Shaking off the spectre of those tinny things of the late 1980s has been a long process.
The Vitara brand once had the solemnity of bubble gum but that has changed, in part due to the numbingly dull version this new model replaces, but mainly due to this, a handsome, scaled-up Tonka toy.
The new Grand Vitara takes the simple, confident lines of the Swift supermini, making it the best-looking SUV you can buy, although our test car came in the staggeringly naff colour of metallic beige, which managed to negate most of its blocky charm.
The interior fixtures look to have been lifted straight out of the Mazda parts bin, which is no bad thing. Everything is neatly arranged on the central dash and lightened by a couple of metallic strips.
The seating position is decent and there is good space in the rear for passengers and a useful boot.
But the 140bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine struggles, particularly compared with the torquey diesels usual for cars in this sector, and the situation is not helped by the gearing, which is restrictively short.
Perhaps the short gearing is trying to hide a deficiency in pulling power. It hasn’t. It is noisy and slow: the Grand Vitara dawdles to 62mph from standstill in more than 12 seconds and it’s no keener to accelerate from speed.
In top gear, the engine revs like a supermini and with 3,500rpm at 70mph it is not a relaxed motorway cruiser. In fact, it is painful. The diesel alternative uses a 130bhp 1.9-litre engine supplied by Renault, which is an excellent unit. I think it’s fair to assume, even without driving it, that this is going to be the one to go for, even though it costs £1,300 more.
This model is decently specified for the price though, with 17-inch alloy wheels, full-size spare wheel, all-round airbags, automatic air conditioning and front fog lights.
Suzuki has made more than a token effort with the car’s off-road ability. All five-door models get permanent four-wheel drive with central differential lock and four gearbox modes: high range for general driving, high range with differential locked for mud or snow, low range for off-roading, and neutral.
Previously, the Grand Vitara was built on a somewhat agricultural ladder frame construction, which meant it handled like a tractor on-road, but also handled like one off it.
This time, Suzuki has opted for a more modern monocoque approach to which it has built in a ladder frame of sorts to give the car’s body extra stiffness for off-road handling.
There’s certainly no stomach-churning wallow round corners but on urban roads, the suspension felt surprisingly stiff.
There was also a fair amount of suspension noise when the springs and dampers were asked to travel over longer bumps.
The Grand Vitara has a lot going for it, but has failings which heavily detract from what should be a good car – in particular, the engine and gearing. I dread to think what the 1.6-litre petrol version must be like.
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £15,520
CO2 emissions (g/km): 220
BIK % of P11D in 2006: 31%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 14
Combined mpg: 31.0
CAP Monitor residual value: £6,700/43%
Depreciation 15.15 pence per mile x 60,000: £9,090
Maintenance 2.41 pence per mile x 60,000: £1,446
Fuel 13.85 pence per mile x 60,000: £8,310
Wholelife cost 31.41 pence per mile x 60,000: £18,846
Typical contract hire rate: N/A
At a glance
We don’t like
Three rivals to consider
ALL these cars come only adequately specified with air conditioning, CD player, a decent number of airbags and cloth upholstery. The Sportage scores by virtue of its automatic headlights and the Grand Vitara boasts 17-inch alloys instead of 16s. They are all still a lot of car for the money – considerably more in the case of the Honda, but we’ve included this because there are very few SUVs around £15,000.
THE Kia is easily the most expensive when it comes to service, maintenance and repair, costing £2,196 over three years/60,000 miles – nearly £550 more than the next most expensive, the Hyundai Tucson. Part of the problem is the short service interval these cars have – 10,000-12,500 miles is the average. An issue the figures do not show is the practicality of the servicing network. How many Suzuki, Kia and Hyundai dealers are there near you?
THEY may be small SUVs but they are still four-wheel drive and heavy and the 2.0-litre engines have a lot of work to do. The fuel costs for the Tucson and the Sportage are the best – although 34.4mpg is not a good return and equates to a fuel bill of £7,488. The Honda has the best engine of the lot in performance terms, but you pay for it in fuel. At a pence-per-mile cost of 13.68 a driver would rack up a bill of £8,208 over 60,000 miles. The Suzuki’s short gearing means the engine never gets a rest so it has the highest at £8,310.
IN cash lost terms, the Grand Vitara easily comes out best. The CR-V holds a higher percentage of its value at 46%, according to CAP, while the Suzuki manages 43%, but the low front-end price of the Suzuki means it loses less pence-per-mile, at £9,090 compared to the Honda’s £9,792. The Kia Sportage is a very good new car, and this is reflected in a pence-per-mile figure of 16.23, or £9,738.
DESPITE the huge disadvantage of a front-end price nearly £2,000 more expensive than its nearest rival, the CR-V almost manages to claw it all back through excellent running costs, and in particular strong residual value. In the end, it would be only £600 off the cheapest to run, the Grand Vitara, which does a really good all-round job. The Hyundai’s residual value counts against it while the Kia comes second thanks to its low front-end price and projected used values, although servicing charges are unusually high.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
NONE of these 2.0-litre petrol, four-wheel drive cars are particularly low in CO2 emissions but, thanks to lowish P11d values, there are some acceptable tax bills to be had. The lowest is the Kia Sportage. It would cost a 22% taxpayer £68 a month, followed closely by the Tucson at £70 and the Grand Vitara at £88. Unsurprisingly, the Honda CR-V is the most expensive, setting the same driver back £96 a month.
THE Grand Vitara does a good all-round job, with strong residuals, plenty of character and great looks. The Hyundai’s wholelife costs are too expensive and the CR-V is a little too costly on tax for drivers. The Sportage, with its ultra-low BIK tax bill and solid costs, just edges out the Grand Vitara as the best compromise between fleet needs and a driver’s wallet.
WINNER: Kia Sportage 2.0 XE