Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Suzuki Grand Vitara

Suzuki calls its primary sport utility vehicle an "offroad athlete." The Grand Vitara is based on a purely Suzuki design, and competitors include the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson and Toyota RAV4. Changes for 2007 are minimal.

The Grand Vitara was designed with nearly 50/50 weight distribution and a fully independent suspension. Full-time four-mode four-wheel drive is available on upper-end models. Six airbags and an Electronic Stability Program are standard.

Premium, XSport and Luxury Packages are available. Under the Grand Vitara's hood sits what is essentially an XL-7 engine, modified to increase its power bands and improve emissions. No four-cylinder version is available. Suzuki continues to produce the seven-passenger XL-7 flagship SUV.

For 2007, the Grand Vitara's trip computer displays average fuel economy and range functions. A hard-shell spare tire and a tire pressure monitoring system now come standard.

Evolved from the Concept-X2 that Suzuki exhibited at the 2005 New York Auto Show, the Grand Vitara features accented, flared fenders and what chief engineer Koji Yamada calls a "single long window" look. Side sill garnishes embellish the hood. A tailgate-mounted spare tire is installed, and the 17-inch tires on upper-end models have wide treads. Base models ride on 16-inch rubber.

Basically unibodied in construction, the Grand Vitara has a built-in ladder frame. For off-roading, the approach angle is 29 degrees and the departure angle is 27 degrees. Measuring 176.0 inches long, the Grand Vitara rides on a 103.9-inch wheelbase. A moonroof is included with the Luxury edition.

Rear legroom in the five-passenger Grand Vitara increased by 4.7 inches over the 2005 model. Interior width also grew by 4.7 inches. The 60/40-split, folding rear seat offers fold-and-tumble operation.

"Self-luminous" triple-cylinder LED instruments are installed, and the wide console sweeps up into the dashboard. Steering-wheel audio controls and automatic climate control are standard, and the CD/MP3 player is XM Satellite Radio-ready. XSport and Luxury models include a six-CD changer. A SmartPass keyless start system, available for XSport and Luxury models, locks and unlocks the vehicle with the press of a button on the door.

Under the Hood
Suzuki's 2.7-liter V-6 produces 185 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 184 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. Upper-end models have a five-speed automatic transmission, but a five-speed manual gearbox is standard in base models.

The four-mode four-wheel-drive system, an option for XSport and Luxury models, includes 4H, 4H Lock (slippery) and 4L Lock positions. A limited-slip center differential and rear-wheel drive come standard. A single-mode four-wheel-drive system is offered for base models.

Seat-mounted side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags are standard in all models. Four-channel antilock brakes incorporate electronic brake-force distribution.

Driving Impressions
Except for occasionally awkward, almost jerky, automatic-transmission operation — especially on upgrades — the Grand Vitara performs and behaves capably. Failure to upshift on upgrades can result in the engine revving rather high (and loudly) for a long period. On downgrades, the transmission sometimes downshifts with a slight clunk. Downshifts may arrive sooner than expected, suggesting a lack of power at certain engine speeds.

Acceleration is good but not stunning. The Grand Vitara's ride is well-controlled, comfortably smooth on good roads and doesn't transmit too much unpleasantness in rougher spots. In fact, it almost glides through smooth stretches more like a family sedan than an SUV. Very quick and controlled suspension reactions help make such ride comfort possible. You also get more confident, sure-footed handling than in some small SUVs.

The seat bottoms are short, but the Grand Vitara has good thigh and back support and snug side bolstering. Large gauges are easy to read. Quieter-running than some smaller SUVs, the Grand Vitara provides easy views in all directions.

A four-mode four-wheel-drive Grand Vitara performed impressively on a challenging offroad course, traversing lumpy surfaces and scads of rocks. Many times, scraping an obstacle seemed inevitable, but that didn't happen.
The small-SUV market is a tough league to play in, full of worthy contenders such as the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander, Jeep Compass and the Korean twins, the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage.

Suzuki got a jump on all those manufacturers with the Samurai, introduced in the mid-1980s. The Samurai was a superb vehicle for what it was designed to do: traverse tight jungle trails. For life on the streets, though, it was slow as frozen molasses, rode like a buckboard, and its tipsy cornering earned it scorn from Consumer Reports that, though not entirely fair, was mostly deserved.

Still, with such an early start on building small SUVs, it's odd that it took Suzuki until last year to build one that is on par with the competition. With only minor changes for 2007, the Suzuki Grand Vitara is, as it was when it was introduced in 2006, an excellent vehicle; for the money, it's as good as any small SUV out there, including the Toyota and Honda.

The 2.7-liter, 185-horsepower V-6 is the only engine offered -- no four-cylinder. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but our test model, a midlevel Xsport, had a five-speed automatic that works reasonably well but could use some re-programming to smooth out shifts. The engine has plenty of pep, but it's thirstier than some of the competition: EPA rating is 19 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway.

The test model was two-wheel drive; all-wheel drive would add $1,400. Unless you live in a climate that results in a lot of slick roads, or unless you plan to do regular off-roading -- and with beefy, trucklike frame rails, the Grand Vitara is ready -- you're OK with two-wheel drive. There are, after all, safety features such as electronic stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes and side and side-curtain air bags standard.

On the road, the Grand Vitara rides well for its size, which is an overall length of 176 inches and a width of 71.3 inches, making it just a little larger than a Ford Escape. Handling is much better than you would expect. Inside, the cockpit is attractive and comfortable, with firm front bucket seats and adequate space in the back seat for adults. There's 23.8 cubic feet of luggage space with the rear seat in place, and 67.3 with it folded down.

The Grand Vitara starts at $19,379 for the base model. The top of the line is the Luxury, which starts at $23,399 and includes leather upholstery, heated seats and a few other features. Our Xsport had only one option -- a six-disc CD changer for $300 -- but it wasn't included in the overall price of $22,119 because of a promotion.

Cheap? No, but pretty reasonable, given the level of equipment. It has taken a while, but Suzuki is a finally a real player in the market it helped to create.

Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at scmsith@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5699.

No comments: