New Car/Review

Suzuki

1999 SUZUKI GRAND VITARA SPORT UTILITY

By TONY WHITNEY

However popular sport utility vehicles may be, there are still plenty of would-be buyers out there who simply don't want the bulk and high running costs associated with many conventionally-sized (read big!) models. It's for these people that Suzuki has developed its all-new 1999 Grand Vitara - a compact, easy-to-handle SUV that offers surprising handling and performance and very commendable styling. And given the recent flurry of news reports about the ''environmental impact'' of SUVs, Suzuki could be poised to build some serious market share with its new rig.

Suzuki has a long-standing reputation for producing compact, affordable SUVs that offer go-anywhere capability, ease of handling and low running costs. The four door Grand Vitara is bigger than any of its Sidekick and Samurai predecessors, but it still falls into a compact category in the SUV market. Even so, it'll handle almost any chore the bigger rigs are capable of.

It certainly gives up nothing in styling to its more expensive rivals. It looks great from every angle and has a purposeful, wide-track, brawny stance that I find really attractive. Many models come with a very attractive two-tone paint job. The Grand Vitara doesn't look compact until you put it alongside a Jeep Grand Cherokee or Ford Explorer. Although this is a relatively inexpensive SUV, it gives visual the impression of being quite upscale.

Rugged composite bodyside cladding, which extends around the wheel arches, is an excellent protective feature and it looks good too. The rear door swings open and provides easy access to a roomy cargo deck - which can be expanded by folding the back seats. I'm no fan of tailgate-mounted spare wheels, but the Vitara's is at least full-sized and the setup does create more room inside. I suppose that with a compact SUV, there just isn't the room to locate the spare either inside or under the load deck.

One thing I didn't warm to was the power door lock arrangement. Although the key will lock all the doors, it only opens the driver's side. You have to reach inside and fiddle with a button while your passengers stand around in the rain. I found this a constant annoyance and wished that Suzuki had opted for a more convenient setup.

The Grand Vitara is powered by a very satisfying 155 horsepower V-6 that proved to be surprisingly refined on the highway and quite a ''stump-puller'' off-road. It's quite a bit more powerful than its Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 rivals in the compact class. The Suzuki's V-6 is a sophisticated little motor with four cams and 24 valves working away inside. Not too many SUVs - especially inexpensive ones like the Grand Vitara - boast such a high-tech powerplant.

I did some serious off -road drives over very demanding territory with the Grand Vitara and it came through showing almost Jeep-like capability. I drove the vehicle on one day-long foray into the mountains around Whistler, crossing old washed-out logging roads and negotiating steep boulder-strewn grades. This little rig will take you just about anywhere when the going gets rough and no owner should feel hesitant about taking a Grand Vitara into the boonies..

My tester, which I drove for an extended period incidentally, was equipped with a smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmission which didn't seem to clip off too much power. Four wheel drive - high or low range - is engaged with a secondary shift lever and there are no locking hubs to grapple with. You can also order your Grand Vitara with a 5-speed manual gearbox. Interestingly, neither the CR-V or the RAV4 offer a two-speed transfer case - even as an option. They don't offer a V-6 engine either and Suzuki undercuts them both on price.

Aiding performance on and off-road is an all-new 5-link rear suspension. Tackling a couple of runs up and down the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler, I was amazed at the Grand Vitara's handling prowess. It powers round tight turns like a decent sedan - and maybe a little more competently than some.

Braking is taken care of with front discs and rear drums and ABS is standard - not always the case in this class. Other features include dual air bags, side impact beams and three-point seatbelts at all outboard positions. Rear passengers also get head restraints, which must be removed when setting up the truck for full cargo capacity. My tester was trimmed in a good-looking and seemingly durable cloth which was comfortable and easy to keep clean.

The snazzy exterior is complemented by an excellent cabin with clear instruments, easy-to-reach controls, lots of oddment space and more headroom than any Stetson-clad cowboy - or gal - could wish for.

I drove this Grand Vitara over a three-month period, on and off road, and it never missed a beat. The test didn't reveal a single flaw, which says a lot for a small automaker that seems to be making a big name for itself. A base Grand Vitara costs a very reasonable $22,995 (CDN), though options can push it close to thirty grand. Suzuki will soon launch a less expensive ''standard'' Vitara in short wheelbase two-door form. This model will also come as a convertible like its Sidekick predecessor.

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