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2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara

     For a long time, there was nothing grand about Suzuki’s Grand Vitara.
     This small, ugly vehicle was the red-headed stepchild of SUVs, constantly getting one-upped by the Ford Escape, Honda CRV, Nissan Xterra, Jeep Liberty and other great competitors. The only good reason to buy it was the price, and even that was coming under attack as competition among mini-SUVs reached a white-hot frenzy, translating into dirt-cheap prices for vehicles that were much better than this one.
     Well, Suzuki has finally gotten around to making the Grand Vitara a little grander for 2006. It’s still not an industry benchmark — not even close — but it does offer a solid value and can, at long last, compete head-to-head with the popular mini-utes.
     The drastic improvement would be apparent from across a football field, as the new Grand Vitara looks a heck of a lot better than the one it replaces. While the old one looked like a squished Subaru pieced together from Rubbermaid plastic and hot glue, this one actually looks like a proper SUV should.
     It seems as though Suzuki’s designers took inspiration from the latest German cars and SUVs, as the new Grand Vitara’s body is clean and simple with the same understated elegance as a Volkswagen Touareg or the latest BMW X5. The side profile looks almost Audi-esque with its dramatic fender flares and delicately sloping door panels, giving the overall impression of a vehicle that’s much more expensive than it is.


      Inside, while it’s not quite as impressive as the new body, Grand Vitara buyers will have nothing to be ashamed of in the cabin. There’s more space than in the average compact SUV, and the fit and finish of materials is right on par with what you’d expect in the Escape or Liberty. It’s no luxury car, sure enough, but it’s a relatively nice cabin and appears to be constructed well, without a hint of rattles or squeaks.
     This solid feeling is largely because of the vehicle’s new chassis. It has a car-like, unibody shell that rides on top of a truck-like rail frame, allowing a terrific combination of on-road comfort and off-road capability.
     The ride is outstanding for a vehicle with a truck frame. It’s not quite a smooth and supple as the Escape or CRV, but those vehicles don’t have a truck-style frame and hence aren’t meant for heavy-duty, off-road driving.
     On the other hand, the Grand Vitara has a significantly smoother and more responsive road feel than the Liberty and Xterra, both of which are designed to be off-road marvels, like mountain goats made of metal. The Suzuki is a great choice for people who need real 4×4 capability but don’t want the bouncy, harsh, noisy ride that most 4x4s force you to endure.
     I’m usually not a fan of tacking on lots of goodies to a low-priced vehicle, but in the case of the new Grand Vitara I think a fully loaded version could be an outstanding bargain. It tops out around $25,000, whereas most of its competitors can reach $7,000 to $10,000 more than that when you add all the bells and whistles.
     Every version of the Grand Vitara comes with the same V6 engine, a 2.7-liter powerplant that makes 185 horsepower. It’s a good engine, but it would be nice if Suzuki offered a four-cylinder model to help people cope with today’s fuel prices.
     The base model costs a hair under $19,000, which includes two-wheel drive, automatic climate control with air filtration, cruise control, power everything and a great stereo that can play MP3 CDs. Four-wheel drive costs $1,200 more.
     A $900 premium package adds alloy wheels, a six-disc CD changer and privacy glass, which is a fancy way of saying “tinted windows.”
     The XSport model includes the premium package and an automatic transmission for around $21,000. It also comes with the SmartPass keyless entry and start system.
     The Luxury model adds leather seats, woodgrain trim, an electric sunroof, 17-inch wheels, a built-in garage door opener and a few other upgrades for $23,000.
     Overall, the new Grand Vitara is a great value, offering some upscale features that normally come in SUVs with a much higher price tag. It’s got a comfortable cabin, smooth ride, off-road capability and good looks, which is a huge step above the vehicle it replaces.
     That’s finally a reason to call it grand.


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