2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara

Short of an all-out transformation - but a lot prettier

Over the past decade, Suzuki's Grand Vitara-along with the Vitara, and the Sidekick that preceded it-has earned a reputation as a capable little sport-utility vehicle that's buff enough for real off-roading yet extremely easy to park and city-friendly. But almost anyone who drove it would agree that there were several sore points-most notably ride comfort, seating space, noise, and to many, looks.

As the market for compact sport-utes continues to heat up, Suzuki has a new version of the Grand Vitara for '06. It's a little bigger, a little softer inside and out, and a lot more stylish; and just looking at the basics, it should boast a much-broadened appeal for American buyers. While putting the Grand Vitara through the paces, we pondered if it this new version has what it takes to break into the mainstream market, or if it will remain more of a niche model.

The Grand Vitara's look is sleeker and more rounded, and a little more elegant, though it keeps the big spare tire hanging on the back and the sideways-hinged tailgate. It might be hard to see that the Grand Vitara has grown, as much of the compact-SUV competition was already larger, but the difference is quite significant. The new Grand is 11.5 inches longer and an inch wider, with a wheelbase more than six inches longer than the 2005 model-a noteworthy upsizing that gives a lot more space inside.

Smart, upscale, and maybe a bit derivative

To someone who had the last-generation Grand Vitara on their shopping list, then climbed inside one and thought it felt just a little too tight, the difference is obvious from the moment you climb into the front seats and find that there's much more adjustability and support for big and/or tall folks. Those looking at the Grand Vitara will also find that there's plenty of back-seat space for most adult-size passengers.

The new interior design is the most dramatic and impressive aspect of the Grand Vitara. Not that it's groundbreaking, but it actually feels luxurious. While the former vehicle tended to feel plasticky and plebeian, it looks like Suzuki designers and product planners really studied the SUV competition and incorporated some of their better interior traits.

We had plenty of other good things to say about the interior appointments themselves. Our vehicle had comfy heated seats, a good driving position, and very effective automatic climate control. The sound system is also standout, with great overall sound and MP3 capability.

Last year's Grand Vitara was built over a traditional body-on-frame layout, but the new version has a unibody construction that's enforced with a built-in ladder frame-a combination meant to allow for a more refined on-road ride without sacrificing some off-road toughness and a more refined on-road ride. The suspension has been reworked as well, with struts in front and a multi-link independent setup in back.

Tight and quiet(er) inside

Those who know the previous Grand Vitara will notice an immediate, obvious reduction in noise and vibration. In terms of ride quality and noise, the Grand Vitara is now comparable with smaller utes like the Jeep Liberty, Ford Escape, and Kia Sportage. But we were also extremely impressed with how tight and rattle-free the interior was-better than many high-priced luxury utes-and of the apparent assembly quality and fit and finish of our test vehicle.

In terms of ride and handling, the Grand Vitara is well suited for city streets, but it isn't quite as comfortable with high-speed cruising. Around town, the ride improvements really show as it soaks up potholes; the steering feels responsive, and the Grand Vitara is very maneuverable and easy to park. But on the highway, we noticed that it was quite susceptible to crosswinds, and in normal, relaxed cruising the steering wheel required a lot of minor adjustments.

And despite the change to a unibody platform, the Grand Vitara's handling still can't be described as very carlike. While the steering feels precise and confident at low speeds, it's not as crisp at higher speeds. You can hustle rather quickly through tight corners, but it doesn't encourage any measure of enthusiastic driving, as the side-to-side motions are exaggerated by the high seating position and some measure of body lean. Push into a corner with a little too much gusto, and the sidewalls will flex painfully, with the stability control system then intervening quickly, as it should, scrubbing the speed off. We can imagine the system coming in handy on little gravel back roads.

Value here is the real selling point for the Grand Vitara, which offers a V-6 for a price that's competitive with similarly equipped four-cylinder compact SUVs, plus a much longer list of standard equipment. The Grand Vitara now inherits the larger 2.7-liter V-6 from the XL-7 model. It's a DOHC, 24-valve, all-aluminum design with a variable induction system, for 20 more horsepower than last year's 2.5-liter-making 185 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. The V-6 is matched to either a five-speed manual transmission, or a five-speed automatic, which is what our test vehicle had.

More power, more weight

While the new Grand Vitara's 20 additional horsepower might seem impressive, for the full story you also need to consider that it gets up to 450 pounds of extra weight versus the 2005 model. The actual power-to-weight ratio is actually slightly lower for the '06, when you consider last year's top-luxury EX 4WD versus the '06 Luxury Package 4WD, which is what we drove.

