A welcome return to the days when off road meant something
by: JAIME VALDEZ, The Grand Vitara is handsome around town and ready to leave the  
pavement behind.

Talk about segmenting your market - Suzuki makes one of the most innovative and one of the most conventional Sports Utility Vehicles available today.

The innovative one is the S4X crossover, a small five-door hatchback that is also the least expensive all-wheel-drive vehicle on the market. The conventional one is the Grand Vitara, a throwback to those days when SUVs were actually designed to be driven off road. Its four-wheel-drive system not only has both high and low settings, the differentials can be locked in both of them for maximum traction in the toughest conditions.

Although all SUVs today are available with AWD or 4WD, most seem more designed for rainy and snowy streets than mountain trails. Give Suzuki credit for combining all those choices.

The downside is, even though it was upgraded in 2009, the Grand Vitara's ride is more truck-like than most of its competitors in the hot compact SUV market. That's not a surprise, since crossovers are based on cars and targeted at suburban buyers. The real shocker here is that Suzuki strengthened the frame on the Grand Vitara, which helps account for its more rough and ready manners.

Which is not to say the ride is bad. To the contrary, compared to the earliest SUVs, it is very smooth. Just not as smooth as the more car-like rides of the more car-like crossovers.

On the other hand, our test vehicle eagerly scrambled up and down poorly maintained roads in hilly parts of town without even having to be put into four-wheel-drive. Part of that may be because in two-wheel mode, the Grand Vitara is a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, not a front-wheel-drive one like other smaller SUVs.

Also helpful was the optional 3.2-liter V6 in our test model. Powerful and responsive, it offered good acceleration around town and during freeway passing conditions. It also helped maintain even speeds on hilly roads, creating the impression the Grand Vitara can handle almost anything in two-wheel-drive mode.

But when the heavy rains came, we were glad four-wheel-drive was available. A quickly flick of the dash mounted switch was all it took to activate the high mode. Even without switching to the locked differential high and low modes, the traction was tenacious on freeways and twisty country roads alike.

The Grand Vitara is the direct descendant of one of the longest running lines of compact SUVs. Suzuki was ahead of the curve with its original two-door Samurai and five-door Sidekick models in the late 1980s. They evolved into the Tracker, which was sold as a Geo by Chevrolet, and then grew into the slightly larger Vitara and the more upscale Grand Vitara, which were sold exclusively by Suzuki. Although significantly redesigned and upgraded over the years, the new version retains some of the styling cues from the earliest ones, including the bulging fenders and the small vents on side of the hood.

On the outside, the Grand Vitara shares the contemporary styling of most compact SUVs. It is primarily distinguished from them by the large, handsome air dam and grill, a look shared on the SX4 and forthcoming Suzuki Kizashi sedan. The spare tire is mounted in the back door, which swings out to the right - two other old-fashioned touches.

The interior is clean, with its relatively few controls mounted in a simple center console. Much of the plastic is hard but well-textured and fitted. Instead of wood or chrome trim, our test model came was faux marble inserts - different but not unattractive.

One small flaw was the shift gate for the automatic transmission, which felt awkward between park and drive. Another was the tendancy of the stereo to occasionally go silent when the navigation system switched between maps. This may only be a problem with our test model, not all Grand Vitara's, however.

Our test model also included leather seats, an upgraded stereo and a small navigation system that added luxury touches. Despite the Grand moniker, the Vitara is not a true premium compact crossover, like those produced by Acura, Lexus and Land Rover. Instead, its most direct competitors are the more affordable ones from Honda, Hyundai, Kia, and Mitsubishi. Although some may be more refined than the Grand Vitara, few are as ready to leave the pavement behind - which is what SUVs were originally supposed to be all about.

And if the Grand Vitara is more SUV than you need, check out the all-wheel-drive version of the SX4 for a true alternative.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2010 Grand Vitara (Limited tested).

• Manufacturer: Suzuki.

• Class: Compact SUV.

• Layout: Front engine, rear or four-wheel-drive (as tested).

• Style: Five door, five passenger.

• Engines: 2.4-liter inline 4 cylinder (166 hp.); 3.2-liter V6 (230 hp. - as tested.)

• Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 4-speed automatic; 5-speed automatic (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 17/23 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $20,000 (as tested $28,448).

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