Cast your mind back to 1988. In the film world, Rain Man outgrossed Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Bruce Willis donned a white vest for the first ever Die Hard movie. In the pop charts, Cliff Richard claimed the Christmas number one with Mistletoe and Wine, whilst Milli Vanilli were still claiming to actually sing their own songs. The best breakthrough act of the Brit Awards were a little known Scottish group called Wet Wet Wet.
Margaret Thatcher became the longest serving prime minister of the century, Arthur Scargill was re-elected as the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers and Paddy Ashdown became the leader of the SDLP. Wimbledon beat Liverpool to win the FA Cup and Paul Gascoigne became the first ever £2m footballer.
In the car world, Austin Rover launched the first diesel-engined Montego, Vauxhall presented the third and final incarnation of the Cavalier and Jaguar unveiled the XJ220 at the British Motor Show.
The world was a very different place in 1988 and so much has changed in the subsequent 23 years. The Montego is dead, the Cavalier is an Insignia and the XJ220 is still worth less than its original purchase price.
But there’s one thing that has been with us since 1988 and that’s the Suzuki Vitara. OK, so it is now grown-up and become the Grand Vitara, but the thing is so old it could easily be called the Suzuki Grandfather. But credit where credit’s due – the Vitara is an automotive survivor. Heavens, they should be releasing a Bear Grylls edition out of respect.
Strangely, in all the years the Vitara has existed, I’ve never actually driven one. In fact, I don’t recall ever actually being driven in one. So my perception of the Vitara is drawn from hearsay and what I see on the road. I therefore immediately think of dodgy rhino-based spare wheel covers, questionable aftermarket alloys, tatty bodywork, fake tan and commercial radio. Don’t ask me why, I just do! But rather than listen to hearsay and my own preconception, I thought it was about time I drove one. So I did!
The Grand Vitara 4×4 in question was the 5-door, 2.4 litre petrol-engined SZ5 with a manual ‘box. The SZ5 means top spec and a price tage of £20,920. A diesel-engined equivalent is available for a hefty £23,250. At these prices, the Grand Vitara really needs to deliver, especially considering the competition. Take the Skoda Yeti for example. For a little shy of £24,000 you can have the range-topping 4×4 Yeti, complete with full Elegance trim and DSG gearbox. The Yeti didn’t exist when the Vitara was born and in many ways it highlights just how far the 4×4 market has moved on in 23 years. Having good off-road capabilities is no longer enough for buyers of modern 4x4s. They demand practicality for their family, frugality and excellent on-road manners. As previously discovered on PetrolBlog, the Yeti ticks all these boxes and more. The world has changed, has the Grand Vitara changed with it?
I’ll start with the on-road manners and if you get in and attempt to drive it like a Yeti, you’ll be very disappointed. The gear change is loose and next-to-impossible to shift with speed and precision. The ride is wallowing and on the first drive home on my local B-roads I began to realise what it must be like to spend your life as a nodding dog. The suspension never seems to settle so you end up lifting off the gas a little. In truth, this is no bad thing as the fuel consumption is woefully inadequate. Suzuki claims a combined MPG return of 31 mpg, but the dashboard readout displayed a figure of 24, which is closer to Suzuki’s extra-urban figure. On the day before I gave the car back I put £25 of normal unleaded into a nearly empty fuel tank. The resulting distance to refill figure was a mere 110 miles, which after 40 miles of B-road and city centre driving, had dropped to 40. The petrol-engined Grand Vitara isn’t frugal, so you might be better off opting for the diesel which offers a claimed combined MPG figure of 41.5. So not a great start for the Grand Vitara being neither particularly frugal or that good to drive.
Styling wise, the Grand Vitara is actually pretty good. The chiseled looks are unfussy and nicely proportioned and the removal of the boot-mounted spare wheel cleans things up a little. To my eyes at least, the Grand Vitara has grown old gracefully. Inside, the interior looks good too. In keeping with all modern Suzukis, the dashboard is very well laid out and the switchgear feels good to the touch. The black woodgrain centre console is of questionable taste and quality though, as is the chrome-effect gearstick surround which feels flimsy and cheap. But the leather seats are supportive, comfortable and give a decent high driving position.
Rear legroom for passengers is good without being exceptional, but there was plenty of room for two Recaro Young Sport child seats. The cabin feels light and airy, helped in part by the SZ5’s electric sunroof, and is generally a good place to be. You certainly don’t feel shortchanged but it falls someway short of the Skoda Yeti. Sadly, the Grand Vitara’s boot space is poor, especially considering the size of the vehicle. The 398 litres of space can be increased to 1,386 with the rear seats folded down, but if you’re carrying your family on holiday, this isn’t going to be too much help. It is also worth considering that not only have Suzuki removed the spare wheel from the outside of the boot, they’ve also removed it altogether. Instead you get a puncture repair kit. This is perhaps fine on a lightweight sports car, but not so good on a rugged, go-anywhere 4×4. Not in my book anyway.
Speaking of go-anywhere 4x4s – just how good is the Grand Vitara off-road? Well pretty good actually. On the loose tracks and lanes around my house it performed very well and you get the sense that the Grand Vitara feels most at home when the going gets tough. Unlike many of the Grand Vitara’s competitors, the car’s 4×4 system is permanently engaged so there’s no change in the car’s character when leaving the smooth tarmac and heading on to the rough stuff. This is an old school 4×4. There’s a dial on the dashboard that enables the driver to switch between four off-road modes. 4H is for everyday driving, giving a slight bias of torque to the rear wheels. 4H Lock is for off-road driving as it locks the centre diff. 4L is the low range setting, ideal for tougher conditions. N is for neutral and enables the Vitara to be towed out of the trouble. With a good set of tyres and bit of skill, the Grand Vitara is a highly capable off-road tool.
In truth, this is where the Grand Vitara makes sense. At the weekend, the car’s go anywhere, wipe clean approach is genuinely compelling. Throw your walking boots, wet weather gear and a picnic into the boot and off you go. It’ll take you high up on to the moors and when you’ve finished your pursuits, it’ll present a welcome return, especially with the heated seats, standard on the SZ5 model. Come next winter too, if we get another dump of snow, the Vitara will still be moving long after many cars have stopped.
But it is hard to recommend a Grand Vitara purely on the basis of the off-road capabilities and weekend use. For sure, when the Vitara was born, people didn’t place the same demands on the 4×4. The Vitara was practically the genesis of the SUV sector and don’t forget it pre-dates even the Land Rover Discovery. But time has moved on and today people expect so much more from their SUV. The closest many will get to going off-road will be mounting the kerb outside the school gates. Instead, buyers want their SUV to move effortlessly from commuter wagon to family workhorse. Sadly for the Grand Vitara it is just too laborious for commuter runs and too expensive for family duties. Depreciation is high and the car’s CO2 figure of 208 g/km puts it in tax band K and a first year rate of £500. Ouch.
The world’s a different place now and the 5-door Grand Vitara just hasn’t kept up with the forces of change. It isn’t a bad car and isn’t without appeal, but there are just too many better choices on offer for me to recommend one. But a loyal following, coupled with Suzuki’s excellent reputation for reliability means that the Grand Vitara will continue to grace the streets and byways of the nation. A true survivor.