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Grand Vitara moves up to a tougher league

October 21, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN / Wheelbase Communications

The once cute and cuddly Grand Vitara has entered into adolescence, sporting new styling, added features and a gutsier powerplant.

In its previous life, the little Suzuki could have easily been mistaken for a play-toy pretender due to its diminutive dimensions and modest-output motor. However, looks could be deceiving as the Grand Vitara's rugged body-on-frame construction and two-speed transfer case gave it plenty of go-anywhere capability that belied its cute-ute status.

For 2006, the all-new five-passenger Grand Vitara has been built to be just as road or trail worthy and promises to be a whole lot more roomier and comfortable as it ranges through the rough stuff.

Now using a platform loosely based on the Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent (both models are constructed alongside the Suzuki at the same Canadian plant), the GV features a unitized construction, which means the body is its own structural element. And although there are some visual clues as to its lineage, the GV is constructed about a foot shorter than its General Motors cousins and its wheelbase has been shrunk by more than eight inches.

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The larger and decidedly more attractive silhouette completely changes the GV's image to one that exudes greater strength and toughness, qualities that sport-ute fans seem to very much appreciate. But it also means Suzuki is playing in a much more competitive league populated by products that include, among others, the Ford Escape, Jeep Liberty, Subaru Forester and Honda CR-V. Purposely absent from this list is Toyota's wildly successful RAV4 that has been elevated to the next rung for 2006 by virtue of its three-row seating capacity.

Fortunately, the GV has Suzuki's years of off-roading experience on its side, along with the tools to match - or even overtake - its peers.

For example, while most vehicles in the GV's class, or any class for that matter, offer two- or optional four- or all-wheel drive, Suzuki makes available all three drive systems. Buyers wanting only the look of an SUV can go with a rear-drive GV while those folks who value all-weather on-road traction can select the single-mode all-wheel-drive setup. The most adventurous can order the full-time 4x4 version with a transfer case that locks a center differential for highway or trail travel. It can also be switched into low range when crawling over boulders or slogging through back-country mud and crud.

Regardless of the choice, there is only a single 2.7-liter DOHC V-6 engine available that delivers 185 horsepower (20 more than last year's 2.5-liter V-6) and 184 lb.-ft. of torque.

Connected to this motor is a five-speed manual transmission or optional five-speed automatic.

Beyond the GV's improved drivetrain is a virtual cornucopia of standard content, including climate control, tilt steering, anti-lock brakes, keyless remote entry, cruise control, four-speaker stereo with steering-wheel controls, outside temperature gauge and traction and stability control.

The GV's four option packages contain features such as leather seats, alloy wheels, 17-inch rims, upgraded sound system, roof rails, heated outside mirrors and Suzuki's Smart Pass that conveniently allows drivers to open and start their GV with the key fob in their pocket or purse.

As the Grand Vitara enters a new level of size and comfort, it hasn't forgotten its frugal roots. Loaded-up base 4x2 versions list for less than $20,000, freight included, and even the most luxurious four-wheel-drive models can be had for around $25,000.

That should help make the new adult-sized Grand Vitara easy to live with as well as a joy to drive.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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