Pros: Reasonably priced; long warranty; available dual-range 4WD; lots of cargo space; high towing capacity for a four-cylinder crossover

Cons: Lacks expected technology features; offers subpar performance aside from towing; has outdated four-speed automatic transmission

Everyone loves an underdog, but we still aren't too excited about the 2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara. Can you blame us? The GV made its debut all the way back in 2006, and these days it doesn't even offer the optional V6 that it did back then. It reminds us of a late-model SUV you might rent during a Caribbean vacation-recognizably contemporary and competent but not really competitive with U.S.-market leaders.

We'll cop to liking the Grand Vitara's understated styling, and it has a great seven-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. We also appreciate its tough rear-wheel-drive platform, a proper trucklike foundation that even features available four-wheel drive with low-range gearing in the Limited model. But why is Suzuki's formerly V6-powered SUV now forced to make do with a noisy four-cylinder engine? And why are technology features like Bluetooth and auxiliary audio connectivity so hard to come by?

We know, we know: the Grand Vitara's not the only compact SUV that's guilty of such transgressions. Look at the bestselling Honda CR-V, which has stubbornly run on four-cylinder power for its entire existence and has only recently broadened its high-tech portfolio. But whereas the Honda is at least a jack of most trades, the Grand Vitara has few notable skills aside from its impressive cargo capacity and the 4WD Limited's off-road talents. We want to endorse the Grand Vitara, but it's hard rooting for the underdog when the perennial favorites are so far ahead.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara is available in four trim levels: base, Premium, Ultimate Adventure and Limited. The first three have a new tailgate design for 2012 without the rear-mounted spare tire and cover, while the Limited retains this traditional Grand Vitara feature.

The rear-wheel-drive, manual-transmission base model comes standard with 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, automatic headlamps, power accessories, a height-adjustable driver's seat, a tilt-only steering wheel, automatic climate control, a portable Garmin navigation system with a dashboard-mounted pop-up housing and a four-speaker audio system with satellite radio.

The Premium adds heated exterior mirrors (4WD models only), cruise control, , and a suite of navigation-based features called nuLink! that includes real-time traffic, gasoline prices and Google search.

The special-edition Ultimate Adventure model steps up to 18-inch black chrome wheels, front foglamps, three-tone blue, gray, and white water-resistant upholstery, heated front seats (4WD models only) and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

The Limited tacks on a sunroof, a full-size spare tire cover on the rear door, leather upholstery, black wood-grain interior trim, a seven-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input jack and exclusive eligibility for the 4-Mode 4WD system.

An accessory iPod interface is available on all models.

The Grand Vitara's front seats aren't especially comfortable; they're mostly just flat and firm. Also, the steering wheel doesn't telescope, so it will only please a limited range of physiques. In other words, the GV wouldn't be the first compact crossover we'd recommend for a cross-country trek. But those front seats are nice and high-especially the driver's seat with its standard height adjustment-so you get the commanding view of the road that more carlike crossovers don't always deliver.

The GV's dashboard is simple but quite attractive. The gauges are straightforward and pretty much impossible to misread at a glance, while the center stack features clearly marked knobs and buttons along with a clean, sleek design and distinctive red illumination. We're impressed by the automatic climate control system, which is not only user-friendly but also standard on every Grand Vitara-a remarkable luxury at such a modest price. Materials quality is just so-so, but let's face it, compact crossovers aren't known for their high-class cabin construction.

The Grand Vitara's back seat isn't as elevated as those in front, but there's enough room for a couple of adults on a medium-length trip. Meanwhile, there's a ton of room in the cargo bay. Behind the rear seatbacks, there's 28.4 cubic feet of space, and it expands to a massive 70.8 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded. The Limited's standard sunroof cuts into the total, but there are still 26.6 cubic feet in the trunk and 66.3 overall.

Technology

The Grand Vitara is a mixed bag. On one hand, it has standard automatic climate control and navigation. But on the other hand, the navigation system is basically the same portable Garmin unit you can buy from any electronics store, albeit with a nicely integrated flip-up mount on the dashboard, and Bluetooth isn't available until you pony up for the Premium model. Also, we expect to find iPod/USB connectivity in compact crossovers these days, but the GV's only iPod option is an aftermarket unit by Clarion, and a USB jack simply isn't offered.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Grand Vitara is powered by a 2.4-liter inline-4 rated at 166 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual transmission and rear-wheel drive are standard on the base model. All other trim levels get a four-speed automatic and start with rear-wheel drive, but a full-time all-wheel-drive system is offered on the Premium and Ultimate Adventure models, while the Limited can be equipped with a true four-wheel-drive system that features low-range gearing-and remarkably adds only 17 pounds to the curb weight.

Unfortunately, the inline-4 generates more noise than acceleration, and the outdated four-speed automatic struggles to keep the engine in its sweet spot. On the bright side, the GV's rear-wheel-drive platform and ladder-frame construction enable a towing capacity of up to 3,000 pounds, which is about twice what we're used to seeing from four-cylinder crossovers.

Fuel economy is 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway with the manual, 19/25 mpg with the automatic and RWD and 19/23 mpg with either AWD or 4WD.

Safety

The 2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side, full-length side curtain).

The government hasn't crash tested the Grand Vitara using its new methodology, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety wasn't very impressed-the GV got the highest rating of Good in frontal offset impacts but received the second-highest Acceptable rating for side and roof impacts and the second-worst Marginal rating for rear impacts.

Driving Impressions

The Grand Vitara doesn't handle particularly well, and its ride can be jittery. Road noise is prominent on the highway. But all is not lost, as the standard four-wheel disc brakes do a great job of hauling the GV down from speed without drama. Also, the Limited's dual-range 4WD system provides unusually strong off-road capability for a little crossover.

Other Cars to Consider

Kia Sportage - The stylish Sportage boasts up-to-date technology and the availability of an awesome turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4.

Mazda CX-5 - Mazda's new compact crossover is much more athletic than the Grand Vitara, and its fuel economy is better, too.

Volkswagen Tiguan - Consider the Tiguan as an alternative to the Grand Vitara Limited. The VW provides considerably better refinement and performance.

AutoTrader Recommends

We see the Grand Vitara's four-speed automatic as a liability, so our choice would be the base GV with the five-speed manual. It's an interesting high-riding alternative to compact hatchbacks, and the price is right.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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