Suzuki made a large niche for itself in the small sport-utility field with the Sidekick. The Sidekick had few competitors when it was introduced in the early 1990s. Such was not the case in recent years, however. SUVs of all sizes have boomed in popularity. Complicating matters, the Sidekick faced increasing competition not only from truck-type body-on-frame machinery but from many unit-construction, car-based "crossover" vehicles as well. Refinement levels increased in the small SUV class, and, while the Sidekick kept getting smoother, quieter, and more civilized, the handwriting was on the wall. Suzuki needed a new vehicle.
So, for 1999 it's "so long" to the trusty Sidekick and "hello" to the Vitara and Grand Vitara. Both feature a new, more rounded look, an all-new chassis with increased refinement and rigidity, and an improved suspension design. The Vitara is offered in two- and four- door body styles, as was the Sidekick. A 1.6-liter, 97-horsepower four- cylinder engine powers the two-door Vitara. Optional in the two-door and standard in the four-door Vitara is a newly-developed 2.0-liter, 127-horsepower four-cylinder. Both are offered with manual or automatic transmissions, and two- or four-wheel drive.
If the Vitara is a fitting successor to the Sidekick, the Grand Vitara is Suzuki's ace in the hole. It's the only small sport-utility with a V6 engine. The 155-horsepower, 2.5-liter V6 sets the tone for the Grand Vitara: more than expected in a small SUV. Available only in a four-door body style, it is a definite step up from the late Sidekick in refinement and quiet, and offers more power than anything in its class.
I was impressed by the Grand Vitara after spending a week with a top-of-the-line JLX+. Small SUVs have come a long way over the years. The Grand Vitara is very well-equipped and offers the comfort and refinement of a larger vehicle without the fuel economy and parking penalties.
APPEARANCE: The Grand Vitara is a mainstream contemporary sport-utility in its styling, with sculpted body panels and rounded edges and corners. It shares nothing with the Sidekick except the dip in the front window line to increase mirror visibility, and that is more subdued on the Grand Vitara. Because of its small size, the Grand Vitara is hardly intimidating, but lower body cladding, flared fenders and large, 16-inch, wheels and tires give it plenty of SUV style. Multi- reflector "jewel" headlights highlight the front; the tailgate-mounted spare tire sits low enough for decent rearward visibility.
COMFORT: Access to the Grand Vitara's interior is definitely unintimidating. Oxygen masks and climbing equipment are not required. The Grand Vitara is nearly as easy to get in to or out of as a compact wagon. Interior materials -- high grade synthetics -- and fit and finish are to the standards expected in an $20,000 class vehicle. The front bucket seats are comfortable and recline fully for camping trips. The rear seat cushion is higher than the front seats for rear passenger visibility. The rear seat is split 50/50; each side can flip and fold separately for additional cargo. Headroom should be no problem for anyone under seven feet tall. A side-hinged tailgate means easy access to the rear area even for shorter people. Convenient storage bins are strategically placed around the interior, including a locking glovebox. The Grand Vitara's instrument and control design and placement is an improvement over the Sidekick. As an example, the fuel filler release is now conventionally-placed beside the driver's seat - I spent 20 minutes looking for its counterpart in the first Sidekick I drove before finding it underneath the driver's seat. Standard equipment includes power windows, mirrors, and door locks, remote keyless entry, micron air filtration air conditioning, and an AM/FM/cassette sound system.
SAFETY: All 1999 Suzuki Grand Vitaras have dual airbags, front and rear crush zones, and meet worldwide standards for front, rear, or side impact protection. Antilock brakes are standard on upscale models.
ROADABILITY: On the road, the Grand Vitara almost feels like a sedan or small wagon. It's quiet, and the ride quality is smooth with no truck harshness. A rigid ladder frame with MacPherson strut front suspension and a coil sprung rear axle with multiple locating links get the credit. I didn't get a chance to drive the Grand Vitara off-road, but suspect that it should do just fine in light- and medium-duty conditions based on time spent in the dirt in Sidekicks. The Grand Vitara has eight inches of ground clearance and standard four-wheel drive.
PERFORMANCE: In a class where leisurely acceleration is the norm, the Grand Vitara stands out. It's no rocket ship, but its 155-horsepower, 2.5-liter, 24-valve, twin cam V6 engine moves it more quickly than any competitor. A highway onramp near my house is a good test of acceleration. Traffic on the highway moves at 65 to 70 mph and anyone merging on has only a few hundred feet to get up to speed. This is a location best avoided in a small, low-powered vehicle. The Grand Vitara had no problem there or anywhere else, even on steep hills.
CONCLUSIONS: The new Suzuki Grand Vitara has refined comfort and power beyond what is expected in the small sport-utility class.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 19,999 Price As Tested $ 20,429 Engine Type 24-valve, aluminum alloy dual overhead cam V6 Engine Size 2.5 liters / 152 cu. in. Horsepower 155 @ 6500 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 160 @ 4000 rpm Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 97.6 in. / 164.6 in. Curb Weight 3197 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20.6 Fuel Capacity 17.4 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P235/60 R16 Bridgestone Dueler H/T Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock on JLS+ Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / solid axle with 5 mounting links and coil springs Ground clearance 8.0 in. Drivetrain front engine, on-demand 4-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 19 / 21 / 20 0 to 60 mph est. 10 sec Towing capacity 1500 lbs. OPTIONS AND CHARGES Destination charge $ 430