There's a vague division in the market for four-wheel drives at the moment. 'Proper' off-road cars such as Range Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers have tough ladder-framed chassis which are far more rugged than those that use a car-based monocoque arrangement, such as the Toyota RAV-4 or the Honda CR-V. If the market were divided into those two camps, things would be easy. Unfortunately you get vehicles like the Land Rover Freelander, with its serious name and off-road pretensions which are monocoque bodied, and vehicles like the Suzuki Grand Vitara that seem quite lightweight, but boasts a full ladder frame and low-range gearbox. In truth, the Suzuki is a great deal more accomplished and no-nonsense than many would believe.
The five-door versions have sold far more than the soft-top and newer three-door hardtop version, and makes an interesting case for itself. Equipment on the both five-door versions includes a CD player, electric windows, central locking, powered mirrors and an adjustable steering wheel, but air-conditioning and ABS were extras. Given that asking prices for the V6 significantly undercut rivals such as the Freelander, this makes the Grand Vitara a value used buy. There have been no short cuts on the safety front either. Proof of this can be seen by the fact that Suzuki immediately meets the latest stringent USA model year crash standards; the Freelander needs modifications to do so. Twin airbags are standard of course, as is the now almost compulsory high-level rear stop light.
The three-door models may have sold less, but in many ways are more interesting. Badged in this country as GV2000 models, they are identically priced and specified, but the two body types are built in different factories. The Soft-Top is made in Suzuki's Canadian plant (a joint venture with General Motors) while the Estate comes from Japan.
The front section of the Soft-Top's canvas hood - above the front seats - can be folded back or removed separately if required, enabling the driver and front seat passenger to enjoy open-top motoring targa-style. If you want to go the whole hog, the rear section has been designed to be unzipped and folded down to create a full Cabriolet-style 4x4. Be warned however, it's not a quick job. Once you're roofless, however, the car does become a very flexible load carrier thanks to 50/50 split rear seats that can be independently folded for loading versatility or `somersaulted' forward to provide maximum storage. The Estate's load area is equally flexible.
The rest of the 3-door interior is described by Suzuki as 'fashionable yet functional'. Functional would be the pertinent word; grey plastic abounds but it all works well enough. There's certainly plenty fitted as standard; a radio/CD player with remote control, power steering, front electric windows, power mirrors, central locking, twin front airbags and tinted glass.
The Grand Vitara is largely reliable, but as with most proper 4x4s, you'll need to check for damage caused by off road work. Have a good look at the underbody, and check the suspension, sills, ramp and departure points and also wheelarch liners for signs of damage. Also inspect the paintwork and body for damage from branches etc. It would also pay to reject cars with whining differentials, noisy gearboxes, a chattering set of valves or a loud camshaft unless you plan to undertake the repairs. One bugbear of the range is seizing brake callipers, especially if the vehicle has been laid up for some time. Other than this, just insist on a fully stamped up service history.
(approx based on a 1998 Grand Vitara V6) If the previous keeper's been off-roading in their Grand Vitara, check the exhaust system, as at around £500 for a replacement, it's not a repair to be undertaken lightly. A new clutch assembly will be around £200, and a replacement headlamp is about £130. Front brake pads and rear brake shoes are both around £55 a pair, whilst a new radiator retails at £250. A new alternator is only slightly cheaper at £240, whilst a new starter motor weighs in at a pricey £350.
Drive the Grand Vitara solely on the road and you'll be enjoying about half of the full ownership experience. To understand its raison d'etre, it's best to undertake a bit of off-road activity. For a start, you get the box-section steel ladder-frame structure for strength and durability and the low ratio gearbox, for impressive ability in the mud. In fact, the only thing the Grand Vitara lacks is permanent four-wheel drive. Suzuki says you won't need it (though Land Rover owners, of course, will beg to differ). Instead, a new 'Drive Select' system has been developed; rather than having to stop to engage four-wheel drive, as was necessary before, you can now do so at speeds of up to 62mph.
The Grand Vitara five-door's other unique feature for this sector of the market is a V6 engine (though you can also opt for 2.0-litre Turbo Diesel version or two-litre petrol in the three-door models). The V6 in question is a specially-developed 2.5-litre 24-valve 2493cc unit with multi-point fuel injection, putting out 142bhp. It doesn't make the car a ball of fire (the maximum speed is a mere 103mph) but in an off roader of this type, that's not a problem.
No, the key selling point here is torque; pulling power to get you up the steepest of slopes. Pulling power to make constant gear changing around town unnecessary (it pulls in fifth from almost walking speed). That the top Vitara is now at last an easy vehicle to live with is also confirmed by the changes which have been made in terms of steering, suspension and overall refinement. Steering first; the new rack and pinion set-up is light-years ahead of the old recirculating ball system this company used to inflict on its customers. The car now goes immediately where you point it. The ride too, is far better than anything Suzuki have yet produced (though it's still not perfect over rough surfaces). The engineers have also learnt how to control body roll - and not before time. The three-door GV2000 models are even better on road.
Driving an original Vitara at speed along a bumpy country lane was an experience akin to sitting astride a bucking bronco. In comparison, the GV2000's ride is a revelation, thanks to a new five-link rigid axle with movement controlled by separate springs and low-pressure gas shock absorbers. This is now something you really could use as an everyday car. Refinement is also in a different league from Vitaras of the past, with much effort having been made to eliminate the main areas of noise, vibration and harshness. What it boils down to is that this is one of the very few affordable off roading vehicles that you could easily live with as an only car.
Of course, it won't handle quite like an everyday car; you're too high off the ground for that. It's not bad, however, providing you don't fling the Grand Vitara around too much; the addition of a front stabiliser bar has done little to control body movement. Where the Grand Vitara Soft-Top doesn't feel quite as happy is on the motorway. It's susceptible to side winds and the fabric hood reminds you all the time what you've bought. In the wet, thanks to the PVC rear window, you can hardly see anything behind. Still, this isn't a motorway car - and in any case, there are plenty of compensations. The Estate is quieter, of course, with better visibility through the tailgate glass, but it too gets buffeted about.
A used Suzuki Grand Vitara is a good way to acquire a reasonably priced, usefully sized 'proper' 4x4. The three-door models veer towards the 'style over substance' leanings of Suzuki's past, but the five-door cars are excellent buys. A V6 five-door estate has a lot going for it. If you can track a good one down, it won't disappoint.