We switch the Suzuki's four-mode four-wheel drive into the 4L Lock position and begin our ascent of the muddy hill. It isn't exactly K2, but recent rains have left much of the Santa Monica Mountains sloppy enough for it to challenge the 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara Luxury.
Not all the vehicles in the small-SUV category could make it to the top, but we're having fun and so is our little truck. The completely redesigned Grand Vitara may be larger and more comfortable than its predecessor, but it still maintains the off-road nature of the original. It's a feisty little SUV eager to climb its way to the summit.
Fully equipped Unlike the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, the Grand Vitara is no longer offered with a four-cylinder. It's only available with a V6 in either rear-wheel drive or full-time four-mode four-wheel drive. There are no options; just choose which wheel drive you want and you're ready to go. Standard equipment includes cruise control and an in-dash, six-disc CD player with steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.
Step up to the top-of-the-line Grand Vitara 4WD Luxury, like our test car, and the standard equipment list swells to include a five-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, wood grain trim and an electric sunroof. Safety features include front and rear curtain airbags, front-passenger side airbags and adjustable headrests for all five passengers. As tested, our Grand Vitara's sleek new lines looked more expensive than its $24,399 price tag.
An electronic stability control system is also part of the package, which can be disengaged by pressing the big round "ESP OFF" button on the dash for at least 3 seconds. This shuts down the program until the vehicle reaches 19 mph, at which time it turns itself back on. The low-speed disengagement is really only helpful if the truck is stuck in sand or snow, or according to Mike Anson of American Suzuki public relations, "if you want to do burnouts."
In the driver seat In our slalom testing, this 66.7-inch-tall SUV showed surprising sportiness. It skipped through our 600-foot slalom at 61.5 mph. The last RAV4 we tested achieved 61.3 mph in the same test.
The Suzuki's power-assisted rack and pinion steering is quick and exact and its overall handling is more carlike than its trucky forerunner. This new version features unibody construction enhanced with ladder-frame design elements which Suzuki claims makes on-roading more bearable but still allows for off-roading when you just gotta get up that hill.
Independent MacPherson strut front suspension and independent multilink rear suspension keep the Grand Vitara's nose from diving but allow its haunches maneuverability. The athleticism is appreciated, but the Suzuki has a bumpy ride, which can get tiring after long periods.
Deceleration is also very good. At the test track, ventilated front disc brakes and rear drums brought the vehicle from 60-0 mph in just 125 feet, which is average for the class. Braking remained consistent run after run, but by the end of our testing day the drums were starting to squeal.
Driving out loud All Grand Vitaras are equipped with a 2.7-liter, six-cylinder engine with 24 valves and four camshafts. Maximum output is 185 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 184 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm, which is well behind the 269 hp and 246 lb-ft of torque made by the RAV4's V6.
In our acceleration testing, the Grand Vitara lumbered noisily from zero to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds, more than 2 seconds slower than the Toyota. The quarter-mile is managed in an equally sluggish 17.2 seconds.
So it's not quicker than a speeding bullet but the engine responds well to throttle inputs and is game on the highway. Above 60 mph, the five-speed automatic downshifts without much prodding, which gives the Vitara better passing power than the acceleration times would indicate. Still, if Suzuki wants the Vitara to keep up with the best-selling RAV, it needs to add power to its package.
Drivetrain complaints are limited to the transmission's annoying tendency to downshift abruptly when you're braking moderately on slight downhill grades. It's rough enough for passengers to comment, but not so bad that we didn't get used to it. Fuel mileage is also iffy. We averaged under 17 mpg, but were admittedly heavy-footed during our week with the little truck.
We did a fair bit of off-roading with the Grand Vitara's four-mode four-wheel-drive system. The 4H mode is for navigating the highways and byways of everyday driving. The 4H locking mode locks the center differential when conditions get slippery. The 4L Lock mode is for tackling seriously muddy, rocky hills. In this mode the differential is always locked and was reassuring when coming back down our muddy hill. The fourth mode is Neutral, which allows you to tow the vehicle on all four wheels without racking up mileage.
Feels roomy Suzuki has added about 6 inches to the Grand Vitara's wheelbase and 11.5 inches to its length. Although it's still shorter than the CR-V and RAV4, the Grand Vitara is now slightly wider than both.
