Despite the fact that this town is so full of startlingly different personalities and individuals, there does seem to be one, unifying factor: LA inhabitantsí love of big, in your face, vehicles. Never mind that this is no war zone - although some might beg to differ - the Hummer is King of the kerb-mounting brigade, and eventhough the majority of these vehicles is unlikely to face any terrain more taxing than the school run, they represent a formidable force in the automotive buying market.
And so it was that I got a Suzuki Grand Vitara V6 delivered to my door. And a welcome sight it was too. Resplendent in two-tone Baltic blue and Silky Silver, this was a stylish addition to the street, and an original one too. Vitaras have been present on British streets for many years, but not so here. I have many memories of bombing around London with a good friend of mine in her 2-door version. And thatís going back at least 5 years, if not more. But they have only just been introduced onto the American market; the 4 door version arrived here in December and the 2 door version this January. Iím afraid I have not uncovered the reason for this delay, but it seems strange that, given itís success over there, it was not brought here sooner.
In any case, given the amount of competition which the Vitara must face, I feel it is ably equipped to hold itís own. It looks great, with strong, clean lines, and although I drove the Grand Vitara 4-door, it did not drive like a big vehicle. Itís actually deceptively short and maneuverable, gripping the road well and cornering nicely, although I do admit to taking the first few corners rather gingerly - better to find out the limitations first, rather than have them demonstrated to you as you corner that bit too fast and end up in a heap.
The 2.5 litre, 24-valve, 4-cam, V6 engine is a joy to have under the bonnet. This SUV had some serious get up and go that made for an extremely enjoyable, and responsive, drive. It generates around 155 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and produces a best-in-its-class torque of 160 lb-ft at around 4,000 rpm. This represents impressively powerful acceleration off the mark and a constant supply of power when you need it. Indeed, I did not once feel under-powered in the this SUV and there was always a little extra in the reserves if I needed it. The engine, as my previous experience of Vitaras had taught me, is not that quiet, but makes a great, gravely sound so was not, in any way, a distraction, and in fact thereís something quite reassuring about an engine roaring into action, ever responsive to changes in gradient and traffic flow. The brakes were responsive and punchy and the Vitara stayed in shape, even under severe or sudden braking conditions, and in the wet. Which is nice to know I think! Four-sensor, 3-channel ABS is standard on the + models, but the other models have 4-wheel, power assisted brakes whose front ventilated discs help dissipate heat, and feature a load-sensing proportioning valve that adjusts brake pressure according to the weight on the rear wheels for maximum braking efficiency. Apparently.
The gear box was almost industrial in nature, very sturdy, almost clunky, but I donít mean this in a bad way. In fact it added to the solid feel of the Vitara and gave the vehicle a Ďbiggerí feel, as if it were borrowed from one of the larger SUVs on the road and was necessary in order to convey the power of the engine through to the driver. Certainly not what I would call a particularly smooth gear-box, but I liked it: it suited the feel of the Vitara and the drive to be obtained from it.
A great cross-route for me from Santa Monica to West Hollywood, when thereís not too much traffic, is to take Sunset Blvd. Itís a lot more fun than, say, Wilshire or Santa Monica Blvd, because there are some great corners and some nice little hills, so it gives one a chance to put the cars through some paces without having to venture up to Malibu or through one of the canyons. The Grand Vitara handled all of the cornering well, ably aided by its16-inch wheels with oversize 235/65R16 all season tyres no doubt, although as with any SUV, one never feels quite as secure as when cornering in a vehicle whose centre-of-gravity is closer to the ground. The Vitara did tend to roll slightly on some of the more adventurous turns, but all in all held up well to the test. However, I did not try this when loaded up with 4 people and feel sure that I would have had to slow considerably, both to avoid mishap and illness from those seated in the back!
The great thing about any SUV is the height advantage it offers over other road-users (unless youíre in LA, I suppose, where theyíre likely to have jacked-up suspension and a ladder attached to the side to aid entry), the ability to see what is going on up ahead, and the ability to see in bad weather, when the spray off these roads is seriously awful in anything lower than a tank. Also, the Grand Vitara is not so high as to be a pain to climb into. Indeed I was able to get in and out in heels and a skirt with no problem and without looking ungainly. I think!
The Vitara proved extremely comfortable, with good, firm seats - all the better to hold you in place on those more acute corners - placed in an elevated seating position which offered superior visibility all round. The interior was nicely appointed, with all dials and controls easily visible and reachable and with the usual plethora of cup holders, hideaways and so on. Suzuki have been working hard to reduce NVH in their vehicles, and the Vitara proved to be a relatively quiet ride, even at speed. Again, dual airbags are standard and the Vitara also features impact-absorbing material in the front pillars, a good safety plus. Also, the headlights come on automatically with the engine - a feature I have only encountered in Volvos up until now, and a feature I think more manufacturers should adopt, although whether full headlights or just sidelights should be used, is arguable.
All of the Vitaras, both 2- and 4-door versions, come in 2- and 4-wheel drive. According to the blurb "the 4-wheel drive system is designed with a two to four wheel drive synchronizer which makes shifting to 4-wheel drive easy. The driver can shift the transfer lever from 2-wheel to 4-wheel high at any time below 62 mph while traveling in a straight line. When the driver switches into 4-wheel drive, the select-shift mechanism (shift-on-the-fly) four-wheel drive system uses a pneumatic actuator to automatically engage the front differential and front axle which eliminates the need for locking wheel hubs." I couldnít have put it any better. Unfortunately I did not get chance to test the 4-wheel capabilities of the Grand Vitara. However, I feel a badly-needed ski trip calling me, so I may well ask to put it through itís paces in a more challenging environment!
I really enjoyed driving the Grand Vitara V6. I think the extra engine power definitely made a difference and I would be interested to know how the non-V6 Vitara compares - it has just a 2.0 litre engine. Not so well, I would think. The only problem with this SUV is limited interior space if you want to get in 4 people plus bags. The 4 people would be no problem at all, and would ride in comfort all the way. But the bags would prove difficult to accommodate if they held more than a pair of pyjamas and a toothbrush. Well, OK, a fresh pair of socks too, but that really would be about it. Unfortunately, the short, sporty look of the 4-door from the outside means that the interior space has been compromised, but if you are looking for a smaller SUV, then this is a definite contender, and for the time being at least, an original one too. I mean, who wants to drive the same thing as everyone other SUV advocate on the road? And at $18,999 for the Grand Vitara JLX you definitely wonít grimace too much at the monthly payments. The JLX+ comes in at $19,999, for which you get the ABS and alloy wheels as standard. Automatic is another grand on top. Be different if you dare and try one out.
FACTS AND FIGURES Model Tested Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX V6 Engine 2.5 litre, DOHC, 24-valve, V6 Horsepower 155hp @ 6,500 rpm Torque 160 lb-ft @ 6,500 rpm Transmission 5 speed manual w/ overdrive or electronically controlled 4-speed automatic w/ overdrive Brakes power assisted ventilated front disc/rear drum ABS standard on + models Fuel econ 2WD - 19 city/ 22 hwy 4WD - 19 city/ 21 hwy Cost $ 18,999 $ 19,999 - + model $ 1,000 - automatic transmission