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It's easy to forget about the Suzuki Grand Vitara when shopping for a new sport utility vehicle, unless you're a big budget watcher.
The 2008 Grand Vitara -- which has seats for five, a standard V-6 and a limited powertrain warranty that lasts for 100,000 miles or seven years, whichever comes first -- has the lowest starting retail price of all 2008 V-6-powered sport utility vehicles with four doors.
In fact, the Grand Vitara's starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $19,999 for a base, two-wheel drive model with 185-horsepower V-6 and five-speed manual transmission is just $384 more than the starting price for a four-cylinder-powered 2008 Honda Element. It's also just $329 more than the starting price for a 2008 Ford Escape with four cylinder.
The Grand Vitara doesn't get a lot of advertising push from Suzuki, Japan's smallest automaker.
But the nicely sized, 14.7-foot-long Grand Vitara has pleasant exterior styling, many standard amenities, including power windows, central locking system and automatic air conditioning with pollen filter, and six air bags.
It even boasts 7.4 inches of ground clearance, for the times a driver might have to go off road to get to a camping area or family cabin.
Still, sales fell 27 percent last year to 19,538 as competition intensified among SUVs -- there are at least eight V-6-powered SUVs priced within $2,000 of the base Grand Vitara, including the 2008 Kia Sportage and Hyundai Tucson.
The Kia and Hyundai SUVs also come with 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranties that are good for the mileage limit or 10 years, whichever comes first, and both posted sales gains in calendar 2007.
The test Grand Vitara was the midrange XSport model with rear-wheel drive. Its automatic transmission shifted smoothly through its five gears. But I could do without the series of "gates" that the shifter had to pass through to get from Park to Drive. The gates weren't positioned in a straight row; rather, they were staggered spots positioned first to the left, then to the right.
In everyday city driving, the Grand Vitara's 185-horsepower, 2.7-liter, double overhead cam V-6 provided adequate power for moving with traffic and getting across town.
But the engine, with 184 foot-pounds of torque developing my 4,500 rpm, could sound and feel taxed when I tried for quick passes on country roads. It also seemed to work hard when the SUV was up in elevation on mountain highways.
The 2.7-liter unit is the only Grand Vitara engine and is among the lowest-powered of the SUV V-6s.
Kia's Sportage and Hyundai's Tucson get only 173 horses from their 2.7-liter V-6s, but Nissan extracts 261 horsepower from the 4-liter V-6 in its Xterra, and the Dodge Nitro's 3.7-liter V-6 generates 210 horsepower.
Even the Toyota RAV4 -- which used to be known as a "cute ute" as in cute sport utility, in its early days with only four-cylinder power -- now is available with a 269-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6.
The Grand Vitara's government fuel economy rating is mainstream for an SUV of its size: 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway when equipped with the five-speed automatic transmission that was in the test vehicle. And with a fuel tank of 17.4 gallons, the test Grand Vitara needed a fill-up after just 300 miles of combined city/highway travel.
There was road noise coming into the Grand Vitara, and the ride isn't refined. It felt stiff and the road bumps were enough to encourage me to avoid patched pavement where I could.
The Grand Vitara uses an independent MacPherson strut configuration at the front and a multilink layout at the back.
The tester rode on base, 16-inch tires.
The dashboard controls are nicely laid out. But seats could use a bit more contour and substantive feel. The back seat is divided and each piece folded easily. But they didn't automatically lock in place in folded form. I had to pull out the owner's manual to learn that a strap had to be secured to the metal supports of the front head restraints in order to secure the two pieces of the back seat in place.
Once I did that, I couldn't adjust the position of the driver's seat or that of the front passenger.
Thanks to the V-6, the Grand Vitara can tow up to 3,000 pounds.
And the vehicle has decent cargo space, ranging from 24.4 cubic feet behind the rear seats to more than 68 cubic feet when the second-row seats are folded.
I just wish that a cargo cover was standard equipment for two-wheel drive Grand Vitaras. As it is, a cover is standard only on four-wheel drive models, which start at $21,669.
The rear cargo door is, indeed, a door that swings open like other car doors. Because it swings to the right, this door becomes a bit of an obstacle when loading the cargo area curbside on a street.
A spare tire is standard on the Grand Vitara and is mounted on the rear door. But thankfully, it doesn't impede rear vision.
Back seat legroom is a commendable 37.2 inches.
All safety equipment on the Grand Vitara is standard, including curtain air bags, electronic stability control and traction control.
But the vehicle earned only four out of five stars in frontal crash testing by the federal government. It got five out of five stars in side crash testing.
Many competitors -- including the Kia Sportage and Sorento, Jeep Liberty, Dodge Nitro and Honda Element -- earned five out of five stars across the board.
The Grand Vitara's predicted reliability by Consumer Reports magazine is "fair."