For being a so-called small SUV, the interior feels roomy. Rear legroom has increased by almost 7 inches and front hiproom has increased by 5 inches. Some rear passengers would have appreciated a little more headroom, which is down an inch from last year, but the reclining rear bench doesn't feel cramped. Although the front bucket seats aren't exactly plush, they are supportive and comfortable.
Luggage capacity is significantly smaller than its rivals at just 23.8 cubic feet, but fold down the Grand Vitara's second-row 40/60-split-folding bench and get 67.3 cubic feet of total cargo capacity. That's an increase of 17.5 cubic feet over last year and comes fairly close to the competition.
While the rear door swings open to the right making curb access difficult, the door is easy to open and close and saves interior space by housing the spare tire on its back.
Spiffy on the inside Along with added people room, Suzuki spiffed up the look and feel of the cabin. Attractive, well-positioned gauges with brushed aluminum accents, heated leather seats and spare usage of wood grain trim are pleasing to the eye. It's not quite as luxurious as the name of the package suggests, but it is fairly comfortable for an inexpensive off-roader.
We found some minor annoyances that bear mentioning. Interior storage is especially stingy and the mpg counter, which updates your fuel economy every second, is useless. We think miles to refueling would be more helpful.
We also found that while reaching for the brake, we kept hitting our foot on the plastic overhang above the pedals.
Conclusion The 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara Luxury strikes a nice balance of on-road comfort and off-road ability. Suzuki has added size and power to its package, while keeping its price below a top-of-the-line CR-V and RAV4. As a result, it's much better equipped to climb uphill in this competitive market segment.
Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton says: Being the husband of a '99 Honda CR-V driver, I'm always on the look out for a suitable replacement for our busy family vehicle. We really like the combination of the CR-V's cargo space, the everyday drivability, the all-weather confidence of light-duty all-wheel drive, and the decent fuel economy. What we don't care for is the low-rent interior and some annoying design shortcuts like the rear cargo door which swings out (left-to-right) to block the curb.
Why do I go on about the CR-V? Because the 2006 Grand Vitara appears to be a worthy replacement. The little Suzuki 4x4 has always been in my peripheral vision, but purposely pushed there because of its truck-based ladder-on-frame underpinnings. So, the introduction of the '06 model, with its new combo unibody/frame rail design plus Suzuki-traditional 4x4 gearing for our occasional camping trips intrigued me.
I love the look of the new Suzuki, inside and out. Its contemporary exterior looks far more upscale than one would expect from Suzuki, especially at that price. The interior, too, at least in the "Luxury" model, looks and feels like a vehicle costing more than $25,000.
Plus, unlike the Suzuki, our stalwart CR-V has never been offered with a V6. After just one drive home in the Grand Vitara, did I realize that our '99 CR-V still has a secure spot in the garage. The Suzuki's 2.7-liter, 185-hp V6 sounds and feels heavily taxed by the 3,700-pound vehicle under acceleration. The Grand Vitara's ride is still decidedly trucky, unable to compete with the seven-year-old Honda which offers a more carlike ride on the freeway. Handling, however, is quite good. The Suzuki's steering is quick and sporty and the tires offer a useful amount of grip — both traits that were unexpected in what otherwise feels like an underpowered truck.
In the end, my good first impression of the Grand Vitara was spoiled by actually driving it. It really is too bad, because it's appealing on so many other levels.
Senior Features Editor Joanne Helperin says: As the old song goes, "It never rains in Southern California . It pours." And when it does, cars crash — a lot. That gave me a great opportunity to test out the foul-weather capabilities of the all-new 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara.
With their higher center of gravity, SUVs are generally less safe to drive than sedans or wagons. So safety features are first priority. The Grand Vitara has all the important safety goodies, plus headlight dusk sensors and daytime running lights — all standard. The only feature it lacks is a rollover sensor, which unfortunately is often reserved for the high-end makes.
I found the Grand Vitara to be sure-footed and nimble, maintaining good traction even through deep puddles and around the turns. The engine seemed a touch whiny, but acceleration was smooth and solid. The handling made it fun to drive and gave me confidence on the road, reminding me of the larger Mitsubishi Endeavor.
And I was comfortable: The seat bolsters hugged me perfectly; the dash and center stack controls flowed well and were easy to read. Moreover, the car's interior was stylish and unified, without a lot of extraneous pieces and distractions. The rear seats were simple enough to flip and fold, and there are plenty of cubbies for stowing small gear throughout the interior. Overall, driving the Grand Vitara was a very pleasant experience, even in the rain.
