2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara: Great Expectations

We’ve come to expect pleasant surprises from Suzuki. Over the past 18 months, as the little Japanese automaker released each successive effort in the subcompact, compact, and mid-size car classes–think Reno, Forenza, and Verona–they earned our respect with equal parts performance, quality and value. Every one of these budget autos features not just a low price and a long warranty, but packs verve and style uncommon to the class as well. If you could say Suzuki’s known for anything here, though, you’d have to say their reputation rests in the SUV segment, where the company made a name for itself with the plucky little Samurai 25 years ago. So, then, as we watched their parade of competent cars go by, it struck us as somewhat odd that the brand’s sport-ute offering languished as a Geo Tracker-derived also-ran. Now, with high hopes, we’ve finally been introduced to an all-new 2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara.

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Right off the bat, the ’07 GV scores style points. On its own, the compact SUV’s taut lines, clean, angular profile, and sporty stance give it a leg up in a segment chock-full of me-too look-alikes. Set the new one side-by-side with the 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara, and the improvement becomes even more striking. Gone is any trace of the amorphous jellybeaned-shoebox shape; there’s real personality here, as well as some brand definition. This may well be the best small-SUV styling on the market (as judged by the design experts…us…at least until for time being).

Inside, the view is pleasing to the eye as well. While merely ordinary describes the gauge cluster, the center stack and console are in another league altogether–melding art deco and minimalist/Bauhaus shapes into a truly upscale, yet functional, place of business. Hit the lights at night, and the fire-engine-red illumination ratchets the avante-garde-ness up yet another notch–and makes for good readability, too. Even the seats, with their grippy checked cloth and substantial side bolsters, seem upscale.

Go to start this Suzuki, and perhaps the most upscale experience of all awaits. As we’ve seen lately on the best Lexii and Mercedeses, the Grand Vitara uses a keyless entry AND ignition system, sending a signal out from the transponder in the key fob in the driver’s pocket that allows the engine to be turned over by turning a lever on the steering column. For the upper-crust types, this is old hat–but in a $23,000 SUV, that feature alone is worth beaucoup bragging rights.

Whereas driving some of the Suzuki sedans in the past has shown a bit of a sporting streak, though, the Grand Vitara’s dynamics are merely ordinary. There’s a new 2.7-liter V6, sporting 185 horsepower, which makes for 8.5-second 0-60 mph runs–midpack. A 5-speed automatic is the only gearbox option, and it proves adequate but not overwhelming. All-wheel-drive is standard, and it worked as far as we could tell, without being really noteworthy at all. Like we said, ordinary. Up against a Mazda CX-7 or the new Toyota RAV4, the GV is outclassed (although again, it also undercuts those competitors by a wide margin). We’ve also driven even-less exciting small SUVs. The bottom line is that Suzuki clearly chose to spend its time elsewhere; the Grand Vitara is entirely capable of the typical tasks for a vehicle of this class, but excels at none of them in particular.

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While we’re carping… We’re obliged to point out that our resident audiophile was less than pleased with the Grand Vitara’s audio quality. The mp3-enabled CD system with satellite radio was high on content but less so on actual sound; distortion ran rampant through the bass-heavy rap tracks being played for the evaluation. Even mid-range and treble frequencies seemed flat–and this was the up-level stereo system.

Still, we can’t help but like the 2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara. It’s a good-looking piece, with not a single stylistic misstep marring its appearance. It’s entirely competent, and very versatile. It’s also cheap–and at 19/23 city/highway and with the 7-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, relatively cheap to own. And perhaps best of all, it’s not identical to the one sitting in your neighbor’s driveway.

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