The Grand Vi­tara is go­ing hard in a seg­ment in which its ri­vals are soft, writes NEIL McDON­ALD

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Special Report -

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.’’

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