My only real knocks: First, I tried out the rear seat, and it needs more headroom. Second, I dislike rear tailgates hinged on the right side, because unloading cargo or groceries to the curb is very inconvenient — and dangerous on busy roads.
Overall, you get a lot for your money with the Grand Vitara. So long as it gets good crash test scores, it will be the first Suzuki to steal mind-share — if not profits — from its Japanese and Korean rivals.
"What a surprising little SUV! The Grand Vitara is a HUGE advance for Suzuki. The external AND internal styling, materials, and fit and finish are absolutely top-rate! My wife and I compared and drove all of its closest Japanese competitors — and it knocked the socks off them! The interior is particularly good — with a modern, robust, rattle- and creak-free cockpit. Its legroom is surprisingly good, although the trunk is smaller than the Toyota RAV4's. Its gas mileage is perhaps not the best, but it is still quite acceptable. The 4-mode full-time AWD and the proper ladder-type chassis seem to be a more robust alternative and a cut above its more carlike SUV competitors, and the 7-year warranty is very reassuring. I HIGHLY recommend this vehicle!" — Barry, February 25, 2006
"The 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara has an outstanding design. It is an exceptionally well-executed vehicle for an unbeatable price. Unfortunately, it has no alarm system and aftermarket alarms are incompatible with keyless start/fob. Also, there is no tint band on the windshield. It doesn't have a remote gas flap release and it is a bit noisy. Other things that I don't like about it include its vague throttle response, lack of a glove compartment light and mudflaps, inaccurate gas mileage readout, and the silly luxury features that are bundled with the low-range gearing. The rest of this truck is great. It begs to be cornered fast and has amazing traction. It's an amazingly sure-footed vehicle. It comes with lots of standard safety features. We plan to keep it a long time." — Sgrant, February 3, 2006
"I bought the 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara before learning about the new Toyota RAV4 that's coming soon. The RAV's 269 horsepower and 28 mpg highway sound better than my Grand Vitara's 185 horsepower and 23 mpg. Especially since I have averaged less than 19 mpg, having driven 7,000 miles in the two months since I bought it. Who knows, maybe Toyota's fuel economy ratings are also exaggerated and the Grand Vitara is less expensive than the RAV4 will be. Otherwise, this is a very nice SUV that handles much better than average, has a great interior, comfortable seats, tons of features and excellent inclement weather handling. The traction control and AWD work wonderfully in snow and ice." — Patagonia, January 14, 2006
"I've been waiting to trade my Chevy Blazer ZR2 with 88,000 miles on it for an SUV that's just as 'cool.' The Suzuki Grand Vitara fits that bill! I like the firm 'truck ride' but unlike my old Blazer the GV is smooth and quiet. The GV is one of the few remaining small SUVs with a real 4WD. It's a great-looking SUV and feels good, too!" — Suzuki Bob, December 27, 2005
System Score: 6.0
Components: Our Grand Vitara was the four-wheel-drive luxury model. That version comes standard with an in-dash, six-disc CD changer that can read MP3 CDs and WMA files. It has six speakers, is XM radio-ready and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls are standard. No other stereo is available on this version of the Grand Vitara.
Performance: This stereo is just OK. It does offer the option of satellite radio, a first for Suzuki, but the sound quality is lacking.
The sound has sort of a hollow feel overall and the highs are not well defined. A great stereo would have sharp highs that add detail to the music but in this case nothing really sparkles. There is no midrange adjustment which is too bad because we think taking some of the mids down would clean up the sound. Bass response is probably this system's best quality but it isn't punchy or well defined.
We like the fact that the Grand Vitara's stereo can play MP3 and WMA file but we were left wishing for a larger display screen to make navigating folders easier. The steering-wheel-mounted buttons work well and are nicely placed; both volume control and track select buttons are placed right next to each other. However, we'd like the buttons to be a little bigger.
Also, more than one editor commented that the process for ejecting multiple CDs is cumbersome. Once you eject a CD, the stereo reverts to the radio. To continue ejecting CDs you have to push "CD" then the slot number of the disc you want to eject next, then push "Eject."
Best Feature: Available XM radio.
Worst Feature: Thin, hollow sound quality.
Conclusion: The Grand Vitara's stereo is not the vehicle's strong point. Still, it sounds adequate most of the time. However, if music is key to your off-road adventure or daily commute, you may want to swing by Best Buy on the way home from the auto mall. — Brian Moody