Tuesday, October 16, 2007

2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara




There is nothing particularly grand about the 2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara--it's a small SUV (more properly called a crossover these days) in the same class as the Honda CR-V and the Mitsubishi Outlander. Simply calling it a Vitara would make more sense, especially with Suzuki's larger XL7 in the model lineup. But aspirations aside, the Grand Vitara feels like a well-built little truck.

We had a few complaints about the construction of the XL7, but found no issues with the Grand Vitara. The styling of the Grand Vitara follows the XL7 in its bland but functional theme. Although the Grand Vitara lacks the angular headlights of the XL7 that we liked, it does have the same hood design, which we don't like. The hood sits over the front of the car like an ill-fitting cap. The interior configuration is typical for a small crossover, with two rows of seating including rear seats that fold down to maximize cargo space.

Very little in the way of tech is available in the Grand Vitara. Our test car came with top-of-the-line Luxury trim, which includes a premium audio system. Neither navigation nor Bluetooth cell phone integration is available. However, the vehicle does come with keyless start, a controversial feature we are seeing more frequently, even on low-end cars.

Test the tech: A day at the racesBecause we had the Grand Vitara during our local automotive journalists' association media event, we decided to test out the car by taking it to the Laguna Seca racetrack. To clarify, we wouldn't be driving the Grand Vitara on the track, just using it for the three-hour drive down and back. During the trip, we would evaluate whether it's the right kind of car to bring to races or sporting events.

The most grueling part of our run down to Laguna Seca from San Francisco was Highway 17, a heavily trafficked, four-lane divided road winding through the hills between San Jose and Santa Cruz. The Grand Vitara proved very capable in climbing the grades and taking the hard corners on this stretch. With a heavy foot on the gas, we were never wanting for power and could easily keep up with traffic.

Because navigation isn't available on the Grand Vitara, we relied on road signs and our incomplete memory of how to get to the track. Unfortunately, this meant missing the entrance to Laguna Seca and having to backtrack a bit.

When we tried to set a barbecue on the tailgate, it slid off and hit the pavement.
During the day at Laguna Seca, we tried the Grand Vitara out as a vehicle for a parking-lot tailgate party, but because the rear door swings out to the side instead of swinging down, it was inappropriate for this purpose. And at high volume, its stereo makes the speakers rattle and hum, further evidence that it's not really the car for a tailgate party.

For this road trip, the Grand Vitara got us to our destination just fine, although a paper map might have helped. But once there, the Grand Vitara didn't add anything to the event. We were more inclined to use it as storage for our bags and leave it parked.

In the cabinThe interior of our Luxury trim Grand Vitara looked better than we expected for a car in this price range. The materials seemed nice, and the fit was good. With the Luxury trim, the car gets seats with some leather panels. The stereo is nicely integrated into the center stack, as are the cruise and audio control buttons into the spokes of the steering wheel.

One of the two tech features available in the cabin is the stereo, a seven-speaker system with a six-disc changer, a premium upgrade in our test car from the standard four-speaker system. Along with MP3 and WMA capability, the stereo is prepped for XM Satellite Radio. An iPod interface is available as a separate option.

We found the interface for navigating MP3 and WMA CDs serviceable but basic. We could easily choose folders by turning the right-hand knob, but any tracks at the root directory of a CD can't be accessed. Also, the display cuts off track and artist information, with no means of scrolling.
While the audio quality was decent, it didn't blow us away. Separation was good, but this system didn't really reach the highs or the bass we would have liked. Its subwoofer was subtle, barely making itself known. What disturbed us most was how the speakers hummed and rattled at high volume.

This key never had to leave our pocket during our week with the car.
The other tech feature in the cabin is the keyless start feature. Similar to other cars we've seen lately, you can keep the plastic key fob in your pocket. The doors unlock with the push of a button on the handle, and the car starts by turning a plastic handle where the key would normally go. We found this system very convenient, especially when we had our arms full of luggage. But there are security concerns with this type of key, as CNET security editor Robert Vamosi points out in his column, "Gone in 60 seconds--the high-tech version".

Under the hoodBehind the wheel, the Grand Vitara feels pretty solid to drive, but it doesn't distinguish itself in any appreciable way. Its 2.7-liter V-6 engine makes 185 horsepower, enough to push the car easily along and even attack long highway grades with vigor. But the fuel economy isn't anything to write home about; the EPA gave our two-wheel-drive version with automatic transmission 19mpg in the city and 24mpg on the highway. In our testing, which was biased heavily toward freeway driving at speeds around 70mph, we got 19.5mpg.

The shifter has nice wood accents that we wouldn't expect to see in a Suzuki, but we would have preferred a sixth gear.

Our test car came with a five-speed automatic transmission; a five-speed manual is also available, as is all-wheel drive. These transmission choices seem a little archaic by today's standards and account for the mediocre fuel economy during freeway driving. Although the automatic transmission doesn't have a manual gear selection mode, it does feature a couple of low-range options.

We didn't expect great handling from this car; it quickly feels top-heavy in hard cornering and is tuned with a bit of understeer. But it exhibits similar characteristics in this area to its Outlander and CR-V competitors. It does have a good range of road-holding gear, including stability and traction control.

For emissions, it meets California's Air Resources Board's minimal LEV II requirement.

The good:
The 2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara feels like a small, well-built SUV and comes with an MP3- and WMA-capable six-disc changer. Its keyless start system is very convenient.

The bad:
The Grand Vitara doesn't distinguish itself on the tech front, offering neither navigation nor Bluetooth cell phone integration. Its transmission options only offer five speeds.

The bottom line:
In too many ways, the 2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara is average, though it feels solid and will get you from point A to point B in good shape. As a tech car, it gets outstripped by the competition.

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