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Suzuki Grand Vitara SZ4 1.9 DDiS 3-door

Click to view picture gallery“The perfect time to test any vehicle,
  especially an SUV, is in the very
worst weather conditions. Drive
  forward Suzuki’s revised Grand
  Vitara: it
s snow easy to live with

GLOBAL WARMING Bah, Humbug! Roads blocked nationwide for the second time in 2009 by snow, unsalted roads and a lack of get-up-and-do-it by the Highways Agency, this once efficient country is now useless at organising anything to do with transport, be it Winter or Summer.

The bumbling inefficiency of the powers-that-be combined with a modern generation of drivers who lack snow and ice driving skills gridlocked roads in many parts of the country as the Christmas and New Year holiday was just gettng under way.

Thankfully the British Bulldog spirit does still exist in lots of motorists who know we can no longer rely on national or local Government authorities to make the right decision at the right time. So we just get on and do what we need to do to get anywhere. And most likely we own a 4x4 to do that. In Winter it snows — a fact of life despite all the prophecies of global warming, so SUV sales will remain an important sector of the new car market. And SUVs are not just about Winter travel either; they meet our needs all the year round whether it is on or off road driving, work or leisure with caravan or boat towing.

These vehicles need not be big and bulky. Big isn't always best as my time over a snowy, icy and wet Christmas and New Year in the new Suzuki Grand Vitara proved. Appropriately, my 'pocket' 4x4 — the three-door version — was delivered wearing a festive coat of red paint.

Suzuki is big at making small cars — not just 4x4s although that is an area where they have had most success. In the 1980's they became the world's leading manufacturer of compact, utility, workhorse 4x4s. If you were driving back then you may remember that they produced their small LJ (Light Jeep) Jimny series from 1970, then the SJ Samarai from 1982 followed by the current SZ Vitara range and, of course, the even smaller modern Jimny 4x4 jeep and the SX4 4x4 small car are also available.

Suzuki's Vitara (or Grand Vitara as it is now known for both three- and five-door models) starts its third decade of sales in 2010. Suzuki launched its first three-door Vitara 20 years ago, creating the world's first compact car-like specification SUV and so establishing a new market sector. Their aim was to still deliver true off-road performance but with responsive fun-to-drive on-road performance in a comfortable and well equipped car-like body. Over 164,000 Vitaras and Grand Vitaras have been sold in the UK out of 2.6 million worldwide.

Since then the stylish and versatile SUV has steadily evolved and kept pace with growing demand for good-looking, versatile 4x4s. All Vitara models still have permanent four-wheel drive with a high and low ratio transfer box and most models also have a diff-lock setting.

Today Suzuki GB continues to sell around 3,200 Vitaras annually with about 50% of customers opting for the compact three-door versions. In general, younger women or young and older couples with no children opt for the three-door models whilst families logically choose the five-door versions.

The Grand Vitara
skips over the banks of
snow or mud without
getting bogged down
The latest updated and more refined Grand Vitara three- and five-door models are priced from 14,295 to 20,410 (prices have unfortunately just been increased due to the rise in VAT from 1 January, 2010). The Grand Vitara range has SZ3, SZ4 and SZ5 levels of equipment and specification with a choice of three engines: 1.6 and 2.4-litre petrol and a new 1.9 DDiS turbodiesel.

With the Government's 2,000 Scrappage Scheme still two months to run and with Suzuki continuing to offer three-years of zero per cent finance until the end of March, now is the perfect time to take the 4x4 route for driving independence in all weather conditions.

The latest Vitaras offer quieter, more refined and improved fuel-efficient engines whilst maintaining their hallmark all-wheel drive, high and low ratio transmission. They remain lightweight and compact in size and so are easy to park.

Their undisputed off-road ability comes, in part, from the four-wheel drive facility, the long travel suspension with high ground clearance and, being lightweight, they just skip over the banks of snow or mud and do not easily get bogged down or 'beached' and left sitting on the vehicle's underbelly.

Earlier Suzuki compact off-roaders had the scaled-down, upright and slab-sided, workhorse looks of a WWII Jeep. Today the SZ Grand Vitara is a much more refined product in looks, interior design quality, higher equipment levels and ride comfort. The latest tweaks include a new design of front grille and bumper which gives a more sculpted and muscular appearance. New door mirrors are fitted with integrated turn indicators while restyled light clusters smarten up the tail. New wheel designs are utilised, with a more robust treatment for the standard five-spoke 17-inch alloys on the SZ4 model plus seven-spoke 18-inch rims for the five-door SZ5 model.

