoo.com

Photos: Courtesy ofSuzuki

Hits: Nimble handling and good ride for small ute. Nice interior with easy dash layout, heated seats, Garmin, visors with extenders, all at a modest price. Even could take this off road some with AWD and high ground clearance.

Misses: Funky second row seats fold forward, but must be tethered to front seat headrests to stay folded up. Rear door opens out, not up like normal hatch.

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