Novice violin students using the "Suzuki method" aren't allowed to touch their instruments for months. Aspiring musicians who aren't driven insane by repeatedly fingering cardboard cutouts often go on to make beautiful music, once allowed. Too bad Suzuki doesn't practice Suzuki; we could have all avoided the underpowered and funny-looking last gen Grand Vitara in favor of the infinitely more accomplished 2006 model. Despite obvious improvements since the Vitara's dress rehearsal, the question remains: is the new Grand Vitara finally ready for Avery Fisher Hall?
To make the Grand Vitara a headliner, Suzuki's engineers stripped their mid-sized ute to the frame and started afresh. While the new Grand's exterior is a radical departure from the old two-toned, plastic-clad and dimpled Subaru wannabe, it's still a deeply conservative design. Super-spy stealth touches — sleek rails that rise ever so slightly from the roof, black-trimmed wheel wells, black side gills on the hood — add a welcome touch of aggression. Sure, some clunkiness remains. The side mirrors are a dress size too big for the cute ute, and the huge tail lights give the rear end a decidedly dated demeanor. But they're the only flat notes in an otherwise harmonious composition.
Inside, Suzuki added a bit more stylistic flourish, like the circular design motif and seriously grippy Speed Racer seats. The clever, honeycomb-esque pattern inside the Vitara's round heating vents almost makes you forget the cheap-looking plastic surrounding the shifter. The audio controls are as easy to play as Ed Grimley's triangle, and the silver sound source buttons are as inviting as a major seventh on a sunny spring day. For Suzuki, the aesthetic exuberance marks a welcome change from its penchant for Seattle weather interiors. For some reason, the Vitara's turn signal indicators are sotto voce; at least the same holds true for the cabin at speed.
A slim three-panel display (set back at the top of the dash) sings silent volumes about a subject dear to the hearts of many an SUV owner: fossil fuel. The first two panels show the time and outside temperature, the third, instantaneous fuel economy. The lack of an average fuel economy calculation is annoying, but not surprising. The never sluggish Vitara's 2.7L V6 drank about a gallon of refinery juice every 18 miles. Compared to its mates in the small SUV class, the Vitara doesn't have a Jared pre-Subway size appetite, but it's still not the kind of noise Suzuki wants its drivers to put into heavy rotation.
For truly anemic gas mileage, just fill-up Vitara with stuff. The skimpy tailgate opening is a bit mean, but the the 60-40 split rear seats help facilitate a proper CostCo expedition. Should you and five mates decide to relieve the store of it mayo supply, a trailer might be in order. The Grand Vitara can tow 300 ten-pound jars of salad gloop– a figure that tops Honda's CRV by a good 50 jars. While this factoid might be irrelevant (not to mention disgusting) to the vast majority of Vitara lifestylers, props to Suzuki for keeping it macho real in the cute ute set.
Rev the Grand Vitara's V6 sharp and firm and it growls like a prone-to-grumpiness cat being woken up after its fourth nap of the day. Once rousted, the Vitara's autobox is a bullish conductor: the five-speed shifter arpeggiates the gears upward like a fleet-fingered prodigy. Bringing the Vitara down from contralto is another matter. The engine occasionally palpitated, with the transmission slipping into an awkward stutter. It might have had something to do with our test model's 7k mileage (press car's odometer readings should be calculated in dog years). This may also account for the fact that the first time I used the brakes I thought I'd stepped on SpongeBob SquarePants.
In general, my ute cornering expectations hover somewhere just above my interest level in Kenny G's latest release. Despite the ladder-framed Vitara's high center of gravity, it negotiated the turns with admirable panache. Winding through the twisties, the Vitara's tip factor was subdued enough for reasonably spirited progress. Sensibly, Suzuki trumpets the Grand Vitara's off-road prowess rather than its cornering capability. I gave the Vitara as thorough an off-road test as contractual obligations allowed and found the SUV to be a stalwart performer. During a winter rainstorm, it hit multiple high notes on pockmarked, winding dirt roads, without once losing its place. Bravo maestro!
With the small SUV segment more crowded than the Englebert Humperdinck section at a Phoenix Wal-Mart, Suzuki needed to orchestrate a Ninth-caliber performance to reach the top of the pops. And so it does — more or less. The new Grand Vitara stays in tune on classical stretches of highway and baroque patches of dirt. Sadly for its Japanese maestro, the truck still needs a bit more polish before it's ready for Radio City. Each passage in the Grand Vitara's three-movement symphony — styling, performance, and handling — has a few conspicuous sour notes, which ultimately render Suzuki's Grand Vitara more Salieri than Mozart.
[Photos: Copyright 2006 Bryan Haeffele]