We were part of a privileged few who were invited to Maruti Suzuki’s R&D Centre in Rohtak recently. And as part of the visit, we got to drive the new Grand Vitara. And not just one or two versions, but three. We drove the strong hybrid, the mild hybrid with a six-speed automatic, and a manual complete with all-wheel-drive. Now, we only drove the cars on three of Maruti’s 33 test tracks at Rohtak. And honestly, we didn’t spend a significant amount of time with any of the versions. But, since we did sample them, we thought we would give you our initial impressions on what the Vitara feels like on the move.

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Like we said in our unveil story, the Grand Vitara does have a strong road presence. And it looks even better in the real world than on a stage with artificial lighting. The front-end design is unique for a Maruti, and it also has long overhangs, which takes a little getting used to. But, it does look gorgeous from the rear three quarters. It looks big, modern, and very agreeable indeed. It’s well designed on the inside too. Firstly, with its wide opening doors and a relatively high stance, getting in and out of the Grand Vitara is a breeze. And when you get in, the seats immediately feel comfortable and accommodating.

This is true for the rear as well. In fact, even though the rear seat bench bottom isn’t exceptionally large, the space under the front seat allows the rear passengers to tuck their feet under it and enjoy better thigh support. There’s decent space all around too. And the only challenge we see is that the headroom for taller passengers – specifically in the top-spec trims that run the panoramic sunroof – might be a bit short. Now, these were pre-production cars we drove, so the quality of matte plastic parts wasn’t great, but otherwise, the Vitara does feel like a Rs 15 lakh car. The graining on the plastic, the colour choices, the pattern and stitching on the seat, the accents all around, and the switchgear, work towards leaving that impression on you.

Like we said at the start, we drove three powertrain options. And let’s begin with the manual. The Allgrip version of the Grand Vitara gets Suzuki’s K15C engine. It’s a four-cylinder, naturally-aspirated petrol engine that makes a little over 100bhp and torque that peaks at a little under 140Nm. If these figures seem familiar, that’s because this is the same engine that powers the new Brezza. The engine is mated to a five-speed manual transmission, and our test car was also equipped with all-wheel drive. This Allgrip isn’t the hardcore one that the Jimny would get. In fact, the Vitara Allgrip is primarily a front-wheel drive car. It’s only when the onboard computer detects slippage of the front wheels does it start routing power to the rear via a propeller shaft and rear differential. The latter is a lighter, smaller, less potent setup than hardcore off-roaders. Now, we couldn’t sample the Allgrip in action on the test tracks we used, so we don’t have an opinion on it just yet.

As for the manual, the five-speed unit has slick shifts, the clutch is light to use, the pedal box is both roomy and driver-friendly, and the ratios on the ‘box are well spaced out. As the power and torque figures suggest, the engine doesn’t deliver explosive performance on the road. But we won’t call it especially brisk either. Instead, it felt more than up for the task of holding 140kmph on Maruti’s high-speed track and also managing the city simulation track, which involved short shifting and low rpm driving. This same engine can be had with a six-speed automatic as well.

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And we drove this version minus the Allgrip tech. Now, compared to the manual, the automatic is duller, expectedly. And it doesn’t like to be hurried. But the shifts on the automatic were pretty seamless when driven with the right throttle. Our only takeaway here was that the automatic makes sense if you want to use the Vitara exclusively in the city. Otherwise, the manual seemed like a more interesting and involving experience. But, our pick of the lot has to be the strong hybrid. Not for driver involvement, mind, but as a powertrain that best suits Vitara’s character, product definition, and purpose. This too uses a 1.5-litre petrol engine, but it’s a three-cylinder, naturally-aspirated unit. And it has lower output figures as well. It makes around 90bhp and a little over 120bhp. However, there’s a near-80bhp AC motor in the mix as well. And this pumps up the overall system output to almost 115bhp. This is a parallel hybrid system. Which means the Grand Vitara can run exclusively on battery power, IC engine power, or a combination of the two.

On our drive, we managed to experience all three. And it’s a nice feeling to float around on battery power when one is pottering around at under 35kmph. It’s also quiet and attentive up to 100kmph, which somewhat takes the effort and tiredness out of the driving experience. But, once you start pushing to 120kmph and beyond, the car only gets noisy. And the powertrain doesn’t feel as willing or happy as it did when moving 20kmph slower. But like we said, it suits the Grand Vitara because the Vitara as a car doesn’t like to be hustled in any case

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Not that the Vitara is a slow-reacting, lazy, or vague car to drive. But, it’s not something one would call sporty. It has ‘family car’ DNA dripping from all quarters. Now, as soon as you start rolling, it conveys a pliant and settled feel. It rides undulations and cobbled streets (that’s all we could experience at the R&D centre) with the authority of an experienced practitioner.

There are no pronounced body movements; it rounds off the bumps without much noise or impact, and thanks to good suspension travel and well-judged damping, it neither bottoms out easily nor does its rear hop around over speed-breakers. That settled feel we spoke about earlier became more apparent when we realised we were sitting at over 140kmph when our intent was not to cross 120. It just didn’t feel as fast. Yes, Maruti’s high-speed oval is nicely surfaced, but even so, the Vitara never felt flighty or nervous even when we changed lanes in a hurry at these speeds.

We can’t, however, comment on its handling prowess. Or the level of driver involvement it might deliver. The thing is, the test tracks we drove on didn’t offer that kind of opportunity. What we can tell you, though, is that the steering, despite being reasonably quick at two and a half turns lock-to-lock, isn’t brimming with feel. The returnability, too, isn’t as linear or well calibrated as we would have liked. And this ties up with what we said earlier about the Grand Vitara being more focused on being a comfortable family car.

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These were our first impressions after driving the car for a short period in a controlled environment. And as is evident, this piece doesn’t give the complete picture of what the Vitara is like a car. But, it should help you make a calculated guess. We will, nonetheless, have a detailed review of the car early next month.

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