2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara

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Things move fast in today's SUV land. Except, that is, for Suzuki and the Grand Vitara. After seven long years in production, Suzuki at last has a new version, and we've been driving it. Well, actually, we've been driving the Escudo that's already out in Japan, but the U.S.-spec model that launches this fall will be virtually the same. Contrary to previous reports, it will continue to be called the Grand Vitara, as executives in Japan nixed the planned XV6 nameplate.

As previewed by the X2 concept, the Escudo/Grand Vitara has a bigger body (by almost a foot) that's also a lot better-looking, both inside and out. The new instrument panel, themed in silver and black, is also an improvement. The well-equipped cabin has six standard air bags.

Serious changes also were made underneath the vehicle, where the Grand Vitara switches from body-on-frame to unibody construction and uses a fully independent suspension and wider front and rear tracks. Stability control and ABS are standard. On the road, the new coil-spring, multilink rear suspension feels impressively tied down. It's the strut-supported front suspension that you can feel working busily away, which, together with the heavier steering, gives the Suzuki a more workmanlike feel than most car-based SUVs.

That's the price you pay for the Grand Vitara's unusually rugged four-wheel-drive layout, which includes a locking center differential and a low-range transfer case (the latter now is operated via a dash dial). The serious four-wheel-drive gear gives this little sport-ute genuine rock-crawling, mogul-traversing ability. For all that, when it's on-road, the Escudo/Grand Vitara corners neatly enough, and it's far more comfortable than the current generation.

Suzuki slipped in the bigger 2.7-liter V-6 from the XL-7. Generating 185 hp, it's efficient and torquey enough and links to a new five-speed automatic. The Suzuki doesn't feel so fast off the line considering its nearly 3.0 liters of displacement, but it cruises easily and raises the bar on the existing Grand Vitara.

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