2011 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L Review

2011 Suzuki Grand Vitara

After spending a week behind the wheel of Toyota's RAV4 just a few short weeks prior to driving the 2011 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX-L, I was pleasantly surprised at how different the Suzuki actually was from the Toyota, despite my initial thought that I was going to get behind the wheel of the RAV4's twin.

For starters, the Grand Vitara is so much more attractive than the RAV4. Now, this is solely a personal opinion, as I heard many a compliment the week I had the RAV4. Lots of people love Toyota's new styling cues on their latest rendition of the RAV4, and I can see why. However, my fancy was tickled that much more by the Grand Vitara.

Maybe that's because it's slightly more “refined” looking, even (dare I say?) feminine. I was trying to find appropriate adjectives to use when I looked at the Vitara and “delicate” and “sharp” came to mind. Maybe I've completely lost it, but I see the Grand Vitara as the girlie CUV of the bunch – at least in its newest reincarnation.

Inside, the refinement continues. With a Mazda-esque gauge cluster that's modern and retro all at once, the few brushed chrome inserts throughout the cabin are enough to spice up the look without overdoing it. This is, after all, a utility vehicle and it's meant to do a job. And while I appreciate Suzuki's attempt at being fashionable, I could have done without the '70s-era bathroom-tile inserts on the door handles and shifter housing case. Can we all say “tacky” together?

Simple and functional, the middle stack buttons and knobs are easy to manipulate and traverse as either a driver or a passenger. As I had the top-end Grand Vitara, the JLX-L, my bum sat upon leather-trimmed seats with heaters (which would have been used had our Canadian summer not been in full-swing) all week, and my music was blasted through a 7-speaker entertainment system with a small-ish screen that was, again, simple but functional.

One of the most intriguing parts of the middle stack, for me, was the uber large “PUSH ESP OFF” button to the right of the shifter. It seemed an odd location for the Electronic Stability Program button, and it also seemed a little on the large side – as if the Vitara was screaming at me every time I looked at: “PUSH ESP OFF!! COME ON!! DO IT!!”

And yet, when I did push the ESP OFF button, nothing happened. In order to turn the nanny system off, the button has to be held down for a few seconds, which is usually the case with stability control and traction control systems. But it's not usually the case to see said button so gloriously displayed in the centre stack. Odd.

2011 Suzuki Grand Vitara Dashboard

Now, about driving the Vitara. I was pleasantly surprised by the Suzuki's pep and drivability on the road. Equipped with a 2.4L 4-cylinder, the Vitara pushes out 166 hp and 162 lb.-ft of torque, regardless of trim level. Paired with a 4-speed auto tranny, the Vitara is quite responsive and I was happy passing cars on the highway or cruising around my suburbanite streets. I do wish the fuel economy was a bit better for such a small engine, with my average hitting the near 12 L/100km mark, but otherwise the Suzuki was a pleasure to pilot.

Where the Vitara got a bit sketchy for me was under heavy braking. I'll admit, I did not do a proper brake test, however, I did load up the Vitara with a trunk full of weekend-cottage-getaway food, clothes, blankets, blow-up mattresses, booze, and I loaded the cabin with four large adults. Then I hit the brakes on the highway in sudden traffic.

Despite ventilated disc brakes in the front and back, the Vitara felt like it had no bite at all to come to a halt. It shuddered, it shook, it skipped and it felt genuinely distressed that it had to perform under such laden conditions. And with just a few thousand clicks on the odometer, there was no reason for the brakes to feel the way they did.

Despite that, the Vitara made for the perfect weekend getaway car. With 7.9” of ground clearance, the Suzuki easily climbed the rocky, dirt road into the woods and the 4WD system kept us on track despite the loose ground surface.

With a price tag starting at just $28,135 (for the base JX and $30,635 as tested), the 2011 Suzuki Grand Vitara is a viable contender for someone in the market for a starter family vehicle. For an outdoorsy couple with one child and/or a large dog, this is the ideal compromise to a world full of oversized SUVs and gadget-laden CUVs.