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Suzuki takes a long voyage forward

Andy Stonehouse

While many people’s experiences with Suzuki’s automotive division stretch back to the mid-80s, when the company’s popular, occasionally topless and unfortunately tippy micro-jeeps first hit American shores, the story doesn’t quite start there.

Suzuki, which began as a textile loom company and broke into the motorcycle market after the war, had been building small automobiles since 1955, so those in the Far East, Australia and South America got to follow the evolution of the machines.

Up in the frigid plains of Canada, my own iconoclastic father was seeking a distinctive off-road automobile in the late 1970s ” and as luck would have it, Suzuki opted to export the last generation of its venerable LJ80 4x4s to Canada in 1979 … and my dad was one of the pioneers.

Subsequently, we spent a few years bombing around the prairies in a bright red box I seem to remember being about the size of a washing machine. Cops at the Montana border crossing looked at us like we were driving a homemade vehicle.

The LJ80, the grandfather of the wobbly Samurai and the thoroughly modern Grand Vitara ” which I got to drive last week ” was the absolute antithesis of modern SUVs, but, in many ways, way more fun. A 797 cc engine (even your neighbor’s Vulcan motorcycle outclasses that by about 400 percent) put out a rip-roaring 41 horsepower; I remember the little Suzuki briefly touching its 68 mph top end while fleeing hurricane-force winds. It could, however, climb nearly anything, and probably got 70 miles a gallon in the process.

Today’s Suzukis have come a long way. Setting aside the junky early days in the United States when the company cross-sold three-cylinder, occasionally disposable Sprints and Swifts as Geos and Chevrolets ” or the budget-minded Tracker 4×4 (which I would, by the way, never recommend driving to Alaska on the weekend) ” new-generation Suzukis are not the austere experience they were in the past.

Rather, the current Grand Vitara is an affordable alternative to other Japanese-built compact SUVs, with looks, finishing and performance that are completely decent, not to mention a seven-year, 100,000 -mile warranty.

And unlike the Koreans, who seem to be bending over backwards to convince American buyers that their automobiles are strangely affordable Lexuses ” a strategy I do not understand at all ” Suzuki is honest about its budget-minded status and has crafted an earnest machine that’s comfortable for four and a half, will do decently in the snow and has a reasonable amount of oomph.

I didn’t get to do anything exceptionally exciting in the 2008 Grand Vitara rather than head out to the country and cruise the machine on the freeway, but my time behind the wheel was still rather pleasant.

Handling was easy, on 16-inch wheels and tires, and the road feel was a tad bouncy, but nowhere near the boxy bumpercar ride that is the new Honda CRV. A 185-horse, 2.7 liter V6 was good and jumpy off the line and carried some decent power; the only concessions were some soggy handoffs between the gears under full throttle and an experience that’s a tad noisy when trying to keep up with other 80 mph traffic on the Coloradobahn. Despite the austere displacement, mileage isn’t particularly stunning, and I generated just 19 miles per gallon, although that, sadly, is totally in line with even other small SUVs.

The interior is nicely appointed with modern plastic and chrome highlights, seating is comfortable, and the Grand Vitara is easy to get in and out of. I also appreciated low-rising, second-row headrests that provided absolutely unrestricted rear views (even the externally mounted spare and its hard cover don’t block visibility), plus amply sized side mirrors.

Like its budget-minded Asian cousins (and General Motors), the GV brings its value statement home in the litany of standard, big-boy options: a power sunroof, a reasonable XM-ready stereo system, daytime running lights, wheel-mounted audio controls, heated side mirrors and a pair of spill-protected 12-volt outlets for cell phone chargers.

Suzuki’s keyless entry and ignition system is easy to use and blissfully silent (take that, you beepy Mazdas and Toyotas), but leaves you, naturally, with an almost cell phone-sized keyfob which you must keep on your person. Look quickly and you’ll also miss the trip computer, which is nearly hidden on the top of the center stack next to the clock.

A clue to one of the Grand Vitara’s planned usages is an easy-to-switch neutral mode button that will very simply allow the GV to be towed behind a motorhome as a daytime runabout; the automobile itself can haul 3,000 pounds of trailer.

Suzuki continues to remain something of an oddity in Colorado (we do seem to be nearly officially sponsored by Subaru, just as pork is now the official meat of the Sturgis bike rally), but there’s no reason to fear the littlest Japanese brand. Just be glad that things have moved forward a bit from those 41 horsepower days.

(Note: While Consumer Guide named the ’07 Grand Vitara its Automotive Best Buy, for a completely a different view, check out the January 2008 issue of Consumer Reports, which has never had much of a soft spot in its heart for Suzuki’s products.)


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