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(Photos By American Suzuki Motor Corp.)
BILL GRIFFITH

Suzuki -- as in SUV

Known for ATVs and motorcycles, carmaker offers 4-wheel panache

Let's put the bottom line on top: The 2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara is a lot of compact SUV for $22,000.

In that respect, the vehicle far exceeded our expectations. Trouble is, expectations weren't that high -- and there's the rub with Suzuki's North American operations.

When many people think Suzuki, images of all-terrain vehicles or motorcycles come to mind. Even the company's recent advertisements attempt to create a symbiotic relationship between its motorcycle and automotive divisions.

Competitor Honda also sells a lot of motorcycles, but the majority of consumers recognize its automotive division as standing apart, having accomplished two decades ago the degree of separation that Suzuki now needs to achieve. We think of Honda Accords that are capable of running for 200,000 miles, Civics that are the class of the compact segment, and the CR-V that is the leader in the compact SUV market.

It's that compact SUV market that we're talking about today and Suzuki's Grand Vitara is a worthy competitor. When Suzuki introduced the revamped Grand Vitara last year, it took the model a meaningful step down the "curved-not-boxy" path, a styling move that Honda leapfrogged with the even-curvier 2007 CR-V.

So call the Suzuki is a nicely rounded box. All Vitara trim levels -- base, XSport, and Luxury -- come standard with side air bags, traction control, electronic stability control, and antilock brakes -- features any buyer should demand in an SUV. Our 2007 test model was the mid level XSport with a sticker price of $22,889. The luxury edition adds such features as heated leather seats and a sunroof.

Our impression after a week of driving is that Suzuki has a quality product, even though some still consider the company's cars econo-boxes that college students might buy until they can get a real car. Too bad, because the Grand Vitara is a real SUV.

At times we were guilty of wallowing in our low expectations, too. For example, we initially felt the front seats didn't have quite enough thigh or lumbar support, but a two-and-a-half hour drive to Connecticut proved otherwise -- two backs that were achy when we left felt better on arrival.

But these days, where is the delineation between basic car and luxury? More low- and mid-priced vehicles can now be loaded with options that gussy them up pretty nicely.

Aside from a V-6 that lacks punch (perhaps much of the car's power is absorbed by its all-wheel-drive system) and the brand's lack of cachet, we didn't think the Grand Vitara was lacking much in any area.

This generation of Vitara has taken huge steps forward in terms of design and contemporary competitiveness.

On the road, it rides and handles well. A day of January driving in 50- mile-per-hour wind gusts didn't push our test car all over the highway.

Also, the 7.9 inches of ground clearance was nice in driving over dirt roads with mud and ice ruts.

On the highway, the V-6 tended to get noisy and the five-speed automatic downshifted on big hills. It could have used some better logarithms in the vehicle control computer.

While Suzuki has yet to achieve true brand recognition, the Grand Vitara offers perceptive buyers a chance to be ahead of the curve.


(Photos By American Suzuki Motor Corp.)
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