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Nowadays there are many choices among small SUVs. Most owners have no desire to ever go off-road. No problem, the front-drive Honda CR-Vs and Toyota RAV4s of the world do just fine. Some occasionally want to wander onto dirt roads, nothing serious mind you. An automatic four-wheel-drive system works fine, and there's the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage for them.
Then there are those who really dig an SUV for what it was originally intended. They want to get down and dirty and go where low gear and a locked differential is a necessity, not a luxury. Their choices are limited to Jeeps and a few others.
The all-new 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara has just expanded this latter category.
Unlike the previous Grand Vitara, this is no small toy-like off-roader. Finally befitting of its grand name, the 2006 Grand Vitara is a grownup, five-seat, V6-powered SUV with enough sophistication that it's just as much at home on the highway as it is way off the highway.
On the highway, the Grand Vitara handles as grandly as a car-based SUV. That's to say it has a smooth ride. It may not be as smooth as a Ford Escape or Honda CR-V, but it's comfortable enough and easy to drive. The Grand Vitara absorbs potholes well. Thanks to a low center of gravity, the handling seems better than most SUVs. The steering is fine, not like that of a sports car but not sloppy or over-assisted. We tried 2WD and 4WD models on the highway and found no discernable difference in ride or handling.
Performance from the V6 engine is good, if not scintillating. It's responsive and easy around town. It's enough to tow up to 3000 pounds, which is a more than reasonable for a compact SUV. The Grand Vitara itself takes kindly to being towed, which is important for RV owners; a Neutral setting on models with the AWD four-mode system disconnects the entire drivetrain; this lessens wear and tear on the drivetrain and avoids putting non-driven miles on the odometer.
Two all-wheel-drive systems are offered in the Grand Vitara. The full-time single-mode four-wheel drive, available in the base and Premium Package models, has a transfer case with a differential for full-time operation in 4H mode. The full-time four-mode four-wheel drive offered with the XSport and Luxury Packages has a transfer case with a locking differential and a low range. The operating modes are: 4H, 4H locked, 4L locked, and Neutral for flat-towing behind an RV. The transfer case ratio is 1.97:1.
We drove off highway in a Grand Vitara with the Luxury package, which includes the four-mode 4WD system, and it proved to be a stellar performer. It rode smoothly while traversing a graded dirt road, taking ruts in stride. Nothing surprising there, as a car could have tackled the dirt road.
But then we headed off the graded track to an uphill section strewn with boulders that was nothing much more than a dry streambed. No way could any vehicle without a low gear tackle this. We tried it in 4H but within yards a boulder stopped our forward movement. After gingerly backing down, we shifted the automatic transmission into neutral and turned and pushed the knob to engage Low gear. Gently easing the gas pedal we inched up the steep mountain trail, crawling from rock to rock as we tried hard to avoid hitting the undercarriage. We weren't entirely successful, as we did misjudge one maneuver and left a small ding in the passenger side doorsill. One driver said this exercise, directed by Suzuki, was too much. Maybe it was too much for that driver, but it certainly wasn't too much for the Grand Vitara. We thought it proved that this SUV has true off-road capabilities with good ground clearance, approach, departure and break-over angles as well as short front and rear overhangs. Good off-road maneuvering might not be a trait required by most SUV buyers nowadays, but surely it is still desired by some.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara is a solid choice among compact SUVs. It's particularly suitable for someone who wants some off-road capability or needs a vehicle to hook up behind a 36-foot motor home. It's smooth enough to take you to dinner at the fancy restaurant down town. Yet it's rugged enough to include a low gear and locking differential for tackling rugged trails and unimproved roads.
New Car Test Drive correspondent John Rettie filed this report from somewhere north of Vancouver, British Columbia.