Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
"The hot side stays hot while the cool side stays cool." "Tastes Great, Less Filling." "Strong enough for a man but made for a woman." Each of these familiar product slogans have the same hook — opposites that coexist. More to the point, they're opposites that complement each other to the point that they become the defining characteristic. And whether you're talking about a McDLT, Miller Light or a new SUV, it's the contrasts that make them interesting.
The 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara masters two competing opposites that often make or break so many small SUVs: on-road manners and off-road ability. Unlike the previous Grand Vitara (also sold as the Chevy Tracker), which was truck-based (had body-on-frame architecture) and quite capable in the rough, the new version features unibody construction. On a unibody vehicle, there is no separate frame and some body parts (such as the floors) are incorporated into the base structure of the car. The result is lighter weight and usually a smoother, more comfortable ride. But off-road ability is sacrificed as the unibody vehicle isn't as rugged.
In order to keep the previous Grand Vitara's off-road character, the new version incorporates a ladder frame into the unibody structure for an extra measure of off-road performance while still delivering a carlike highway feel. Like the new Chex Mix, it's "Sweet and Salty" at the same time. After a whole day of on- and off-road driving, we're happy to say that the unibody/ladder frame design works well. Off-road, the Grand Vitara tackled rutted trails and steep hills like a champ while still delivering a quiet and comfortable highway ride.
Off-road ability is further enhanced by full-time four-wheel drive with a locking center differential. It has three driving modes: "High Range" acts like a full-time all-wheel-drive system; "High Range Lock" locks the center differential for more demanding conditions like mud or snow; and "Low Range Lock" is for taking on the most serious off-road duties. We were especially impressed with how well the Grand Vitara's "Low Range Lock" kept the vehicle composed when coming down a steep hill. It feels a lot like a Jeep or Toyota as you can just keep your foot off both the brake and gas and let the drivetrain do its job. The Grand Vitara's ability to kick up dust is also enhanced by its 7.9-inch ground clearance.
The only downside to the Grand Vitara's off-road ability is that bumps are not well isolated and the large, swing-open-style rear door made quite a racket as the terrain got rockier.
Surely most Grand Vitara owners will primarily spend their time on the pavement and that's a much more pleasant experience when compared to the previous Vitara. We were very impressed by the new Grand Vitara's smooth ride and absence of engine noise, wind noise and road noise. This is by far the most pleasant, most refined Suzuki ever, with driving and handling characteristics that seem to meet or exceed those of other car-based SUVs like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V.
A V6 is now the only motor available on the Grand Vitara. This means the four-cylinder Vitara has been dropped and only the Grand Vitara remains. That V6 is a 2.7-liter unit making 185 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque — that's an increase of 20 hp, 22 lb-ft of torque and 0.2 liter of displacement over the 2005 Grand Vitara, and its engine stats are now identical to that of the Suzuki XL-7's. The Grand Vitara's V6 provides adequate if not abundant power. It never feels taxed or harsh and offers good power for passing and hill climbing. Ultimately it's the engine's smooth-revving demeanor that gets your attention.
Despite the single engine specification, the Grand Vitara is offered in three trim levels. The base version is rear-wheel drive only and has a five-speed manual transmission. It's priced at just under $20,000, but it's no stripped-down version. In fact, all 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitaras include features like micron air filtration, tinted rear windows, steering wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls, remote keyless entry, stability control, and ABS. The Premium Package adds features like alloy wheels and a six-CD changer.
But the real deluxe features are included on the XSport and the Luxury Package models. Most notable is the SmartPass system that allows you to enter and start the Grand Vitara without ever handling a key. The XSport also adds a five-speed automatic and fender flares. It's priced at $21,400 while the top-of-the-line Luxury version with leather, sunroof, 17-inch wheels and HomeLink will set you back $23,300.
But none of these things would be all that impressive if it weren't for the Grand Vitara's truly excellent interior. It's miles beyond anything we've seen from Suzuki in terms of style, materials quality and luxury. The dash incorporates nice textures and flowing lines, and the gauges are housed in an attractive three-circle fashion with each ring surrounded by faux aluminum trim. The center stack is also bordered by simulated aluminum trim and the stereo controls especially feel more upscale than expected.
The seats are comfortable for long drives, but the cloth seats feel a little comfier than the leather. However, the leather used on those seats is very soft. Overall, the Grand Vitara's interior looks and feels more like something out of a $30,000 SUV rather than a Suzuki with a starting price of $19,000.
Suzuki's 7-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty doesn't seem like a contrast at all but rather a perfect footnote to an already good car. In the end, this new compact SUV seamlessly combines rugged off-road worthiness with impressive on-road manners. It looks and feels civilized inside, but barely cracks the $23,000 price point. Like Icy Hot, it's the 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara's unexpected ability to balance opposites that makes it so appealing.
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