A centre differential, longitudinally-mounted engine and rear-biased drive contribute to a claimed near-50:50 weight distribution

A centre differential, longitudinally-mounted engine and rear-biased drive contribute to a claimed near-50:50 weight distribution

Thought all the medium-sized frame-platform SUVs had been replaced by front-wheel drive ones? Glenn Brooks reacquaints himself with the latest Suzuki Grand Vitara, a proper old-school 4x4.

In an era of me-too styling and features, here’s one four-by-four that stands out. I mean, not even the RAV4 has a side-hinged tailgate any more, not to mention a spare wheel attached to it. You can well imagine the Suzuki with a roo-bar up front too, unlike just about any of its rivals.

No surprises to learn that so many of Suzuki GB’s customers live in the countryside, a place where the Grand Vitara excels. There was no opportunity for me to take to muddy tracks while I had the test vehicle (I can recommend it for moving home, though), or even narrow lanes lined with hedges but there is no doubting the inherent abilities of its switchable full-time 4WD system.

The UK importer brings in both three- and five-door bodystyles, with the choice of 1.9-litre diesel or 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engines. The smaller of these is sold almost exclusively in Europe and is supplied by Renault. The three-door car is also at its most popular in our part of the world and in fact debuted here, back in 2005 at the Frankfurt motor show.

In Japan, where this model is known as the Escudo, there has been a petrol V6 since the current generation was launched there in May 2005. Originally, this was a 2.7-litre engine, and there was also a 2.0-litre four-cylinder in the initial line-up. Europe got its own V6, a 2.5, in September 2006, while a 1.6-litre petrol engine was another world premiere in the three-door model at the 2005 Frankfurt IAA.

The thing which surprised me most about the Grand Vit was its level of comfort. Having expected a pretty firm ride, I was pleased to notice it wasn’t at all harsh, even on the nasty ‘heritage’ cobbled street we no longer call home. The suspension system is independent all round so things have moved on somewhat from Suzukis of old, and given the age of the vehicle, it was doubly impressive.

Speaking of longevity, the latest model dates from December, at which time the most recent facelift reached European shores, five months after its debut in the home market. That followed a previous update for Japan's Escudo in June 2008, with a revised Grand Vitara following a few months later.

Yes, the Grand Vitara leans hard into bends but it does feel firmly planted. This isn’t the sort of vehicle you would be tempted to push to its limits – what would be the reward? – and they won’t be high limits either.  What surely concerns most people who want one, and who then buy one, is absolute reliability (any possible faults will have been ironed out after eight years of production) and never getting stuck in places where front-wheel drive SUVs might well do.

Lest I have you believing that this vehicle is just for rural types, my firmly town-dwelling other half surprised me by becoming as fond of it as I became. It certainly looked great, to our eyes, and the interior was another area that pleased us both. Having expected hard plastics and throwback decor, I was impressed to find myself if not totally wrong, then at least encouraged to see Suzuki interiors are rapidly improving.

You get a decent amount of gear for your money inside the Grand Vitara. Automatic A/C, cruise control, a lockable glovebox (rare these days, why?) an underfloor hidden storage compartment and a good looking leather trimmed steering wheel are also standard for the SZ4 trim but unusually, a USB outlet is not – you have to pay up for SZ5, which also brings heated front seats, leather upholstery plus black wood grain trim for the centre console and window switch surround panel. If you like putting bales of hay in your Grand Vitara, there is also a base SZ3 model grade.

When first I saw only five speeds on the gear lever I didn’t think it would be enough, but the gearing is intelligently worked out, so in practice, it’s fine. If you prefer an automatic, it’s a four-speeder. You can tell this vehicle is getting close to the end of its lifecycle by what now sound like insufficient numbers of gears and no doubt next year’s replacement model will have six-speed units for both manual and auto derivatives.

I’m told the successor was once due this year – Suzuki normally operates to eight-year lifecycles for the Escudo/Grand Vitara – but the decision to bring forward the new SX4 to 2013 no doubt impacted the company’s plans. You can understand the potential risk of confusing buyers by shifting this model up a segment and therefore making it a Qashqai rival. Why then would you also launch a new body-on-frame pure off-roader into dealerships at the same time? No, best that Suzuki delays the next Grand Vitara, as it has done.

The new SX4 will be made mostly in Europe, at Magyar Suzuki’s Esztergom plant, while in China, the other country where it will be built (Chongqing), it will be known as the SX4 S-Cross, as the current SX4, a B segment crossover, is set to remain in production there for a few years. The current Escudo/Grand Vitara has always been built at Iwata in Japan, a facility which makes another separate chassis model, the Jimny. That tiny SUV is also up for replacement soon, incidentally.

No doubt at one time, especially with the recent withdrawal of Suzuki Cars from Canada and the US, the company must have considered leaving the C-4WD segment altogether. I might well be wrong, but it does seem to me that rebodying the current Grand Vitara and giving it some new gearboxes and Euro 6-compliant engines will make a nicely competitive next generation model for Suzuki Europe.

The next SX4, revealed two months ago at the Geneva show, will eventually become the company’s main seller in the C-crossover and SUV segments. But hopefully Suzuki will still offer buyers the choice of both a rugged 4WD and a more sophisticated and front-drive/AWD crossover. I mean, not even the Freelander, the supposedly most rugged C-SUV, has a separate chassis and production of the RWD/4WD Jeep Cherokee/Liberty ended nine months ago.

Let’s hope Suzuki has the engineering and marketing muscle to push both the new SX4 and a new Grand Vitara - it would be a shame if this vehicle and its three generations of history were to disappear.