The Grand Vitara is going hard in a segment in which its rivals are soft, writes NEIL McDONALD
THE locals say the last serious soaking rain to fall on the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs came almost 12 months ago.
The region has been in drought for years and the harsh red centre is living up to its name.
The riverbeds are bleached dry. The winter air so devoid of moisture it leaves your throat raspy. Yet it remains a beautiful, brutal location that challenges not only its inhabitants but the vehicles they drive.
In this setting, Suzuki bravely chose to launch its updated Grand Vitara four-wheel drive, seeking to reinforce the car’s credentials as a true offroader and set it apart from its main rivals: the Subaru Forester, Nissan X-Trail, Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.
These four soft-roaders have made it tough for the Grand Vitara because they dominate the compact off-roader market. With considerably more marketing muscle, the rival Japanese push the highly capable Suzuki into the background.
That is until you tackle some sandy outback trails and the wide dustbowl of a corrugated ‘‘highway’’ called the Mereenie Loop Rd west of Alice Springs.
If this deeply rutted road from Kings Canyon Station back to the Glen Helen Resort does not render passengers speechless, the bulldust and car-size potholes will.
But after more than 350km, the Grand Vitara has very little else to prove. Suzuki has taken notice of customer feedback. The refreshed wagon has more equipment and, most importantly, it’s better ride comfort and handling does not compromise its off-road performance, according to Suzuki Australia general manager Tony Devers.
‘‘The styling hasn’t changed dramatically but the driving experience has,’’ he says. ‘‘We really want to put it on more buyers’ shopping lists.
‘‘Look at our key rivals — we’re certainly ahead on price, equipment, power, economy and towing capacity.’’
Devers is confident the new car will double sales to more than 500 a month. Apart from visual tweaks, a 30mm longer bumper and new alloys, the Grand Vitara’s handsome shape continues on from the third-generation model launched in 2005.
However, it gets more standard safety equipment, including side and curtain airbags and electronic stability control across the range, which eliminates the need for a centre limitedslip differential.
But the big news is under the skin and under the bonnet. Gone are the asthmatic 1.6-litre four and 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines and the indifferent and less than frugal 2.7-litre V6.
In their place are a 2.4-litre fourcylinder and 3.2-litre V6 in the range toppers. These two petrol engines join a reworked 1.9-litre turbodiesel that returns 7.0 litres/100km, an 8 per cent improvement.
The Suzuki-designed 2.4-litre develops 122kW at 6000 revs and 225Nm at 4000 revs and gains a balancer shaft for quieter operation.
It is available as a three-door or five-door model.
In the three-door this represents a power gain of 67 per cent over the 1.6, and fuel consumption drops to 8.8 litres/100km.
The 3.2-litre quad-cam V6, mated to a five-speed automatic, comes in one guise, a five-door luxury Prestige model.
The V6 develops 165kW at 6200 revs and 284Nm at 3500 revs, and has 22 per cent more power and 14 per cent better torque than the outgoing 2.7-litre V6.
Fuel economy has also improved to 10.5 litres/100km, a 9 per cent improvement over the old V6.
The V6’s five-speed automatic also gets revised shift points that smooth its operation.
Significantly, both the four and V6 come with dual-range, full-time fourwheel drive.
Across the range, the car’s driveshafts have also been changed to sliding constant velocity joints for a quieter operation and reduced vibration. Buyers also get rear ventilated disc brakes, climate-control airconditioning, electric windows and mirrors, central locking, and steering-wheel audio controls.
The 2.4-litre five-door adds cruise control, and the luxury Prestige gains a four-speed automatic, leather trim, sunroof, mirror-mounted side indicators, premium seven-speaker CD stereo and 17-inch alloys.
The range-topping 3.2-litre V6 Prestige has the same equipment as the 2.4-litre Prestige but adds automatic high-intensity headlights with washers, premium sound system, hilldescent control and hill-hold control, and a six-stacker CD.
Suzuki is confident the toughened front end and body structure, along with six airbags, will improve the previous Grand Vitara’s four-star crash rating. Thicker steel is now used around the engine bay and engine supports. At the back, the independent rear suspension is stronger with better location to the monocoque body.
Suzuki has not forgotten about the cabin, either.
Inside, the trip computer has moved from the top of the dashboard to inside the instrument cluster.
The climate-control functions are easier to use via an LCD display, and the steering-wheel-mounted switches for audio and cruise control are now backlit.
Of the line-up, Devers believes the three-door has the most potential, even though the 2.4-litre five-door will be the volume seller.
‘‘At $24,990 the three-door has the potential to grab buyers who want something different from a fourcylinder hatch,’’ he says.
‘‘Suzuki is the only one to offer a three-door compact SUV.’’