Suzuki Grand Vitara 2.0 VVT

After a life in the shadows of Japanese rivals, Suzuki is finally looking for its share of the limelight.

With contemporary looks and a much-improved interior, Suzuki's all-new Grand Vitara is vastly superior to the outgoing model. However, against budget Korean competitors, plus next year's all-new RAV4 and the replacement Land Rover Freelander, the 2.0-litre struggles. The forthcoming diesel should be well worth the wait.

After a life in the shadows of Japanese rivals, Suzuki is finally looking for its share of the limelight. The impressive Swift supermini was the first indication of its intentions, and there are now great expectations of the Grand Vitara SUV.

To find out if this all-new model - on sale now - lives up to its billing, we got behind the wheel of one of the first UK models. We drove the long-wheelbase five-door, which is available with a 2.0-litre petrol engine. A Renault-derived 1.9 DDiS diesel will join the line-up later this year, although the short-wheelbase three-door variant is available only with a 104bhp 1.6-litre petrol unit.

First impressions are positive, thanks to the chunky good looks and tidy detailing. Smart 17-inch alloy wheels and stylish lights also confirm that this car was designed for European tastes.

Inside, it's equally appealing. There's plenty of room for passengers, and the side-hinged tailgate provides fine access to a huge boot. The instrumentation is smart, while the simple centre console is clean and functional.

Standard climate control is also welcome, but there's no reach adjustment on the steering wheel and our manual example's naff chrome-effect gearlever surround looked cheap. However, there is a four-speed automatic option. Once behind the wheel, the positive initial impressions begin to fade, even though the driving position is comfortable and visibility good. The engine seems strained and underpowered, while the 0-60mph sprint feels slower than the quoted 12.5 seconds. Motorways speeds aren't a pro-blem, but reaching them is hard work.

Refinement does not match that of road-focused rivals such as the Toyota RAV4. Too much engine and transmission noise plus vibration find their way into the cabin. On a positive note, everything is well screwed together, so there are no rattles and squeaks.

Part of the problem is the permanent all-wheel-drive set-up, which is controlled via a simple rotary knob on the dash. Unlike many competitors, the Suzuki has a locking centre differential and even a set of low-range gears, which makes it a capable off-roader. However, this compromises the on-road experience, and while handling and ride are both more than acceptable, you'll never mistake the Grand Vitara for a family hatch.

For many buyers, the generous kit - front, side and curtain airbags are standard - and off-road ability will appeal. But for those planning to spend more time on tarmac, the forthcoming 93bhp oil-burner could be the best option.

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