When driving a vehicle for review, we always keep a list of pros and cons. At just a glance we can see which list is longer and instantly know if it's a vehicle that we'd personally drive. At the end of the evaluation we throw in a few verbs, several random adjectives and some technical jargon to make us all sound knowledgeable and it's a review! Just kidding. A little, at least.
The 2008 Suzuki Grand Vitara Xsport that just left the Autoblog Garage didn't fit the mold. Our cons list outnumbered the pros, but we just can't give this one an automatic thumbs down.
The ride was unsettled by even slightly uneven pavement, which then caused the dash panel to creak and rattle. And the squeaky horn sounded more appropriate for one of Suzuki's econoboxes than a 4,600-pound SUV. And there's that funky side-opening rear cargo door. But from the pro list, we got a powerful V6, a fairly roomy interior and an impressive drivetrain warranty.
Our 2WD tester arrived wearing Quicksilver Metallic paint and cloth seats. The 2.7-liter V6 is standard, as are side curtain airbags, ABS, stability and traction control, fog lamps and 16-inch wheels. The Xsport trim level includes a few "comfort and convenience" options like a power sunroof, keyless entry and start, power windows and doors, audio and cruise controls on the steering wheel, a 6-disc AM/FM with six speakers and a subwoofer, and power mirrors. Total sticker price before shipping and handling was $22,349.
All photos Copyright ©2007 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.
The silver-toned exterior design made it on our pro list. The Vitara's straight lines, chunky bumpers, squared-off headlamps and rear-bumper-mounted spare tire took us back to a time when SUVs were masculine-looking machines made to take on the most intimidating terrain. While other SUVs like Mazda's CX7/9 go for sports car looks, Vitara keeps it real. And unlike Buick's glued-on chrome portholes-to-nowhere, Suzuki chose to make its vents black, plastic and, if not functional, at least actual holes.
The Suzuki's rear hatch, though, made it onto our con list. It's a hulk of a door (made heavier by that spare tire), that swings open left to right. Parallel park on a city street with cargo to load, and you will quickly despise the novelty. Park too closely to the car behind, and you'll be walking around the front of your car with every armful.
Luckily, though, filling the back of the Vitara with stuff isn't difficult. The floor-height doesn't require lifting bags above your waist, and unloading doesn't require a lot of bending over. A cargo cover attached to the back seat keeps big valuables out of view, while a shallow, covered divot in the cargo area is convenient for stashing items. Finding a light behind the rear seats isn't a surprise, but we'd prefer it came on automatically. It's no fun fumbling in the dark for that tiny switch. The rear seats also tilt up easily for moving even more of your junk, and in that position the Vitara passed our stroller test, even holding the Graco and groceries with a little room to spare.
Once inside, you're greeted by black and gray soft-touch plastics accented with brushed-aluminum-looking plastic trim. The black seat fabric felt more like athletic wear than upholstery, but will probably withstand years of abuse by adults and kids alike. Most of the interior, including the color-combination, fit-and-finish and spaciousness, got a pro-side listing. The driver's gauges in particular were appreciated with their white numerals on a black background in chrome-accented openings. They made for quick, easy reading on the road. At night, the red needle was as brightly lit as the numbers, but we also found negatives after the sun set. The driver's window switch on the driver's door is lit, but no others. Neither are any of the door lock switches or the cruise control switches on the steering wheel.
The Xsport-level Vitara gets an in-dash, 6-disc CD changer with six speakers and a subwoofer. We didn't appreciate being teased by the head unit advertising "XM" in large letters with a tiny "ready" disclaimer below. And the CD/AUX button did nothing but piss us off when 30 minutes of searching turned up no auxiliary port. That meant spending an entire week listening to advertising-intensive FM radio. Seriously, Suzuki. How much could it cost to include a 1/8" plug for the iPod? .50¢? $ 1? Make it $10 for your trouble and add .35¢ to my monthly payment. And we'd suggest an entry in the owner's manual on how to unplug that impotent little subwoofer. It's mounted right under the driver's seat and is more of a distraction than an enhancement.
Hauling a two-year-old in the Grand Vitara took little effort, though. Child-seat installation was simple and quick. The LATCH attachment points were easily found, and the center headrest was removed without a fight. Removal was even simpler. Getting the wiggly, impatient toddler into the seat was another issue. The rear door opening was shorter than some of the SUVs we've reviewed, and made getting a child into and out of a center-mounted safety seat a chore. My wife said if the vehicle were ours, she'd be tempted to install the seat in an outboard position. And for adults, there was enough headroom, legroom, hiproom, etc. to comfortably hold front and rear passengers, and the front and rear cup holders easily held a 1-liter water bottle.
Under the Grand Vitara's hood is that 185-hp, 2.7 liter V6 we mentioned earlier. It's at the top of the positives list, and singlehandedly erases several negatives. Press the fast pedal closer to the floor, and you can't even hear that annoying subwoofer any more. I've read other reviews that said the Vitara's engine is unresponsive and even sluggish. Either Suzuki listened to the complaints and made improvements or I'm just easily pleased. The car accelerated nicely with some lovely music coming from the little V6. The rush almost (almost) made me forget how much dinosaur juice I was burning. Most of the week was spent commuting in light city traffic and we burned 11.7 gallons of regular over 177 miles. That's an average of just over 15 mpg for the week. I've been accused of having a lead foot, but that's 2 mpg lower than the EPA city estimate and just within the "expected range" of 14 to 20 city.
But there are two other positives in this SUV's drivetrain. First, it's got an automatic transmission, not a manumatic or a sequential automatic. It's a true, old-school PRNDL, and that makes me happy. We've yet to meet a manumatic we enjoy using (dual clutch units notwithstanding). Good ones may exist, but at this price level, either simplify the automatic tranny or install a clutch. Thank you, Suzuki, for simplifying.
Here's one simplification we can't understand, though. While Honda's CRV, Toyota's Rav4, and Chevrolet's Equinox all get a full set of disc brakes, Suzuki puts disc on front, drums in back. Drum brakes? On a 2008 model vehicle, let alone a big, heavy one? Seriously?
The drivetrain's superb warranty is its third pro. Suzuki backs up its mechanicals for seven years or 100,000 miles with no deductible. Even better, the warranty is transferable, instantly boosting resale value.
In the end, the negatives did outweigh the positives for the 2008 Suzuki Grand Vitara Xsport. Don't bother counting, some were just too personal and trivial to bother listing. But overall, we still like the Vitara and it's one of the major reasons the Japanese brand hit 100,000 sales in the U.S. last year. It's just an "honest" vehicle. From its boxy exterior to its functional hood vents, it's not trying to be something it's not. But a more fuel efficient engine, modern brakes and a plug for my Pod would go a long way toward making me buy one.