Cabin ambience is also more refined and sophisticated, with a cleaner, easier to monitor dashboard layout and new control buttons and switches that are weighted to convey a sense of quality and precision. All models have air conditioning and electrically-operated windows and door mirrors. Detail interior improvements include a new multi-information display in the main instrument cluster that gives the driver clear information on vehicle status including fuel consumption, mileage, driving range and gear position for automatic transmission-equipped models (an option on the 2.4-litre model only). The steering wheel-mounted switches are illuminated for greater ease of use, and there is a new control panel for the climate control unit.

“The high-up seating
  position ensures
  the compact three-door
  Vitara is easy to park —
and that’s a real bonus
for most users
SZ5 five-door models feature wood trim inlays to the centre console and integrated door armrests which further enhance the all-round cabin quality; and a new centre speaker on the dashboard creates a surround-sound effect.

In addition, all models have Electronic Stability Control (ESP) with traction control fitted as standard and rear disc brakes have been introduced for 1.9 DDiS and 2.4 petrol models. The rear suspension has been strengthened and the front-end styling now offers better pedestrian protection.

Whilst the 105bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine will appeal to low-mileage users and the 166bhp, 2.4-litre petrol balancer shaft unit will suit owners wanting an automatic transmission, it is the new 1.9-litre diesel unit that I would opt for.

Diesel power does cost more to buy and the fuel is more expensive, but good fuel economy and strong torque across a wide powerband are the key characteristics of these units and the common rail 1.9-litre intercooled and turbocharged diesel engine used by Suzuki follows this pattern.

Officially, this four-cylinder unit achieves 40.4mpg on the combined cycle with CO2 levels of 183g/km for the three-door and 185g/km for the five-door model. During my end of year road test, the 1.9-litre DDiS unit with the three-door body configuration averaged a very commendable 36.1mpg — and this despite lots of driving in deep snow, going slowly over black ice, stop-start driving in town and lots of time leaving the Vitara ticking over to warm up and fully de-ice the windows.

Sourced from Renault, the 127bhp, 1.9-litre engine incorporates a dual mass flywheel for enhanced drivability and smoother running. Minor changes have also been made to mountings and bushings to minimise vibration and harshness. The engine has a flat torque curve and achieves peak torque of 221lb ft at just 2,000rpm, delivering the flexibility typically demanded by SUV drivers. This unit is all about efficiency, the right power, the right amount of responsiveness and the best fuel economy given it is driving all four wheels all of the time. It is no 'high performance' unit nor does it really need to be — it is more of a workhorse.

The top speed is 106mph and zero to 62mph takes 12.8 seconds; given today's congested road conditions and speed restrictions it is good enough. Starting from cold, the turbodiesel sounds noisy and harsh but it soon warms to its task. The permanent four-wheel drive system gives balanced and good grip front and rear in the standard 4High setting. A well positioned turn switch easily selects the 4High locked centre differential mode for snow, mud or icy conditions and also 4Low (with locked diff) for when the going gets really tough.

Generally the Vitara handles pretty well; there is, of course, some body roll due to its 1,695mm height. The steering is light and responsive for a 4x4, the ride comfort is on the firm side (due to the strong ladder frame chassis and rugged multi-link rear suspension) but it is a solid and relatively spacious vehicle. With an overall length of 4,115mm and the high-up seating positions, the compact three-door Vitara is easy to park and that is a real bonus for most users. However the wide B-pillars do reduce rear-side visibility at road junctions.

A large side-hinged tailgate gives easy access to the three-door's relatively small 184-litre boot but this can be increased to 516 litres by folding down and tipping forward the rear seats. Many Vitaras are used for towing (boats, caravans, horseboxes, trailers and so on) and the maximum braked towing weight is a very useful 1,600kg.

Against? Hard ride, heavy gearchange, engine very noisy when cold and high-ish servicing and insurance costs. On the plus side it's a very capable and rugged vehicle, it handles well, has permanent all-wheel drive and genuine off-road ability. It also has good looks, is well equipped and good value to buy. So, a reliable, cost-efficient and capable SUV for all seasons and, because it is so versatile, it could be the right choice for motorists wanting to save money by having one car instead of two. — David Miles

Suzuki Grand Vitara SZ4 1.9 DDiS 3-door
| 16,955
Maximum speed: 106mph | 0-62mph: 12.8 seconds | Overall MPG: 36.1mpg
Power: 127bhp | Torque: 221lb ft | CO2 183g/km