By Grant Yoxon
Photos by Greg Wilson
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Whistler, British Columbia — For 35 years Suzuki has been building off-road-capable sport utility vehicles with tough, truck-like body-on-frame construction. The Sidekick (1988-98) is prized today by off-roaders for its compact size and back woods toughness. The Suzuki Grand Vitara also had a full frame and a reputation for ruggedness.
Most manufacturers in this segment switched long ago to uni-body construction, to meet the market’s demand for enhanced on-road handling, a more comfortable ride and better fuel economy. Suzuki continued to sell a body-on-frame SUV.
But having one of the best and best-priced compact off-road SUVs on the market isn’t enough to be successful in today’s market where an SUV is more often regarded as an all-weather capable station wagon than a machine for going where normal vehicles can’t go.
So for 2006 Suzuki has tossed in the towel on body-on-frame and introduced a new Grand Vitara that features uni-body construction. But don’t assume Suzuki has turned its back on its off-road loyalists. This is a uni-body with a difference.
There is no frame in a normal uni-body, which incorporates various body parts such as the floor and roof into the base structure of the vehicle. But the 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara’s uni-body is welded onto a ladder frame.
This built-in ladder frame is capable of bearing the violent shocks often encountered in off-road usage, while giving the vehicle the advantages of a normal uni-body including enhanced on-road driving stability, better handling response and a low floor height that increases interior space.
Two 4X4 systems are available — a full-time all-wheel-drive system that transfers torque automatically and one that off-roaders will appreciate, a 4-mode, full-time four-wheel-drive system with a locking centre differential.
The 4-mode 4X4 system is available only on the fully-loaded, line-topping “JLX with leather” trim level, a fact that might discourage some who would consider this vehicle for off-road duty. But consider also that this equipment level is priced at just $29,995 and the whole value/utility equation comes sharply into focus.
One would be hard-pressed to find any SUV in this class as well equipped for both on and off road travel as the 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara.
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All Grand Vitaras include, as standard equipment, power steering, windows, door locks and mirrors, XM satellite-ready AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with 4-speakers, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, tilt steering and outside temperature display. Prices start at $24,495 with manual transmission and no air conditioning. With AC and 5-speed automatic transmission, the Grand Vitara JLA is $26,795.
Dual front airbags, dual front side airbags, side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, brake assist and electronic stability program with traction control are also standard equipment on all trim levels.
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For an additional $1000, add climate control, cruise control, privacy glass, 16-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, roof rails, heated power mirrors, two more speakers and a sub-woofer. $1000 more will get you Smartpass keyless entry and start system, in-dash 6-CD changer, power glass sunroof, leather-wrapped steering wheel and 17-inch alloy wheels. One more $1000 bill adds leather seating, heated front seats, Homelink garage door opener, wood trim accents and Suzuki’s 4-mode four-wheel-drive system.
Not a bad deal.
While we didn’t get the opportunity to determine the limits of the Grand Vitara’s off-road capability — Suzuki needed its vehicles for other journalists to drive — we did travel over an extremely bumpy, if not overly challenging logging road through the mountains near Whistler.
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The 4-mode 4X4 system has three driving modes: “4-high” for daily on-road driving, “4-high locked” for slippery situations such as on gravel and snowy roads, and “4-low locked” for low speed driving capability in extreme off-road situations. A neutral mode is also available to tow the Grand Vitara behind a motor home, for example, without running up the odometer.
Most of our time was spent in 4-low locked climbing and descending steep, rocky slopes. We were particularly impressed with the Grand Vitara’s controlled descent. The 4-low locked position maintains a steady speed, with little or no requirement for braking, much like hill descent control on more expensive SUVs. The Suzuki’s traction control kicked in, albeit a bit noisily, to brake slipping wheels and transfer torque to wheels with traction. Ground clearance is 200 mm (7.9 in.), more than enough for most situations.
But the reality is that most buyers opting for the JLX with leather will view the upgraded 4×4 system as a bonus, having recognized that the Suzuki Grand Vitara offers tremendous value, with many excellent luxury features rarely found in a vehicle costing less than $30,000.
The interior is a big improvement over the previous generation Grand Vitara in terms of quality of materials, design and finish. The seats were comfortable on our drive back to Vancouver, although my aging posterior preferred the cloth seats over the leather, which felt a bit too firm.
The driver faces three large metal ringed gauges, through a steering wheel with audio controls on one side and cruise controls on the other. The shifter is also bordered by faux metallic trim. All controls on the centre stack are well-laid out with sound system controls on top, heating and ventilation controls below and 4-wheel drive (if equipped) and traction control switches below that. The centre armrest moves forward and back for comfort.
The Grand Vitara is on the larger side of the compact SUV segment, so there is plenty of leg room for rear passengers, who also benefit from rear seats that recline.
The rear door is a swing out type that opens to the left, away from the curb, a negative in our opinion. But as the spare tire is mounted on the rear door, a lift-up type is not possible. Most manufacturers have found other locations for the spare tire, but Suzuki regards the rear-door mounted spare as something of a trademark.
On the positive side, the rear-mounted spare frees up cargo space inside. Behind the rear seat is .69 cu. metres (24.4 cu.ft.) of luggage space, a good volume for a compact vehicle. The rear seat is split 60/40, and each side flips and folds forward to allow for additional cargo space, as much as 1.97 cu. Metres (68.9 cu. ft.). A cargo cover is standard as well as four tie-down hooks and a two-position rear cargo light.
There isn’t much left of the old Grand Vitara in the new Grand Vitara except the name and, in a related way, the standard 2.7-lire V6 engine, which was borrowed, with modification, from Suzuki’s other SUV, the XL-7.
For smaller SUVs, this engine is on the large size, producing 185 hp and 184 lb.-ft. of torque and giving the Grand Vitara a 1,360 kg (3000 lb.) towing capacity. The V6 had more than enough strength to power up the long hills on the highway to Whisler, but could become quite noisy when pressed. Fuel consumption, according to Natural Resources Canada, is 12.4 L/100 km (23 mpg) in the city and 9.3 L/100 km on the highway when equipped with automatic transmission, not class leading, but decent for a V6.
Nothing remains of the old Grand Vitara in terms of on-road demeanour either. The comfort and ride quality of the new SUV is far superior, although the ride may be a bit firm for some. As well, a fair bit of road noise from the Grand Vitara’s tires interfered with an otherwise quiet, comfortable and refined interior.
Suzuki is looking to sell some 4000 Grand Vitara’s this year, way more than it sold last year. To do that though, it will need to convince buyers, in the face of plenty of competition, to give the Grand Vitara a serious look. Based on our first impression, the 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara not only deserves serious consideration, but should be a “must see” for anyone considering a compact SUV.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara is on sale now.