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Grand Vitara a small SUV that's all grown up

The new Suzuki is loaded with standard features and options, and the price is right.

November 09, 2005|Larry Printz | Allentown Morning Call

Well, it seems as if Suzuki, the carmaker most known for providing small, cheap and fuel-efficient cars, is finally growing up.

The all-new 2006 Grand Vitara is as suitably mature a vehicle as the company has ever issued. Just look at it. It's a vehicle ready for its close-up, with styling that's flashy yet subdued. It should play well against its small SUV competitors: the Jeep Liberty, Hyundai Santa Fe, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Ford Escape.

Even better, the new Grand Vitara offers seating for five and a lot of choice.

Though there's a solitary engine, a 2.7-liter double-overhead-cam V-6 that produces just 185 horsepower, there's a choice of rear-wheel-drive, full-time all-wheel-drive and full-time four-wheel-drive. A five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission is available. Suspension is fully independent.

At first glance, it was hard not to be impressed. Besides the handsome new styling, the car boasted a boatload of standard gear: electronic stability control, traction control, side-impact air bags and anti-lock brakes. So too was automatic climate control, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel, an AM/FM/XM/MP3/six-CD audio system, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, keyless entry, power windows, locks and mirrors, and fog lamps, all for just $22,000.

Love at first sight? Not really. It's too practical for me. But my brain can appreciate all the good things this car has to offer.

There's a tall upright seating position. Foot room is a little tight in the back, but overall, there's a roomy feel to the vehicle. It's easy to understand why -- the new Grand Vitara is definitely more grand, being 11.5 inches longer and 1.2 inches wider.

The wheelbase has grown by 6.3 inches. This translates into a much more tolerable ride, even at highway speeds. Thanks should go to the vehicle's underpinnings, shared with Chevrolet Equinox, Saturn Vue and Pontiac Torrent.

Highway noise is impressively subdued for a Suzuki. Unlike some of Suzuki's earlier small SUVs, you can hear the radio at highway speed. Though its sound doesn't impress, it's certainly adequate given this vehicle's price range.

Off-road behavior is surprisingly adept. The ladder chassis makes it tough enough to go into the wild, something Honda, Hyundai and Toyota can't claim with their SUVs. Although the test vehicle had all-wheel-drive, you can get the Grand Vitara equipped with a high-range, low-range and locking center differential for pulling through the muck and mire. You won't be able to tow much, as it is limited to 3,000 pounds.

As you might surmise, power from the 2.7-liter V-6 was somewhat disappointing. It seems merely sufficient and at times more like a four-cylinder than a six. Revving the little beast doesn't yield as much power as you'd hope for -- all the while it's making noises about as sexy as a weed whacker. The five-speed automatic shifted fine most of the time, although it bucked annoyingly during downshifts.

There are three optional trim packages: Premium, which includes a more advanced sound system and alloy wheels; XSport, which includes a five-speed automatic, keyless entry and remote starter; and Luxury, which adds leather, wood trim, sunroof and bigger wheels.

Aside from the transmission issue, which may be unique to this loaner vehicle, the only real downside was gas mileage. The 17 mpg in mixed use is little better or worse than its small off-road companions and not significantly better than some large SUVs. But the Grand Vitara is a great value, with lots of standard gear, including excellent safety features, and a price that won't rob you blind. All the while, the little SUV's good looks will get it noticed.

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