For real-world driving, the 2.7-liter offers a slightly broader torque curve, and that helps make it feel peppier in everyday driving than the 2.5. The new engine is smooth and mostly vibration-free-thanks to hydraulic engine mounts-and more than adequate most of the time, but you'll be using much of what's available if you normally drive on hilly terrain or carry heavy loads. The throttle is tuned toward a deceivingly perky feel off the line, to give an illusion of beefy low-end torque that the engine still doesn't have a wealth of. As the 4.0-liter Ford Escape and the 3.7-liter Jeep Liberty evidence, there's still no substitute for displacement.

The five-speed automatic transmission is smooth and decisive in ordinary driving, but in some more demanding driving situation situations, it admittedly was hard to tell if the problem was a lack of engine torque or that the transmission was just downshift-happy. When we were climbing a steady six-percent grade on a stretch of nearby Interstate, the transmission insisted on staying in third gear, with the engine wailing near 5000 rpm, to keep moving with left-lane traffic at 65+ mph.

Gas mileage was a bit of a disappointment with our Grand Vitara test drive. We saw barely 16 mpg in a mix of urban/suburban driving, with the occasional heavy throttle foot. Another slight disappointment was cargo space; the passenger/cargo floor is higher than expected, and the heavy, side-opening tailgate can be difficult when parallel-parked.

Our Luxury model also included the Keyless Start system, which allows you to keep the key fob in your purse or pocket and simply turn the ignition tab to start the engine. A device such as this is not normally offered on vehicles in this price class; although the way in which you still had to turn a plastic tab on the steering column made it feel a bit like an aftermarket installation.

Very maneuverable and off-road capable

The Grand Vitara comes with either 2WD or 4WD models, with the 4WD models priced $1200-$1400 higher; the 4WD is a full-time time system; there's no two-wheel-drive. But there is a 4WD-Low range, and also a center differential lock; both can be engaged with an in-dash switch. For those buyers who do want to take their Grand Vitara off-road occasionally, we noted in an off-roading experience a few weeks prior to our road test that the Grand Vitara boasts above average maneuverability, which was especially of use when maneuvering between trees along a slick and muddy path.

Four trim levels are offered-base, Luxury, Premium, and Xsport-but it's the base and Luxury models that offer a lower price than much of the competition and the most equipment for the dollar. Our Luxury test vehicle carried a bottom-line price of $24,994 and included heated leather seats, high-end audio with a CD changer, side airbags and curtain airbags, stability control, anti-lock brakes, and power everything. There are no factory options. Even the base model at $19,594 includes ABS, front side-impact airbags, keyless entry, and automatic climate control-more vehicle and features for money than much of the competition, which includes the Jeep Liberty, Ford Escape, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Saturn Vue, and Chevy Equinox, among others.

The Suzuki does have a significant advantage over most of the competition-one of the best warranties in the business, with a three-year, 36,000-mile basic warranty (including roadside assistance) and zero-deductible coverage for seven years or 100,000 miles on powertrain components. The powertrain coverage is fully transferable to subsequent owners.

Overall, we see the Grand Vitara being worth consideration for two main reasons: its high level of standard equipment and sheer value, and its class-leading warranty. If you need to tow a small boat or trailer on a regular basis, the Grand Vitara might especially be the right vehicle for you. But if you need a compact SUV almost exclusively for on-road passenger and cargo duty, one of the more economical, carlike competitors might be more to your liking. The tough and stylish Grand Vitara is a standout in its segment, but what makes it a standout also makes it only a so-so proposition for city-dweller SUV drivers.

2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara

Base price/as equipped: $24,399/$24,994

Engine: 2.7-liter V-6, 185 hp/184 lb-ft

Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, four-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 176.0 x 71.3 x 66.7 in

Wheelbase: 103.9 in

Curb weight: 3682 lb

EPA (city/hwy): 19/23 mpg

Safety equipment: Dual front two-stage airbags, driver and front passenger seat-mounted side airbags, front and rear side-curtain airbags, Electronic Stability Program, anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution

Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, automatic climate control, Smartpass keyless start, Homelink remote system, power windows/locks/mirrors, heated seats/mirrors, leather upholstery, tilt steering wheel w/ audio controls, cruise control, sunroof, six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3/XM-ready sound system w/ subwoofer, six-disc in-dash CD changer

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles; seven years/100,000 miles powertrain, transferable