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2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara

Funny Name For A Serious Contender

    To satisfy my not insignificant curiosity I turned to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to see just what a Vitara is, because, as is often the case, no one here had a clue. As it turns out, neither does Webster. About the closest match was Viterbo, which I thought might be some kind of forced induction, but is actually someplace in central Italy. So I looked up grand and found several definitions, one of which is “very good”. Now we’re getting somewhere. It appears that whatever a Vitara is, this one is very good. Judging by the vehicle I just spent a few days with, a Vitara is a small SUV that can now compete with anything in its class without excuses.
     Let’s get the obvious improvements out of the way. The 2006 Grand Vitara has been given a complete restyle and, in the process, gone from back of the pack to leader of the pack overnight. In my opinion there’s nothing in this class that looks as modern or upscale as this Suzuki. That’s right, I just called a Suzuki upscale. Such high praise is earned by the jeweled headlamps, well-integrated fog lamps, clean flanks and flared fenders. For better or worse this new Grand Vitara retains the previous model’s side hinged rear gate and the spare tire is still stuck on the back like a giant magnet on a red refrigerator. Nine out of ten dentists agree: exposed spare tires aren’t that pretty. At least Suzuki hides it with an attractive hard cover. And to be fair, we understand there are reasons for doing this: namely, there isn’t anywhere else to put a full-size spare. While we are on the topic of wheels it should be mentioned that the new Grand Vitara sports an especially attractive set of 17” five-spoke alloys. Suzuki wraps those wheels with 225/65R tires on top-of-the-line Luxury models like ours. Less grand Vitaras must make do with 16” wheels.
     No matter how grand, all Vitaras get their go power from Suzuki’s 2.7-liter V6. Problem is, there’s only 185hp and 184 lb-ft of torque to go with. It doesn’t help that the torque peak lies at 4,500rpm and all the ponies don’t show up until 6,000rpm. Still, things feel a little livelier in the Grand Vitara than in the XL-7 we drove a while back, probably because the XL-7 had to move another 150 pounds. Suzuki should be commended for not cutting costs the easy way and slipping an ancient 4-speed in there because the 5-speed automatic makes the most out of the available power and rarely acts confused. It’s probably the main reason this drivetrain got by without seriously derogatory remarks showing up in the logbook. That’s not to say there weren’t any negative remarks. The engine sounds rough if you go looking for that 6,000rpm power peak, but drive like your Great Aunt and you’ll still only see 19/23 miles per gallon. A Chevy Trailblazer with its 291hp I6 manages 21 mpg on the highway, and it weighs a half-ton more. An updated V6 in the 3.5-liter range would really address the Grand Vitara’s weakest link.
     Like the styling, the interior was thoroughly improved from the previous generation Vitara’s, which we would have described using phrases like “uninspired”, “substandard” and “crappier than a ’93 Geo”. Now a modern layout with attractive materials and near faultless ergonomics meets drivers. We like the combination of earth tones broken up by silver trim and accented by faux wood on the center stack and around the window switches. The climate controls are well placed and clearly marked but the stereo falls prey to some confusingly labeled buttons and the display isn’t much better than what is on your solar calculator. Aside from the need for a better stereo, the remainder of the cabin deserves praise. The gated shifter looks surprisingly upscale, the electroluminescent three-gauge cluster is a model of easy readability and our Luxury model even had a keyless entry and start system. Those are nice additions to a price point that usually favors leanness over luxury. As a result of the Grand Vitara’s newfound length and width, interior headroom and front and rear legroom are all increased. Total storage space rises to 68.9 cubic feet (67.3 cu ft for the Luxury model) when the 60/40-split rear bench is lowered. That’s a bit more than the 68.6 cubic feet Chevrolet’s Equinox offers. Another notable highlight is Suzuki’s understanding of America’s perpetual thirst. Just in front of the adjustable center armrest is a nicely damped cover hiding two deep cup holders and the door pockets have carved out cup holders, as well. For the record, Suzuki continues to use the least leather-like leather extant and heated seats with only one setting.
     We’ve already mentioned the drivetrain, but there are other mechanical issues to discuss. Two four-wheel drive systems are offered: a full-time single-mode system or, for the more active, a full-time four-mode system. Our Luxury tester came standard with the four-mode system electronically controlled by a knob on the dash. It worked great in all weather conditions during our week with it. We don’t know if the standard ESP system ever intervened or not, but transparency is the point, we guess. You don’t see a lot of drum brakes anymore but you’ll find them on the back wheels of every Grand Vitara because four-wheel discs aren’t even an option. We were surprised that after such an extensive redesign Suzuki dropped the ball in this area. Yes, we know other vehicles have them too, the Equinox, for example, but discs are the way to go; at least make them an option. The four-wheel independent suspension is tuned for a composed ride and we have nothing to complain about in this area.
     As you might have noticed, the Luxury package includes every Grand Vitara feature in the book, including a power sunroof. For all that and a 10-year warranty Suzuki asks $24,699. Now for the first time the Grand Vitara is a serious contender in the small SUV game.

The Good:
Upscale looks, well equipped, just the right size for many, 10 year warranty.
The Bad:
Poor stereo design, single-mode heated seats, swing out rear gate, borderline underpowered, bargain basement leather, rear drum brakes.
The Verdict:
Despite the funny name, the new Grand Vitara is indeed, very good.


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