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Suzuki's Grand Vitara is a standout among small sport-utility vehicles. Totally new last model year, the Grand Vitara is one of the few SUVs in this class built on truck principles -- live axles and two-speed transfer cases. It's also the only mini-utility to offer a V6 engine -- and it's a slick powerplant at that.
With 155 horsepower from its V6, the Grand Vitara JLX+ has power that the 4-cylinder Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V cannot match. Mate that V6 to a five-speed transmission, and the Grand Vitara turns as racy as a tall wagon can get. On-demand four-wheel drive and a five-link rear suspension with coil springs make it better prepared to rumble over rocks and rutted trails than the its car-based competition from Toyota and Honda.
Few mini-utilities offer the off-road capability of this new Suzuki. On the road or off the beaten trail, the Grand Vitara makes a convincing argument for being the best mini-utility.
Suzuki's Grand Vitara has a pleasingly chunky exterior that compares favorably against the squared-off Honda CR-V and the too-cute Toyota RAV4. The Grand Vitara appears fairly large, but it's actually a tad smaller than the CR-V.
Off all the mini-utilities, the Grand Vitara wins the macho award. It sits up high. It's easy to get into, though the tall stance and the generous body cladding make us feel more in charge when we clamber behind the wheel.
Suzuki's available four-wheel-drive system comes with a low-range for extremely heavy muck. Toyota and Honda do not offer this feature.
Automakers tell us buyers really appreciate the high seating position of sport utilities, but they don't like to climb up into their vehicles. The Grand Vitara meets these complaints head-on: Getting in is easy, but offers a commanding view of the road ahead.
From the driver's seat, that great view is clouded only by a couple of minor quirks. The stereo controls are too tiny and too numerous. The steering wheel offers a good range of tilt adjustment, but it is angled slightly upward from the bottom. The front seats offer good support, but are a bit on the narrow side.
Grand Vitara offers first-rate passenger space and cargo capability. Headroom is akin to a European cathedral. No need to worry about fitting inside with a Stetson. Rear-seat legroom is good, considering the Suzuki's smaller proportions, and the seats seem to work better than those in front do. There's a sizable cargo area behind the rear seats; flipping them forward reveals a huge cargo capacity. The Grand Vitara's rear door swings out to the right, like a Toyota RAV4, which is not ideal for curbside loading. We would have appreciated a cargo cover to hide packages from roving eyes.
Warm gray plastics and tweedy seat covers in the Grand Vitara look durable and pleasing. Suzuki has a reputation for vehicles that come tightly screwed together, and our Grand Vitara gave us no reason to doubt its quality. The silver paint was lustrous, and the body-on-frame chassis produced no squeaks and rattles.
The Grand Vitara proved an easy travel partner for a weekend in the Georgia mountains. With its V6 engine, the cut and thrust of the Grand Vitara really isn't matched by any other mini-utilities. A small tip of the throttle and the Grand Vitara lunges forward. While SUV aerodynamics and a hefty curb weight take the edge off as speeds rise, the Grand Vitara's 160 foot-pounds of torque make themselves known in city driving. With four valves per cylinder, the V6 revs smoothly and builds power quickly. Peak torque arrives at 4000 rpm, peak horsepower at a lofty 6000 rpm. Yet the Grand Vitara JLX+ can get 19 mpg in the city, 21 on the highway. We observed slightly better economy figures in actual mixed driving.
Our Grand Vitara came with a five-speed gearbox, which is a surprisingly smooth-shifting manual transmission. The clutch pedal engages a little high in its travel, but the shift lever moves cleanly between gears with a light and direct feel. It has a tall shift lever with a rubber accordion boot that's truck-like in its finish, one of the few reminders that you're driving a truck.
Suzuki has done a great job of making the Grand Vitara's body structure strong and rattle-free. It seems sturdy enough to take serious on- and off-road punishment. Yet the Grand Vitara is fairly quiet, without a lot of rolling noise from the drivetrain or suspension. The engine and transmission have a slight whine that grows as speeds increase, but it barely requires the driver to speak up.
Given our druthers, the Grand Vitara's steering is the first thing we'd change. Off-roaders need some play on center to absorb kickback from large bumps. But perhaps the Grand Vitara has a bit too much of that play. On the road, its steering slack is noticeable, and takes some attention to keep on a clean track.
If the most off-roading you do is on the road home, the Grand Vitara won't disappoint. But it's surprisingly capable of rougher stuff, thanks to 8 inches of ground clearance and a short wheelbase. Some minor-league Georgia red dirt paths proved no problem for the Grand Vitara, even after a pounding rain. It's hard to imagine anyone taking a $20,000 vehicle and really putting it through its paces off road -- but it's not hard to imagine the Suzuki passing the test with flying colors.
The Grand Vitara excels in medium-duty off-roading and in darting between commuter traffic. It's got the SUV stance for great visibility, and a light clutch and shifter that take the edge off of stop-and-go traffic.
Suzuki's Grand Vitara bears little resemblance to the smaller, leaner Sidekick that came before it. Sophisticated for a small truck, the Grand Vitara offers cabin room for four adults in comfort, a simple four-wheel-drive system, and a snappy V6 engine unlike anything else in the class.
Weekend thrill seekers who need a tall wagon to ferry kayaks to remote places will groove on the Grand Vitara. But it also serves well for those who simply want an all-purpose vehicle with a strong dose of SUV flair.
Grand Vitara works best as an economy commuter for active outdoors people. Monday through Friday it can squirt between bigger SUVs with the nimble responses of a compact sedan. On the weekends, it can be stuffed with outdoor gear.
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