Suzuki considered using a new name for its redesigned Grand Vitara, and if more people remembered the old one, it would have been a good idea. That little sport-ute could scurry down a rocky trail better than most, but its cramped quarters, gutless engine, noisy ride, slack steering, and underdog nameplate kept it from widespread notoriety.
Which, it turns out, is a blessing. The new one won't have to fight that negative image. The new Grand Vitara certainly makes a clean break visually. Larger in all key dimensions, it's as handsome as a freshly ironed pair of khakis, avoiding both the cute-ute curse and the embarrassment of overblown machismo.
Step inside--easily, thanks to the unibody construction--and you enter a cabin that has gone from worst to near first. Part of the reason is the Grand Vitara's sudden interest in luxury--witness the leather upholstery, seat heaters, and keyless ignition. Part of it is the attractive design and materials, the comfortable seats (including reclining rear seats), and the much greater space.
On the road, the transformation isn't quite so dramatic. Suzuki has installed the XL-7's 185-hp, 2.7-liter V-6, which means that while the Grand Vitara is no longer desperately underpowered, it's still not as spry as a V-6 Ford Escape. The new four-wheel independent suspension rides pretty well, but steering and handling aren't as crisp as in the segment leaders. Commendably, though, stability control is standard, as are six air bags and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS.
The main thing that hasn't changed between Grand Vitaras old and new is off-road ability, which we sampled on slick mud roads in Costa Rica. Four-wheel drive with low range is available, and there's 7.9 inches of ground clearance. You might not bash it over rocks as readily as you would the old one, but that's only because you want to treat it better.