The small-SUV market is a tough league to play in, full of worthy contenders such as the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV-4, Honda CR-V, Mitsubishi Outlander, Jeep Compass and the Korean twins, the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage.
Suzuki got a jump on all those manufacturers with the Samurai, introduced in the mid-1980s. The Samurai was a superb vehicle for what it was designed to do: traverse tight jungle trails. For life on the streets, though, it was slow as frozen molasses, rode like a buckboard, and its tipsy cornering earned it scorn from Consumer Reports that, though not entirely fair, was mostly deserved.
Still, with such an early start on building small SUVs, it's odd that it took Suzuki until last year to build one that is on par with the competition. With only minor changes for 2007, the Suzuki Grand Vitara is, as it was when it was introduced in 2006, an excellent vehicle; for the money, it's as good as any small SUV out there, including the Toyota and Honda.
The 2.7-liter, 185-horsepower V-6 is the only engine offered -- no four-cylinder. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but our test model, a midlevel Xsport, had a five-speed automatic that works reasonably well but could use some re-programming to smooth out shifts. The engine has plenty of pep, but it's thirstier than some of the competition: EPA rating is 19 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway.
The test model was two-wheel drive; all-wheel drive would add $1,400. Unless you live in a climate that results in a lot of slick roads, or unless you plan to do regular off-roading -- and with beefy, trucklike frame rails, the Grand Vitara is ready -- you're OK with two-wheel drive. There are, after all, safety features such as electronic stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes and side and side-curtain air bags standard.
On the road, the Grand Vitara rides well for its size, which is an overall length of 176 inches and a width of 71.3 inches, making it just a little larger than a Ford Escape. Handling is much better than you would expect. Inside, the cockpit is attractive and comfortable, with firm front bucket seats and adequate space in the back seat for adults. There's 23.8 cubic feet of luggage space with the rear seat in place, and 67.3 with it folded down.
The Grand Vitara starts at $19,379 for the base model. The top of the line is the Luxury, which starts at $23,399 and includes leather upholstery, heated seats and a few other features. Our Xsport had only one option -- a six-disc CD changer for $300 -- but it wasn't included in the overall price of $22,119 because of a promotion.
Cheap? No, but pretty reasonable, given the level of equipment. It has taken a while, but Suzuki is a finally a real player in the market it helped to create.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5699.