by Martin Padgett Jr.
Life is grand in the newest Suzuki.
Base Price $19,999
As Tested $20,429
Suzuki's Grand Vitara is a standout among the new mini-SUVs. Totally new for 1999, the Grand Vitara is one of the few SUVs in this class that's built on truck-based principles -- live axles and two-speed transfer cases. It's also the only mini-utility to offer a V6 engine -- and it's a slick powerplant at that.
With 155 horsepower from its new V6, the Grand Vitara JLX+ has power that the 4-cylinder Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V simply can't match. Mate that V6 to a five-speed transmission, and the Grand Vitara turns as racy as a tall wagon can get. On-demand four-wheel drive and a five-link rear suspension with coil springs make it better prepared to rumble over rocks and rutted trails than the its car-based competition.
Aside from the Jeep Cherokee and Wrangler, no other mini-utilities offer the same levels of gravel-ready power and capability as this new Suzuki. On the road or off the beaten trail, the Grand Vitara makes a convincing argument for being the best mini-utility.
This time last year, the Grand Vitara's place in the Suzuki lineup was occupied by the cute but toy-like Sidekick. Though it had off-road capability and a low sticker price, the aging Sidekick was overrun by the roomy and sophisticated Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester.
Suzuki now offers a full line of mini sport-utilities, from the $13,919 two-door Vitara JS with two-wheel drive and a 1.6-liter engine to the loaded $21,429 Grand Vitara with four doors, four-wheel drive, a 2.5-liter V6 and an automatic transmission. In between is a line of four-door Vitaras with 2.0-liter engines that start at $15,829. Most people will opt for the Grand Vitara. All Grand Vitaras come with a 155-horsepower V6. It's Suzuki's first V6 engine and, at just 2.5 liters, is among the smallest V6s ever sold in a car in the U.S. Suzuki's V6 doesn't act small, though. Its stout-hearted performance transforms the Vitara into something truly grand among mini-utilities. The top-of-the line Grand Vitara JLX+ comes with anti-lock brakes and alloy wheels. The stand-alone plus package can be ordered on less expensive JS models.
When it comes to off-road driving, the base Grand Vitara JS stands on the sidelines -- it's strictly a rear-driver. But it offers a long list of standard trim equipment, including power mirrors, power steering, intermittent wipers, air conditioning, power window and door locks, an AM/FM cassette with 4 speakers, cruise control, dual cupholders, and tinted glass.
If it's trail riding you want, opt for the JLX and its standard four-wheel drive, a straightforward system that's easy to use and capable of pulling the Grand Vitara through the worst muck and mess. And while the RAV4 and CR-V offer only all-wheel-drive systems without low-range transfer cases, the Grand Vitara has a 4WD Low gear, essential for creeping over bigger rocks and slogging through thicker mud. The 4WD system can be engaged into 4WD High at speeds up to 62 mph, and locks its hubs automatically.
The standard JLX transmission is a five-speed manual gearbox. A four-speed automatic transmission is optional. It features a locking torque converter, which engages in third and fourth gears to reduce transmission slippage and increase fuel economy and power.
The Inside Story
Automakers tell us buyers really appreciate the high seating position of sport utilities, but don't like to climb into their vehicles. The Grand Vitara meets these complaints head-on: it's easy to clamber in to, but offers a commanding view of the road ahead.
From the driver's seat, that great view is clouded only by a couple of minor quirks. The stereo controls are too tiny and too numerous. The steering wheel is angled slightly upward from the bottom, but does offer a good range of tilt. The front seats offer good support, but are a bit on the narrow side.
Interior space and cargo capability are first-rate, though. Head room is akin to a European cathedral. No need to worry about fitting inside with a Stetson. Rear-seat leg room is good, considering the Suzuki's smaller proportions, and the seats seem to work better than those in front. The rear seats flip forward to make a huge carrying payload, but even when up, a sizeable cargo area remains behind them. The Grand Vitara's rear door swings out to the right, more like a Toyota RAV4 than a Ford Explorer. A cargo cover to hide packages from roving eyes would be appreciated, though.
The warm gray plastics and tweedy seat covers in the Grand Vitara look durable and pleasing. Suzuki has a reputation for vehicles that come tightly screwed together, and our Grand Vitara gave us no reason to doubt its quality. The silver paint was lustrous, and the body-on-frame vehicle showed no squeaks and rattles.
Ride & Drive
The Grand Vitara proved an easy travel partner for a weekend in the Georgia mountains. With its useful cargo area and V6 power, it felt more akin to a sports coupe than the other mini-SUVs.
The cut and thrust of the Grand Vitara really isn't matched by any other mini-utilities. A small tip of the throttle and the Grand Vitara lunges forward. While aerodynamics and a hefty 3127-pound curb weight take the edge off as speeds rise, the Grand Vitara's 160 foot-pounds of torque make themselves known in city driving.
With four valves per cylinder, the V6 revs smoothly and builds power quickly. Peak torque arrives at 4000 rpm, peak horsepower at a lofty 6000 rpm, and still, the Grand Vitara JLX can get 19 mpg in the city, 21 on the highway. We observed slightly better economy figures in mixed driving.
Our Grand Vitara came with a five-speed manual gearbox, which is a surprisingly smooth-shifting transmission. The clutch pedal lets go a little high, but the lever moves cleanly between gears, with a light and direct feel. It has a tall shift lever with a rubber accordion boot that's truck-like in its finish, one of the few reminders in the Suzuki that you're driving a truck.
Suzuki has done a great job of making the Grand Vitara's body structure strong and rattle-free. It seems sturdy enough to take serious on- and off-road punishment. And yet the Grand Vitara is fairly quiet, without a lot of rolling noise from the drivetrain or suspension. The engine and transmission have a slight whine that grows as speeds increase, but it barely requires the driver to speak up.
Given our druthers, the Grand Vitara's steering is the first thing we'd change. Off-roaders need some play on center to absorb kickback from large bumps. The Grand Vitara has a bit too much of that play. On the road, its steering slack is noticeable, and takes some attention to keep on a clean track.
If the most off-roading you do is the rutted road home, the Grand Vitara won't disappoint. But it's surprisingly capable of rougher stuff, thanks to 8.0 inches of ground clearance and a short wheelbase. Some minor-league dirt paths proved no problem for the Grand Vitara, even after a pounding rain. It's hard to imagine anyone taking a $20,000 vehicle and really putting it through its paces off road -- but it's not hard to imagine the Suzuki passing the test with flying colors.
The Grand Vitara excels in medium-duty off-roading and in darting between commuter traffic. It's got the SUV stance for great visibility, and a light clutch and shifter that take the edge off of stop-and-go traffic.
Suzuki's Grand Vitara bears little resemblance to the smaller, leaner Sidekick that came before it. Sophisticated for a small truck, the Grand Vitara offers cabin room for four adults in comfort, a simple four-wheel drive system, and a snappy V6 engine unlike anything else in the class.
Weekend thrill seekers who need a tall wagon to ferry their kayaks to remote places will groove on the Grand Vitara. But it will also serve well for those of us who simply want an all-purpose vehicle with a strong dose of SUV flair.
The Grand Vitara shines brightest as a sort of economy commuter for the outdoorsy types. Monday through Friday, it can squirt between bigger SUVs with the nimble responses of a compact sedan. On the weekends, it stuffs itself with backpacks and outdoor gear, no problem. That's why it's one of the most enjoyable SUVs to drive -- regardless of size.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.