Suzuki Motor Corp.'s Grand Vitara XL-7 breaks new ground for the Japanese small-car and sport-utility specialist. An affiliate of General Motors Corp., Suzuki provided the blueprint for the Canadian-built Chevrolet Tracker, which shares its underpinnings with the Suzuki Grand Vitara. Now, with the 2001 Grand Vitara XL-7 - the acronym stands for "extended-length, seven-passenger" - Suzuki has created its biggest vehicle ever, one that straddles several different SUV categories. And during a particularly trying week for us, the $25,000 XL-7 earned our trust and respect - although we'd like to see a few refinements in the future.

She: People who read this column know our family and have heard countless stories about our real-world test drives. We once tried out a big Mercedes-Benz S-class sedan at your brother Tony's wedding. We took our youngest son Phil to college in a new Volvo Cross Country. Last week, the Suzuki Grand Vitara XL-7 helped get me through the worst family emergency in 14 years. It was a trusty, reliable vehicle at a time when I was one distracted, hurried driver. I was behind the wheel of the XL-7 on the way to the hospital after my grandmother had a massive stroke. A difficult time for our family. A most heartbreaking test drive.

He: It was an emotional week. Funny, but I don't tend to think of the Suzuki as an emotional vehicle. Rather, it seemed sturdy and steadfast, at a time when that's exactly what we needed.

She: My sister Claudia came up from West Virginia, and we used the XL-7 as our command post and rolling kitchen table. I love the fact that the cabin had a slot for a cell phone and enough cupholders for drinks, keys, pens and other assorted gear. It's not anything fancy. The carpet had kind of a cheap, felt-like feel, and it was bunched up in the cargo bay. But I think the XL-7 is a much smarter buy than the standard Grand Vitara. With a base price that starts at around $20,000, it has lots of features and space for the money, including, for the first time, a third row of seats.

He: Considering its size and price range, the XL-7 is tough to pigeonhole. We tested a well-equipped 4WD Touring model with automatic transmission that seemed in some respects to be pitched at the same audience as newer car-based "crossovers" like the Toyota Highlander and the Hyundai Santa Fe. But because of the Suzuki's truck-like construction, it also competes with more conventional SUVs like the Ford Explorer. While the XL-7 provides good value for the money, it's not as stylish as the Santa Fe, as comfortable as the Highlander or as substantial and functional as the Explorer. Still, it's a solid workhorse and merits three stars.

She: I was impressed by the level of standard equipment, even on the base model, which comes with air conditioning, power windows and locks, power mirrors, keyless entry, cruise control, a tilt steering column and even a first-aid kit in the cargo area. Our top-of -the-line Touring model also came with rear air conditioning, alloy wheels, a power sunroof, foglamps and an AM-FM stereo with cassette and CD player. I was a little disappointed that you can't get side air bags on the XL-7, and anti-lock brakes are standard only on the Touring versions. And I was puzzled that our $25,000 model didn't have little amenities like lighted vanity mirrors that we've come to expect on much less expensive vehicles.

He: The ride quality was surprisingly good, considering that Suzuki uses a ladder frame under the vehicle. But the XL-7 has a wheelbase that's more than 12 inches longer than the standard Grand Vitara, and it has gas-filled shocks to help smooth out bumps. It's also pretty nimble and easy to control, more like a crossover than a conventional sport-ute. Kind of like the best of both worlds. My biggest complaint is with the standard V-6 engine, a twin-cam 2.7-liter unit that is a bigger version of the optional six in the Grand Vitara. It m es only 170 horsepower, which is considerably less than you get in the Highlander or in the Ford Escape. On the plus side, even with the automatic transmission and four-wheel drive, you can expect to get fairly decent gas mileage - up to 20 miles per gallon, according to the EPA.

She: I appreciated the good visibility in the XL-7 and, above all, the feeling of security. And that's really what counts. At a time of great stress, the Suzuki came through in the clutch.

Anita's rating: Above average

Paul's rating: Above average

Likes: Third-row seating. Lots of features for the money. Comfortable ride. Easy to operate. Good visibility.

Dislikes: Bland styling. V-6 engine is underpowered. Third-row seat is cramped, difficult to access. Carpet in cargo bay is bunched up, cheap-looking. No lighted vanity mirrors. No side air bags. Antilock brakes cost extra.

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, seven-passenger utility vehicle.

Price: Base, $24,499; as tested, $25,094 (inc. $500 destination charge).

Engine: 2.7-liter V-6; 170-hp; 178 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city/20 mpg highway.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,334 (Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Japan.