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'99 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX+

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San Francisco:  When you think of a Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), what comes to mind? Maybe a Jeep? A Ford Expedition? A GMC Yukon? A Dodge Durango? Whatever it is, it's probably a real he-man SUV, right? Something that looks big and tough on the outside. That's usually what I think of too. And my thoughts aren't always that positive. Then I get to drive one of the mini-SUVs, like the Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX+ and I think, "if you really have to have an SUV, this is the way to go." It's sensibly sized, easy to maneuver, and relatively frugal.

Suzuki practically invented the mini-SUV market over 14 years ago with the Samurai. First dismissed as a joke, the Samurai won approval for its ruggedness and reliability. Even today, used Samurais fetch a decent price when offered for sale, a testament to their desirability. For 1999, Suzuki has introduced the Grand Vitara and Vitara line of mini-SUVs. I drove a Grand Vitara JLX+, which is the top of the line.

The styling of the Grand Vitara is pleasant if a touch busy to me. I prefer my vehicles to be more understated. I especially do not like the plastic lower body cladding on the Grand Vitara. Regardless of my feelings on styling, the Grand Vitara has lost all vestiges of the "toy look" of the original Samurai.

But the heart and soul of the Grand Vitara, the most exciting news, is its engine. It's a real sweetheart, 2.5-liter, DOHC, V6, 155 hp @ 6,500 rpm and 160 lb.-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm. Coupled with a five-speed, manual transmission, it motivated the Grand Vitara very well. I kept thinking what a neat little hot-rod powertrain the engine and transmission would make.

As you may know, I live with each of the cars I test for a week. A week may not be long enough to really get to know a car, but it does give me a decent feeling for the car. I was very impressed with the Grand Vitara. It has a solid feel to it. Part of this may come from the body-on-frame design. Part of it comes from attention to detail. The Grand Vitara is a very rigid design so there is almost no body flex. All of this makes for a vehicle with little or no creaks. It also allows the suspension to do its job. Although the Grand Vitara is not what you'd call softly sprung, the ride is really quite pleasant, especially considering the short wheelbase of only 97.6 inches.

Let's compare the Grand Vitara to another, full-size SUV, the Chevrolet Tahoe. The Tahoe rides on a wheelbase almost 20" longer and is over 3' longer overall. So you can see the Grand Vitara is a tidy little package.

In the week that I had the Grand Vitara I didn't get it off road once. There just isn't anyplace to legally do that around here. I did take it down one very rutted dirt road where I engaged the four-wheel-drive (4WD) but it wasn't much of a task for the Grand Vitara. Like most 4WD vehicles, it is unlikely that the Grand Vitara will ever see much four-wheeling. Even so, it was reassuring to find out how easy it is to engage those extra two wheels. On both the top of the line JLX+ and the JLX, the 4WD is of the "shift-on-the-fly" design, meaning that you can shift into four-wheel-drive, high range while driving.

Like most SUVs these days, probably the Grand Vitara will most likely end up being an urban vehicle. Unlike many of the full-size SUVs, the Grand Vitara is actually a very good city car. Its small size means you can zip in and out of traffic and fit into those impossibly tight parking spaces. And unlike most small cars, you sit up relatively high so that you don't end up feeling like even a medium sized car is a behemoth.

So, would I consider buying a Grand Vitara? Yes, if I was in the market for a small SUV. In the right color perhaps the body side cladding wouldn't be as obvious. I'd probably opt for a 2WD version (JS or JS+ models) because I know I'd really never use the 4WD and the mileage is slightly better.

So what kind of fuel economy do you get with the Grand Vitara? Well, the EPA says you get 19 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway with the manual transmission. One mile per gallon less with the automatic. Not econo-car great but much better than the 14-16 mpg you get with a full size SUV.

How about price? The Grand Vitara JLX+, as tested, lists for $19,999 plus $430 for destination and handling charges. The Grand Vitara JS starts at $17,999 plus the destination charge. Not cheap but again, compared to the big guys, a bargain.   By Bruce Hotchkiss AutoWire.Net - San Francisco

Suzuki Home Page: 

Column Name:  "Engineered to Fit Your Life"
Topic:  '99 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX+
Writer:   Bruce Hotchkiss
Byline:   AutoWire.Net - San Francisco
Word Count:   820
Photo Caption:  '99 Suzuki Grand Vitara JLX+
Photo Credit:   Suzuki Public Relations
Series #:   1999 - 6



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